31 May 2017 is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of William Thomas Strayhorn.
Throughout most of his professional life, Billy Strayhorn was Duke Ellington’s arranging and composing companion. Ellington said he was “my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.”
Talk of miracles may be overstating it a little, but whatever combination of circumstances led to Billy Strayhorn walking into Ellington’s dressing room at The Stanley Theatre, Pittsburgh on 2 December 1938 for an audience created, like a miracle, an event which was both propitious and unique. That Strayhorn chose in the first place to let Ellington “hear what he could do” and that Ellington, in return and as the self-styled “world’s greatest listener” really heard what Billy had to offer is the happiest accident not just for the course of category-defying music over the next twenty-nine years but for the rich legacy we enjoy today and will continue to enjoy for a long time to come.
Billy Strayhorn’s arrival in the Ellington aggregation coincided, it seems to me, with two particularly important trends. Firstly, Ellington’s relationship to the members of his band was beginning to change and the way new music was created. Was Ellington now a little less close to the members of the orchestra than formerly? Did rehearsals, try-outs, collaboration or (in Lawrence Brown’s loaded term) ‘compilation’ have a lesser impact on the creation of new music? If so, then Billy’s arrival as a ‘staff writer’ was all the more fortuitous. And Strayhorn began work, too, with the Orchestra just on the cusp of what became ‘the Swing Era’ or as otherwise known, the era of the ‘name bands’. Ellington had been a ‘name’ for more than a decade. As jazz became more popular with white audiences, many ‘new’ names came into the jazz universe including Goodman, Dorsey, Shaw et al. These ‘names’ rather eclipsed those of the musicians and writers who worked for them. Billy became friends with, and tutored, the young Bill Finegan, staff arranger for Glenn Miller. I can never hear Finegan’s arrangement of Little Brown Jug without being reminded of Strayhorn’s The Gal From Joe’s and that ‘stringed’ rhythmic, ‘walking’ introduction Finegan replicated on several arrangements in the Miller book. Like Strayhorn, Finegan toiled for his boss in relative anonymity and, like Strayhorn too, had to suffer the indignities of the dreaded blue pencil on their work as their bosses looked to simplify or popularize what they had written. As Strayhorn had done for him, Finegan in turn came to tutor the young Nelson Riddle whose settings for vocal work by the likes of Frank Sinatra fifteen years later would take adult pop music to a whole new level. Finegan claimed that Billy’s work for Rosemary Clooney on the album Blue Rose resulted in the finest vocal album he had heard. When one considers that Gil Evans was a frequent visitor to Strayhorn’s apartment in the period leading up to what became known as the ‘Birth of the Cool’ sessions, then it becomes clear that Billy Strayhorn’s influence on much mainstream, sophisticated music beyond the Ellington orchestra is incalculable.
I have space here only to draw attention briefly to two further intertwining silken threads of Billy Strayhorn’s life and legacy. The first is the stage production My People which took place in Chicago’s McCormick Place in 1963 as part of the ‘Century of Negro Progress’ Exposition. Strayhorn sought to work with Ellington because a conventional career in the conservatoires of the classical world was forever closed to him because of his race. As a result, he created music far more demotic and therefore truly democratic, far more vital and more significant than much produced by the composers of ‘serious’ music in the European tradition. Strayhorn’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement and his links to Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. can only receive ever greater attention in future Strayhorn studies. Strayhorn’s convictions found their most explicit expression, perhaps, in the musical production of Ellington’s My People in 1963 for which he was the musical director and conductor. Along with 1941’s Jump for Joy, these were the two peaks of Ellington and Strayhorn’s success writing musical theatre. The medium of musical theatre brings us full circle to the young man standing in Ellington’s dressing room preparing to perform his own composition, Lush Life. His own musical, Fantastic Rhythm, was written circa 1935 and professionally produced for two years in Pittsburgh and West Virginia. Several songs from that play became part of the Ellington book, namely My Little Brown Book and Your Love Has Faded. I have never considered Lush Life a love song in the conventional sense. The structure, the usual narrative arc of unrequited love is there, it is true, rendered, albeit in the rather overwrought language of the adolescent. But, those opening lines seem to indicate a much more profound and existential concern. What compulsion, after all, had drawn the song’s singer to those ‘come-what-may’ places in the first place? And what of the phrase ‘the axis of the wheel of life’ with its echoes of Lear’s I am bound upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears do scald like molten lead, that leads the listener to believe that something is rotten to the extent that love will neither salve nor solve. With its prophetic references to Paris (Strayhorn’s favourite city), smoky dives and luminous libations, it is tempting to see the song as self-dramatizing autobiography. This would be wrong, I think, after all, Strayhorn was classically schooled. His work is neither mere self-indulgent self-expression nor therapy. It is art of the highest order and an art in touch with what it was like to be alive in the 20th Century: the century of Eliot’s The Wasteland; Joyce’s Ulysses; Picasso’s Guernica.
Lush Life paints on the broad canvas not of Tin Pan Alley but of sophisticated supper club songs or cabaret. Ellington never found the unqualified success he hoped for in musical theatre and I think if he had, Billy Strayhorn’s name would have reached much greater prominence sooner for Strayhorn’s métier found perfect expression in this genre. Albums have been recorded of Ellington and Strayhorn’s music for Saturday Laughter and Beggar’s Holiday (which received a revival in Billy’s beloved Paris in 2012). These are invariably recorded with just small-group, jazz-inflected arrangements. What treasures remain yet to be uncovered – and better still, performed – from his music for the theatre? And the projects to which Strayhorn was drawn often revolve around characters in extremis: Timon of Athens, Turcaret, Professor Unrat, Don Perlimplini: those whose lives are metaphors all, perhaps, for life in the 20th Century, or the dark corners of our own lives. As we celebrate Strayhorn’s own centenary, we can be assured that his work will continue to speak as long as there are those who have ears to hear and we shall continue to make new discoveries about his work in the fifty years ahead and beyond…