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by FRANK CARUSO
The Great Billy Strayhorn
I have decided to take a rest from theoretical topics and write about one of the great jazz composers, Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967). We are very fortunate to have lived and participated as jazz players in a time in history when many luminaries made great contributions to the vast library of jazz composition.
When I think of outstanding jazz composers many people come to mind: Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Golson, John Lewis, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Tadd Dameron, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, etc. These composers have changed the complexion of jazz with their contributions. One composer who I think most of us would agree was a major force in shaping the landscape of jazz was Strayhorn.
He is probably most famous for his collaborations with Duke Ellington. But in doing a more in-depth study of Billy’s work, I came to realize that he was also heavily involved in the classical genre. The website songwritershalloffame.org has a detailed, exhaustive list of his compositions most will find interesting.
Along with people like Gil Evans, it’s clear that Strayhorn was a prolific jazz composer, pianist, lyricist and arranger. Among his famous compositions you will find “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Chelsea Bridge,” “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing,” “Day Dream,” “Satin Doll” and “Lush Life.”
Ellington’s “Sacred Music” concerts for orchestra and chorus are also works Strayhorn collaborated with Duke on. I was fortunate to have been invited to play transcriptions of Duke’s piano parts a while back at a College of DuPage concert of Ellington’s “Sacred Music,” which included two of my favorite compositions, “Come Sunday” and “Heaven.” Strayhorn and Ellington also collaborated on the rare “jazz interpretations” of the “The Nutcracker Suite” on a Columbia recording released in 1960.
He met Duke Ellington in Pittsburgh at a concert in 1938. He approached Duke and demonstrated how he would have arranged one of Duke’s pieces. It was the beginning of a 25-year musical relationship as an arranger, composer, occasional pianist and collaborator. Duke leaned heavily on Billy and at times it was unclear who the actual composer was on some compositions. I have heard stories about Duke leaning heavily on Gil Evans for orchestration ideas. Story was that Duke would call Gil at 3 a.m. from somewhere in Europe asking for advice on voicing/arranging of parts. Some of the band members would notice that Duke had written notes on the sleeve of his shirt when he had no manuscript or anything else to write on.
Most people don’t know that Billy’s first love was classical music. For people with compositional knowledge and skills, it’s pretty easy to discern that Strayhorn had been influenced by classical composition in much the same way Gershwin and Cole Porter had been influenced by European classical melodies and harmony. In his lifetime, the prospect of an African American being recognized as a classical pianist was virtually inconceivable. So with that realization in mind, he became interested in the piano playing of Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson.
When I was first introduced to tunes like “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing,” “Lush Life” and “Chelsea Bridge,” I immediately became aware of the fact that Strayhorn was a gifted composer. If you follow his harmonic paths it’s easy to see that he believed in creating any harmonic path he chose. In the future I would like to analyze some of his compositions, which clearly show a free use of “chromaticism.” These types of revelations are very important to musicians of all ages and levels of knowledge and skill.
Strayhorn seemed to be content with being in Duke’s shadow.
Duke described Billy this way: “Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head, and his in mine.”
Even though some would argue that Duke took advantage of Strayhorn’s talent, it was by no means considered a mercenary or opportunistic type of treatment; I know the music world is a better place for it. Duke would jokingly say, “Strayhorn does a lot of the work, but I get to take the bows.”
I was fortunate enough to have been invited to perform at Duke’s birthday party with the U.S. Navy Band Commodores Jazz Ensemble in Washington D.C. Tom Eby, a former student from Elmhurst College, is now playing lead trumpet in the Commodores there too. I followed the trail of this event and came to realize that at that time Duke had recorded “The Far East Suite” he gave Strayhorn full credit as a collaborator. The famous Johnny Hodges interpretation of “Isfahan” was written for that recording. Through further research, I came to realize that President Nixon used that historic event as a kickoff event to the commissioning of Ellington and his orchestra as Peace Corps ambassadors to India, at a time when the president was beginning to develop important trade relations with that country. I am sad that Strayhorn was not at Duke’s event in Washington—it would have been great to meet him and talk with him.
I am forever grateful to Billy “Swee’ Pea” Strayhorn for his legacy, and to Duke Ellington as well for presenting his music to the world.
Frank Caruso is on the Jazz Studies Faculty at Elmhurst College and recently recorded a trio project “Chosen” with drummer Bob Rummage (also on the Jazz Studies faculty of Elmhurst College) and bassist Eddie Gomez. Look for it on iTunes soon. Caruso also teaches privately and has published a book on piano improvisation, which can be found at learnpianoimprovisation.com. He can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A nine-page list of approximately 180 Strayhorn compositions can be found at songwritershalloffame.org.