Duke Ellington’s right-hand man: Billy Strayhorn

October 25, 2012

Richard Steele and Tony Sarabia

Richard Steele:

Billy Strayhorn entered this life in Dayton, Ohio in 1915. Early on, his family moved to Pittsburgh. As a kid, he became very interested in music and by the time he was in high school, not only was he an exceptional pianist with a classical music pedigree, but he’d become quite a composer.

Strayhorn cut his musical teeth with a band of other young musicians who did some local gigs around Pittsburgh. When he was playing with those musicians, Strayhorn was writing music, playing piano at cocktail parties and holding down a delivery job at a local drugstore.

Everything changed in 1938. That was the year a friend introduced him to Duke Ellington while the orchestra was performing in Pittsburgh. Duke had been told that he should meet this young gifted Pittsburgh songwriter with enormous potential. The meeting and impromptu audition took place in Duke’s dressing room while he was getting his hair groomed. Before he heard Strayhorn play, he was only mildly interested in hearing him. He was startled when Strayhorn demonstrated his ability by playing an Ellington standard exactly like Ellington would and then played it a second time as a re-arrangement. Ellington “was sold” and told Strayhorn he would hire him in some un-named capacity.

Ellington gave his soon to be young protégé  his home address in New York and invited him to come to Harlem. One of the most often-told stories about their enigmatic relationship is how "Take The A Train" became the signature song for Duke. It seems Ellington had written down some instructions for Strayhorn about how to get to Harlem on the subway. He said he wrote it just to impress Ellington with his song writing ability by using just the hint of a theme. Strayhorn says when he wrote it, he thought of it as a quick exercise in fast composing, but had no idea that it would become an Ellington trademark.

Strayhorn joined Ellington’s organization in 1938 and stayed with him almost continuously until his death in 1967. Strayhorn and Ellington had a symbiotic music relationship. They complimented each other more completely than just about any other music association of its time. They had completely different personalities. Duke was an elegant, larger-than-life music figure, who loved the night life, the ladies and the adoration of a large audience, and Billy was gay, a bit introverted and valued his privacy. Together they produced some of most enduring music ever performed or recorded by a jazz orchestra.]

Here are my picks for the best Billy Strayhorn-penned tunes:

Johnny Hartman was a jazz vocalist who grew up on Chicago’s South Side. His began to broaden his musical knowledge and explore the possibilities of his sonorous baritone voice while he was a student at DuSable High School. Hartman benefitted from the teachings of the legendary Captain Walter Dyett much in the same way that future music stars like Dinah Washington and Gene Ammons did. Many music critics speculate that Hartman would have become more well-known if he had not come along at the same time as Billy Eckstine, who also had a great baritone voice. Even though he was well respected in music circles, Johnny Hartman’s career never really caught fire. There was one exception in 1963, when he recorded an album of beautiful ballads, with John Coltrane on tenor sax. The Billy Strayhorn composition “Lush Life” is one of its most beautiful pieces.              

Duke Ellington’s music is a good example of jazz as a true American art form, although he was never convinced his music should have a label. He wanted his music to be viewed outside of any rigid categories. When he met Billy Strayhorn in 1938, the Duke Ellington Orchestra was one of the most popular bands in the country, but he always kept an ear open for new talent. That meeting was the beginning of one of the most intensely successful music collaborations in music history. Strayhorn wrote, co-wrote and arranged many of Ellington’s most successful compositions.

When Strayhorn died in 1967 at the age of 51, Duke Ellington had to live through one of the saddest times in his life. That same year Ellington pulled the band together for a tribute album, And His Mother Called Him Bill. Strayhorn had written or co-written all of the compositions. When the recording session was officially over and the musicians were packing up, Duke sat at the piano and played Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom.” The studio engineer had left the tape recorder running. When they discovered Duke’s private moment on tape, they included it on the album.              

I had the good fortune to meet jazz pianist Randy Weston almost two years ago. We talked a lot about our common roots in Brooklyn. He was in Chicago to perform at the DuSable Museum, as part of a concert tour to celebrate his 85th birthday and the publication of a new book he had written. He’s known throughout the jazz community for his composing skills as well as his piano virtuosity. Weston has lived in several different African countries, and much of his music reflects that influence. He met Billy Strayhorn through his own association with the Duke Ellington family. Weston admired Strayhorn’s work so much that he wrote a composition to honor his friend called “Blues for Billy Strayhorn.” Strayhorn died a few years later and Weston played it at the memorial service. He said it was one of the most difficult things he’s ever had to do.

Tony Sarabia:

"Johnny Come Lately" was originally recorded in 1942 when the Ellington orchestra could have been considered a super band. Although trumpeter Cootie Williams was gone, tenor sax great Ben Webster was added, giving a whole new flavor to the band. Bassist Jimmy Blanton was also laying down some pretty wicked rhythms and you still had the older ‘stars’ like alto sax player Johnny Hodges and plunger mute specialist trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton. The 1942 recording was more or less a Nanton showcase, but in this 1959 version, the leader Johnny Hodges takes a turn at the solos, the result being his famously rich ‘buttery’ sound. The main chorus has an eerie quality and while this version comes at a slightly slower tempo than the original it still swings.

Before Ben Webster joined the Ellington Orchestra in 1940, Duke really didn’t have a musician who took tenor solos; Barney Bigard specialized in clarinet but would occasionally pick up the tenor. When Webster came on board, Ellington finally had someone he could write tenor pieces for and Webster certainly added some soul and grit to the band. But he also had the ability to produce the most romantic music via his ballad style; which he admittedly owed a great deal of debt to Johnny Hodges.

It seems Billy Strayhorn also recognized what the band gained with the addition of Webster and in "Chelsea Bridge," Strayhorn calls Webster’s ballad playing to the fore. Chlesea Bridge was first performed by Webster and the band in 1942. This song is as a later Webster solo album suggests: Music for Loving. Dim the lights, light the fire, pour the wine and play this song; all is perfect.

This recording is from a 1954 appearance at the New Port Jazz Festival.