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In Ellington’s Shadow: The Life of Billy Strayhorn

By Scott Ethier | HUMANITIES, November/December 2006 | Volume 27, Number 6

Bandleader Duke Ellington once described composer Billy Strayhorn as "my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head, and his in mine." The collaboration between Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn lasted nearly thirty years and produced some of the most remarkable and enduring American music of the twentieth century. But while Duke Ellington's name and image are familiar to many Americans, Billy Strayhorn remains relatively unknown to the public. With NEH support, filmmaker Robert Levi has brought Strayhorn's work and life into view with the documentary Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life.

The film investigates Strayhorn's legacy through interviews with friends and colleagues, as well as scholars of his music and his era. The film features new performances of Strayhorn classics by musicians such as Bill Charlap, Elvis Costello, Hank Jones, Joe Lovano, and Dianne Reeves.

A portrait emerges of Strayhorn as a sensitive and complex man who had a deeply ambivalent relationship with his employer, friend, and collaborator Duke Ellington.

Strayhorn was born on November 29, 1915, in Pennsylvania to a steelworker father and a university-educated mother. He grew up in poverty; despite not having an instrument in his home, the young Strayhorn took private music lessons and quickly became a skilled pianist.

While he was still in high school, Strayhorn began writing short pieces, songs, and even a musical called Fantastic Rhythm. Strayhorn encountered Ellington for the first time when he was eighteen. On Thanksgiving Day in 1934 he went to a screening of the movie Murder at the Vanities in which the Ellington orchestra had a small feature. Strayhorn recalled, "Ellington played his version of Liszt's Rape of the Rhapsody, which he called Ebony Rhapsody. He played a chord in the orchestration that I couldn't figure out. I had a dream that one day I would ask him about it. But something deeper was happening. Something inside me changed when I saw Ellington on stage, like I hadn't been living until then."

Three years later, Strayhorn was working as a soda jerk when he arranged a meeting to show his compositions to Ellington with the help of Gus Greenlee, a numbers runner in Pittsburgh.

In the film, Ellington recalls that meeting. "A friend of mine, Gus Greenlee, came to me one day and says, 'I got a young kid. He writes good music. I'd like you to hear some of his stuff and see what you think of it.' [I replied], 'Well, there's a piano. Tell him to sit down and play something.' So, the little boy sat down and started playing and he sang a couple lyrics and man, I was up on my feet."

"I would like to have you in my organization," Ellington told the younger composer. "I have to find some way of injecting you into it after I go to New York."

Hearing nothing further from Ellington for several months, Strayhorn set out for New York. Strayhorn tracked down Ellington in Harlem and soon became like one of Ellington's family. He lived at Ellington's apartment with Ellington's son Mercer and his sister Ruth. While the Ellington orchestra was out on tour, Strayhorn stayed behind to write and to study Ellington's scores.

Strayhorn became absorbed in the culture of 1930s Harlem. He was sometimes a participant in the jam sessions at Minton's Playhouse, which included many of the early innovators of bebop, including Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk.

Living in New York allowed Strayhorn to flower as a musician. It was also the first time he could live his life openly as a gay man, an option not available to him in Pittsburgh.

In the film, historian George Chauncey gives an idea of what this might have meant to Strayhorn. "There are really two things you've got to keep in mind about gay life in the forties. On the one hand it was an incredibly oppressive time. Gay bars were being raided all the time. Thousands of men were being arrested every year in New York City alone. And yet at the same time, a very rich, supportive gay world developed in the context of all this repression. People found each other and built a life with one another. And so Billy Strayhorn had a large community of people, of like-minded people, who loved him for who he was and knew exactly who he was."

Strayhorn was introduced to the pianist Aaron Bridges and the two soon began a romantic relationship. Bridges and Strayhorn found an apartment together on Convent Avenue in Harlem and remained partners for nearly a decade.

Initially, Ellington gave Strayhorn the task of writing background arrangements for singers and for the various small groups with which Ellington recorded. This allowed Ellington to concentrate on writing original material. Even with this modest platform, Strayhorn was able to make his mark on the band. His arrangement of the song "Flamingo" was not only a commercial success but also one of the most adventurous arrangements for any big band of the time. Strayhorn biographer David Hajdu describes the song's effect: "Can you imagine what it was like to walk into a juke joint in the 1940s, press the numbers to hear the new Duke Ellington song, and hear something that sounded like Debussy or Ravel behind the voice of Herb Jeffries and the aggressive masculinity of the Ellington orchestra?"

By the time Strayhorn was twenty-two, a generation younger than Ellington, he had composed songs that would become standards, such as "My Little Brown Book," "Ugly Duckling" (recorded many years later by Ellington's orchestra as "Smada"), and the classic song "Lush Life." In Strayhorn, Ellington found not so much a brilliant protégé but a voice that could complement and expand his own.

In Ellington, Strayhorn found a man who could appreciate his talents and a leader that could understand and perform his music better than perhaps any other at the time.

An opportunity for Strayhorn to have his own work showcased came in 1940 when ASCAP, the organization that licensed music for broadcast, attempted to raise its royalties and the radio stations started a boycott. Radio broadcasts were a crucial source of income for Ellington's group, so Ellington had Mercer and Strayhorn, who were not members of ASCAP, compose a substantial body of new work for his band.

Among the songs that entered the band's book at the time of the ASCAP ban was Strayhorn's "Take The 'A' Train," the song that would become the Ellington Orchestra's signature tune. "Take The 'A' Train" had been written by Strayhorn after Ellington gave him directions to his Harlem apartment. At the time Mercer and Strayhorn were working on the new repertoire, Strayhorn threw away the score, fearing it was too similar to Fletcher Henderson's style and not enough like Ellington. Mercer rescued it from the trash and the piece became the theme song for the Ellington Orchestra.

Soon after, the Ellington Orchestra recorded Strayhorn's "Johnny Come Lately." An uptempo swing number, "Johnny Come Lately" featured a spiky and dissonant unison melody reminiscent of the pieces Thelonious Monk would write later in the decade.

Another Strayhorn piece of the era was "Chelsea Bridge," a dissonant and impressionistic ballad. Musicologist Walter van de Leur writes, "'Chelsea Bridge' is one of those first pieces where Stayhorn steps out and does something with a jazz piece that comes completely from a different musical context. . . . At the same time people were commenting that it was too complex or too far off from what they perceived was jazz."

Strayhorn's music was regularly being performed by Ellington's band, but through the 1940s he became increasingly upset that Ellington was receiving most of the credit.

"As much as he wanted to use that talent," says composer and scholar Gunther Schuller of Ellington, "I think he wanted to preserve his stature, his status, and not have that even in his own mind get mixed up with Strayhorn's. To put it in another way, he considered Strayhorn to be not quite at the level that he was. And I think he was, by the way, right about that."

In 1946, Ellington was commissioned to write music for a new Broadway adaptation of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera called Beggar's Holiday. Strayhorn ended up writing or cowriting large amounts of the music in the production, but in the final program he was only credited with orchestrations. This was too much for Strayhorn. At the opening night party, Strayhorn said to set designer Oliver Smith, "Let's get out of here." "But the party's just starting," Smith protested. "Not for me it isn't," replied Strayhorn as he left the theater alone.

It wasn't just his billing on Beggar's Holiday that had upset Strayhorn. Ever since he had written his first arrangements for Ellington, much of Strayhorn's work went uncredited or was instead credited to Ellington. Ellington even was listed as cowriter of the ballad "Something to Live For," which Strayhorn had written before he met Ellington.

This was not an uncommon practice during the Big Band era. In most of the bands of the period, including those of Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Glenn Miller, arrangers were not credited. It was not unusual for someone else to take credit on a copyright for a song he or she didn't write. Ellington's manager Irving Mills is listed on the copyright for many of Ellington's works of the thirties, even though it is unlikely that Mills ever contributed anything of musical significance to the works. Van de Leur suggests that some of the copyright confusion stemmed from the fact that the copyrights were filed by Tempo Music, Ellington's publishing company, run by Ellington's sister Ruth.

"There were hundreds of thousands of pieces which somebody wrote and the leader of the band got his name on it. It was a custom. Ellington did not do that very much," says Schuller in the film. "Why he did it in this case I can only surmise because this was this rather early piece, which maybe Ellington didn't even know very well."

The amount of recognition Strayhorn did receive in comparison to his counterparts in other bands at the time was highly unusual. At his inaugural Carnegie Hall concert in 1943, Ellington devoted a segment of the concert to Strayhorn's music. One of the pieces performed was Strayhorn's "Dirge." "Dirge" is a striking piece-slow, quiet, dissonant, and unlike anything in Ellington's book or in jazz at that point in time. Few band leaders in 1943 were presenting such a challenging work or featuring a band arranger so prominently.

During the late forties and early fifties, Strayhorn drifted away from Ellington and concentrated on some of his own projects, such as writing songs for a production of the Federico Garcia Lorca play The Love of Don Perlimpin for Belisa in Their Garden. By the mid-fifties, Strayhorn had returned to Ellington but with a new understanding: Strayhorn would be given full credit for the work he was doing. Their reconciliation initiated a fruitful era in the Ellington-Strayhorn collaboration.

Strayhorn and Ellington tended to work separately. This suited Ellington's new creative direction quite well. For the most part, after the premiere of his 1943 Carnegie Hall performance Black, Brown, and Beige, Ellington abandoned long- form pieces in favor of suites of smaller, contrasting pieces based loosely on an overall theme. Strayhorn and Ellington could work separately on individual movements and the contrast between their musical styles would add to the strength of the overall suite. This was evident in some of the strongest of the Ellington suites of the era such as Far East Suite (based on experiences in during the band's tour in Asia), Such Sweet Thunder (based on the works of Shakespeare), and The Queen's Suite (a tribute to Queen Elizabeth II of England).

The Ellington-Strayhorn collaboration has become part of jazz legend, and it is often difficult to separate myth from fact. "You've got to be careful not to make blanket statements about the collaboration," warns van de Leur. "It had different faces with each different project."

According to popular belief, the two were said to be musical soul mates who would work side by side on the same piece of music. It was said that no one-not even the composers themselves-could tell where one left off and the other began. A 1944 New Yorker profile on Ellington provided a romanticized account of their musical partnership, describing an all-night train trip where Strayhorn and Ellington were throwing out musical ideas to one another for their latest piece.

Strayhorn himself was complicit in perpetuating the myth. In a 1962 interview, Strayhorn recalled a recent piece he and Ellington had been working on together. He said they each worked on a part of the piece separately and rushed the score to the bandstand without ever having heard it before. As they listened to the newly completed piece, Ellington and Strayhorn laughed because of the similarity of the musical ideas they had come up with independently. Based on his analysis of the piece in question, van de Leur suspects the veracity of the story.

In spite of the tales that grew around their collaboration, Strayhorn and Ellington were quite different in their backgrounds and in their musical styles. With the exception of some informal study (which by Ellington's account was limited to a few cab rides around Central Park picking the brain of African American composer Will Marion Cook), Ellington was a self-taught musician who learned jazz by listening to ragtime and stride piano players. By contrast, Strayhorn was classically trained and well-versed in classical harmony and repertoire by the time he met Ellington. While Strayhorn could deftly replicate and employ many distinctively Ellingtonian musical devices, he was a composer with a voice all his own.

In his book Something To Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn, van de Leur examined hundreds of original manuscripts written by the two composers. In addition to isolating a number of harmonic and orchestral practices that clearly are original with Strayhorn, van de Leur discovered important differences in their working methods. Ellington would compose in small blocks of music and often use rehearsals and recording sessions to construct finished pieces by stringing together the often unrelated blocks. Since Ellington's goal was often to develop a piece of music by establishing the maximum contrast between its various sections, this approach suited him.

Strayhorn, on the other hand, would notate his scores fully from start to finish, complete with introductions, endings, and transitions. For Strayhorn, melodic and harmonic development was most important.

Van de Leur made another discovery: Ellington and Strayhorn rarely worked simultaneously on a given piece of music. Although it illuminates a relationship that is usually described in anecdotes, it does not diminish the musical influence and rapport that the two men shared.

Strayhorn died in 1967 at the age of fifty-one after a long struggle with cancer of the esophagus. When he heard the news, Ellington was devastated and would not leave his bed for several days. A few months later, Ellington brought his band into the studio to record . . . and his mother called him Bill, an all-Strayhorn tribute album. "I know that Duke loved Billy Strayhorn so deeply that it may well be the deepest love of his life," says David Hajdu. "He called him his writing and arranging companion. He saw them as intimates. That defines the relationship to me."

Gunther Schuller suggests that Strayhorn is not as well known partly because he had not yet said all that he needed to say in his music.

"Strayhorn died too young," asserts Schuller. "What if he had lived beyond Ellington and now he was famous because of his association with Ellington, and I think the world would have demanded, I would have demanded, everybody would have demanded, 'Okay, now you're alone. Show us your compositions. We need to hear your music.' And I think coming out from the yolk of this particular relationship with Ellington, I think he might have risen to the challenge. This is what we don't know."

About the Author

Scott Ethier is a composer and writer in New York City.

Funding Information

The New York Foundation for the Arts received $260,000 from NEH for the production of BILLY STRAYHORN: LUSH LIFE, which will be shown on PBS this February.