November 29, 1915– Billy Strayhorn
William Thomas Strayhorn is a major musical figure for me, & he is a considerable contributor to the world of jazz, as well as an imperative Gay Icon. He is the composer of one of my most admired songs. I have chosen a clip of Lady Gaga’s haunting version, proving that this music still speaks to us today.
Strayhorn grew up & went to school in Pittsburgh, all the while taking private classical piano lessons. He formed a trio that played daily on a Pittsburgh radio station, & he composed a musical for his high school. He even wrote one of the most perfect pop songs of all time, Lush Life, now considered a jazz classic, while he was a teenager.
When he was 23 years old, he was introduced to Duke Ellington, who happened to be performing with his orchestra in Pittsburgh, & Strayhorn’s life changed completely. Ellington was so impressed with the kid that he welcomed him into his own household, where he lived as part of Ellington family.
Strayhorn worked for Ellington for the next 30 years as his arranger, composer, pianist & collaborator. Ellington said of him:
“Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, & his in mine.”
Strayhorn was out of the closet as a gay man at a time when such a thing was nearly impossible, especially moving in the rarefied & homophobic Jazz World of Harlem. His association with the great & popular Ellington helped somewhat protect him from discrimination. Strayhorn was quite open about his relationship with Bill Grove, a white guy, although they were forced to live separate apartments to avoid attention.
Strayhorn lived, unnecessarily, in the shadow of Ellington. Strayhorn helped produce a body of work that has no rival in its originality & range, from unforgettable pop tunes to jazz melodies to orchestral suites to film soundtracks. He was able to live & write songs because of the protection provided by the famous band leader. Being kept safe came with a heavy price, when Ellington took credit for all of Strayhorn’s compositions & Strayhorn worked without any sort of contract. While Ellington is considered the most influential & celebrated jazz composer of the 20th century, Strayhorn is still goes unrecognized by the public, even by jazz lovers.
Ellington’s signature song, Take The A Train, was, unknown to everyone at the time, written entirely by Strayhorn. He never received any royalties, not a dime for his most famous creation. He worked without recognition or reward. He is responsible for some of the greatest songs of all time, standards in the jazz & pop catalogs: Lush Life, Day Dream, Johnny Come Lately, Maybe, A Love Like This Can’t Last, Satin Doll, & the ironically titled, Something To Live For.
In a dispute over royalties in late 1940, ASCAP (American Society Of Composers, Authors & Publishers) blocked its members from broadcasting any of their compositions over the radio. But Ellington, one of ASCAP’S most celebrated composers, needed those radio broadcasts to promote record sales, which paid for his orchestra members’ salaries. Strayhorn cleverly came to the rescue. During a train trip across the country to join Ellington in LA, Strayhorn, not an ASCAP member, worked for 6 straight days, hardly ever stopping to sleep, composing dozens of songs. Strayhorn’s engaging, exciting new works kept The Duke Ellington Orchestra solvent for years. Ellington’s own theme song Sepia Panorama was still forbidden to be broadcast, so for the new radio theme Ellington chose Strayhorn’s own Take The A Train which premiered New Year’s 1941.
Many of Strayhorn’s creations were recorded by his BFF, Lena Horne. Shortly after arriving in NYC in 1940, Strayhorn, then 24 years old, & his then boyfriend, Aaron Bridgers, a fellow jazz artist, bravely lived openly as a couple in Harlem, an arrangement that drew enough attention to the couple that they would spit up, with Bridgers fleeing to Paris in 1947. Horne had wanted to marry Strayhorn, & always referred to him as the great love of her life. Strayhorn used his classical background to coach Horne’s vocal technique & we all know how that turned out.
Strayhorn finally left Ellington in the late 1950s to pursue a solo career. Ellington received the only credit on their collaborated score for the film Anatomy Of A Murder (1959), but the 2 jazz greats worked together one more time on the album The Nutcracker Suite, featuring jazz interpretations of melodies by Tchaikovsky. The original album cover has Strayhorn’s name & photograph next to Ellington’s.
Strayhorn joined the fight for Civil Rights in the early 1960s & wrote songs that honored Martin Luther King, Jr. including King Fit The Battle Of Alabama, recorded by The Duke Ellington Orchestra.
Strayhorn lived a life of heavy drinking & smoking. He was with his partner, Bill Grove, when he was called from this world in 1964, taken by that damn cancer, just weeks before King was assassinated. He was only 51 years old when he took that final bow.
Strayhorn had also worked in the early years of Gay Rights (years before Stonewall). He wrote the lyrics & music to what I think is one of the most perfect gay laments ever composed. Most performers say it’s difficult to sing. I never dared. It sounds like no other song in The Great American Songbook:
I used to visit all the very gay places
Those come what may places
Where one relaxes
On the axis of the wheel of life
To get the feel of life
From jazz & cocktails
The girls I knew had sad
& sullen gray faces
With distant gay traces
That used to be there
You could see where they’d been washed away
By too many through the day
12 o’clock tales
Then you came along with your siren of song
To tempt me to madness
I thought for a while
That your poignant smile
Was tinged with the sadness
Of a great love for me
I was wrong
I was wrong
Life is lonely again
& only last year
Everything seemed so sure
Now life is awful again
A thought full of hearts could only be a bore
A week in Paris will ease the bite of it
All I care is to smile in spite of it
I’ll forget you, I will
While you are still burning inside my brain
Romance is mush
Stifling those who strive
But, I’ll live a lush life in some small dive
& there I’ll be
While I rot
With the rest of those whose lives are lonely too