ALL THAT JAZZ / BILLY STRAYHORN
"The fast dance mania and new jazz music were shaped by Afro-American culture, a fact completely disregarded by those who capitalized on their union," write Russell and David Sanjek in American Popular Music Business in the 20thCentury. The "mania" to which Sanjek refers was the national upsurge in jazz interest that began almost singlehandedly in 1917 with the release of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's recording of "Livery Stable Blues," b/w "The Original Dixieland One-Step.” As for the "disregard" to which the writer refers, it arises from the fact that the ODJB was a five-man white group—the first to make a recording of something that passed for genuine New Orleans-style jazz. And in fact, so inhospitable was the phonograph world to the more genuine jazz of blacks, the music's true innovators, that African-Americans did not begin to become represented on disc playing jazz until well into the third decade of recorded music. Ironically, even the first million selling recording by an African- American, "Crazy Blues," by black Mamie Smith, was originally slated to be recorded by white Sophie Tucker. Given the enormous struggles that African-Americans faced in other realms of the entertainment world, it should come as no surprise that the radio and recording industries did not exactly welcome them with open arms. After Mamie Smith's triumph, it was an altogether different story. In an actof racial redress, for reasons no more idealistic than there was money was to be made, whites began recording black blues and jazz musicians in largenumbers. Before long, African-Americans also got into the act in the recording booth when the black-owned Pace Phonograph Corporation was founded in 1921 in New York (an early success was Ethel Waters' "Down Home Blues"). The following year on the west coast, African-American-owned Sunshine Records, was the first to commit a small black jazz combo, Kid Ory's group, to disc. Sunshine also cut the inaugural sides of the great jazz innovator Jelly Roll Morton, but these recordings have never surfaced. Sunshine was owned by brothers John and Benjamin "Reb" Spikes, both born in Dallas (John in 1882, Reb in 1888); the Spikes were business and music partners and the co-authors of two of the most recorded jazz tunes of all times, "Someday Sweetheart" and (with Jelly Roll Morton) "Wolverine Blues.” It is safe to say that up until the start of widespread civil rights victories in the 1950s, the jazz phonograph record offered the broadest forum available to African-Americans. And while it should in no way be taken by the reader as a derogation of jazz to say so, the sad fact of the matter is that many of its greatest African-American players and innovators only turned to it as a form of expression upon discovering that the world of the classical concert hall was almost entirely closed to them. This was true of both instrumentalists and singers, although a few in the latter category, most notably Marian Anderson, Roland Hayes and Paul Robeson, were able to squeak through. This was an unfortunate state of affairs that has continued to obtain until only very recently. And while it should not be construed as lending approval to this lockout, it is an unavoidable fact that some of jazz's finest practitioners came to artistic fruition because of (and in spite of) these racist career limitations. "If I can't get fame [as a violinist], I'd like to make money," said Will Marion Cook after having been allowed only limited chances to concertize. He then went on to become a pioneer in the evolution of big band jazz. And a large number of other early and middle-period jazz instrumentalists only fully realized the wonders of jazz expression upon being faced with a loaded economic gun at their heads. Aside from Cook, other African-American jazz musicians who found their way to jazz via this circuitous route include: Hazel Scott (see Chapter seven), Bud Powell, and Duke Ellington associate Billy Strayhorn. "Billy looked into colleges but was discouraged because of his race and could not get the necessary financial aid," recalled a high school friend of Strayhorn's, Harry Herforth, years later. "The very idea of a black concert pianist was considered unthinkable. It had nothing to do with Billy's considerable talent." Thus Strayhorn, who apparently never played a jazz lick until he was well into his teens, went on, almost by default, to become one of the most important figures in jazz—a fact only belatedly coming to be understood. In the summers of 1932 and '33, occasions of major cultural significance took place that would forever alter the way the world viewed the abilities of African-American artists: Louis Armstrong's tour of the British Isles, followed, a year later, by a first visit there by Duke Ellington. Thanks to the serious critical attention accorded Armstrong and Ellington—word of which quickly spread back across the Atlantic—jazz, once thought of at home as something Dionysian and vernacular, was now considered in terms more Apollonian and academic. As a result, the minstrel image of the terrified Sambo and fat and sassy earth mammy that many still equated with African-American art was dealt a significant blow. Duke Ellington, especially, thrived and prospered on this elevation to "serious" musician. Now it was seemly, affordable and even necessary for him to acquire the services of a full-time musical collaborator. In 1939 he found one; one who was not, Ellington would explain later, "my alter ego. He was more than that. Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, the brainwaves in his head and mine." 5 It was an exalted position and—given the social changes of the 1930s—Strayhorn's life as an African-American artist was a much less chaotic and more "respectable" than it would have been in previous times.
When it comes to having a case of the "mean reds," not even Billie Holiday's signature tune "Gloomy Sunday" can touch Strayhorn's "Lush Life."
"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 and cocktails."*
So begins this classic ballad of urban ennui and disaffection whose narrator then plunges even deeper into despair, vowing to "live a lush life where I'll rot with the rest of those whose lives are lonely too." But "Lush Life" (when it was written in 1935) with its blasé world-weary sentiments, was about as far from the realities of Billy Strayhorn's life as it was possible to get back then. Sounding like something that might have been written by Cole Porter, it was in fact
* Lush Life by Billy Strayhorn c 1938 Tempo Music
composed by a black teenager living in obscurity in Depression America. Then in his late teens,* Duke Ellington's future musical amanuenses had just finished high school, was studying piano and found himself employed at Pittsburgh's Pennfield Drug Store delivering packages and slinging sodas. He'd not even reached legal drinking age; yet he managed evoked with a fair degree of accuracy a boozy milieu of which he had (presumably) never been a part. We are left then with the image of a young man, his imagination working overtime in a manner remindful of the adolescent Truman Capote, roaming to places far wittier, sophisticated and soigné than a Depression-ridden factory town in Appalachia. In fact, Capote wrote his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, when he was roughly the same age as Strayhorn was when he wrote "Lush Life"; with perhaps the explanation for their mutual precocity being supplied by the tendency of homosexual adolescents to project themselves into sophisticated circumstances as an exercise in wish fulfillment.
When Billy was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1915 his mother was only fifteen. A short time later Billy's father, a plasterer by trade, left his wife and son behind, ostensibly in search of work; but later, Billy contended that there was a touch of "plain old wanderlust" to his father's peregrinations. When he was five the boy was bundled off to live with an aunt in Montclair, New Jersey, beginning what Strayhorn would later call his "see-sawing"8 years: As a result of his father's
*Estimates as to when Strayhorn wrote "Lush Life" vary. He was 15 according to critic Leonard Feather; but author Will Friedwald puts his age as 22. I have chosen a "guestimate" somewhere between the extremes.
nomadism, the youngster moved back and forth between several family members throughout his childhood. Mostly he found himself in North Carolina in the care of his fraternal grandmother Lizzie Strayhorn. It was she who bought Billy his first piano. His great-grandmother on his mother's side had been a cook for Robert E. Lee during the Civil War (his father's grandparents had also been slaves).
By the time the boy had reached early adolescence, his family's situation had stabilized enough for mother, father and five siblings to settle under the roof of a modest four-room dwelling in Pittsburgh. The black Hill and Homewood districts of the "Iron City" were home to many future jazz stars; over the years they also yielded up the likes of Mary Lou Williams, Ahmad Jamal, Earl Hines, Erroll Garner, Roy Eldridge, Art Blakey and Billy Eckstine. The Homewood section of the city where Billy lived has been written about by novelist Jerome Wideman in books such as Hiding Place and Damballah. In his short story, "Hazel," one of the major characters in fact bears the last name of Strayhorn.
At first, Billy wasn't caught up in jazz. When he began formal music studies around 1925 after moving to Pittsburgh, his repertoire was made up strictly of traditional keyboard works like Chopin waltzes and Edvard Grieg, whose “A Minor Concerto.” He also began to compose, and played his own classical “Concerto for Piano and Percussion” at his Westinghouse House High School graduation exercises. But by then he had begun to expand his musical interests. "Each year in school, each class would get together and present sketches," Billy later reminisced. "I wrote the music and lyrics for our sketches and played too. It was successful enough so that one of the boys suggested doing a whole show, Fantastic Rhythm. We made $55." Variations on the production, whose cast at one time featured a very young Billy Eckstine, continued to be performed around southwestern Pennsylvania for the next five years. After graduation Strayhorn continued working at the Pennfield Drug Store. "I started out as a delivery boy, and when I would deliver packages people would ask me to 'sit down and play us one of your songs.' "It's funny," he later remarked. "I never really thought about a musical career. I sort of drifted along in music."
Friends continued to tell Strayhorn he should do something about becoming a professional, but he was wary. He did, however, continue to study theory and classical technique, and for a while attended the Pittsburgh Musical Institute. He also (unsuccessfully) continued to look for a musical mentor, and by the time he was in his late teens, the teachers he'd gone through also numbered in the upper teens. Then in 1934 came the unforgettable experience for Billy Strayhorn of seeing Duke Ellington perform in person for the first time: "Nothing before or since has ever affected my life so much," he later said.13 "Yes, I was shook up," he told Ellington historian Stanley Dance in 1966. "I got over my fears and went backstage to see him. I didn't have anything to say and I just stood there with my mouth open."14 It was doubly perplexing for him; until then he'd not been that much of a fan of the Duke. Then a few years later, in late 1938, he made his first personal contact with Ellington in 1938 during one of the band's semi-annual swings through the area. The introduction between the two, which took place backstage at the Pittsburgh Stanley Theater, was set up by new friend George Greenlee.
Ellington asked Billy what he did: "I play piano." Duke in typical wry fashion replied, "But we already have a piano player."15 When Strayhorn added that he also wrote songs, Duke gave him a shot at displaying his wares, liked what he heard and asked the 23-year-old to leave some of them behind. "Maybe we can do something with them," he said.16 But Billy hadn't even bothered to write them down. This further captured Ellington's interest, because the songs were too good not to be committed to paper. Right there on the spot he invited Strayhorn to arrange one of the songs for the band and paid him $20.
"I was so thrilled," he later told one jazz journalist, "I didn't know what to say. Duke was very nice to me and let me stay in the theatre all the next day working on the number; and he said he'd like to take me to New York." Strayhorn couldn't go just then, but Ellington told him to keep in touch; a remark tossed off lightly that nevertheless made an impression. The years of friends and family nagging him to turn pro had finally begun to sink in. Two weeks later—without even bothering to find out whether Ellington was actually in New York at the time—with his songs now in written form and six dollars in his pocket, Billy took off via train for Manhattan. But by happenstance Billy caught up with Ellington in Philadelphia. The band was then on the road and would not be returning to its home base of New York for a few weeks. to Manhattan, catching up with Ellington and company just a few hours before they were to set sail for a European tour. "See that he's taken care of until I get back," Duke told son Mercer Ellington18; and in some versions of the meeting is said to have said to Billy, "You are with me for life."19 Whichever it was; in essence, he was asking Billy to become a permanent fixture of the Ellington organization shortly after the point in Ducal history when Ellington's first European tour in 1944 had elevated him to world stardom. Mercer Ellington oversaw the band's departure for Europe and then took on the responsibility of looking after the new band member. In his surprisingly candid memoir of his relationship with his father, Duke Ellington in Person (a kind of jazz Mommie Dearest), the younger Ellington recalls that initially he'd moved Billy into the only accommodations he could afford—the "Y":
"But he used to come by the apartment and stay so often and so long, often for several days, that I finally said, 'Well, Billy forget it. Come on and make it this way at the house, and like later for the YMCA!, so by the time Pop got back from Europe, Billy, Ruth (Duke's sister) and I were like one family."
It was at this early stage in his friendship with Strayhorn that Mercer began to realize that Billy's skills extended beyond lyric writing:
"Strayhorn had a good solid foundation in the facts and theories of music. He was capable of playing good piano—not great piano, but good piano. He had enough training in composition to be able to appreciate Pop's work, and it was just a matter of having the instrumentation [of the Ellington band] shown to him for him to grasp the general principles."
By the time Ellington returned from Europe a few weeks later, Billy's full musical worth was already becoming apparent; and in 1938 his first arrangement for the band, the lovely "Like a Ship in the Night," was recorded (the session was released under Ellington sideman Johnny Hodge's name). This arranging debut a success, his assignments increased; along with his confidence and the quality of his writing. Among his early arrangements for the band were "Savoy Strut," "You Can Depend on Me," and a specialty number for clarinetist Barney Bigard, "Minuet in Blues." Strayhorn became especially involved with working on material for various small-band units drawn from the Ellington band; such numbers as "Dream Blues," "Watch the Birdie," "The Rabbit's Jump" and "I Know What You Do." His own favorite among his small unit work was "Black Beauty,"22 with its stunning Cootie Williams solo. Full Ellington band arrangements by Strayhorn during this period include "Flamingo," "After All," "Chloe," and parts of "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good" and "Sepia Panorama."
Not too long after Billy became an official Ellingtonian, Duke and the band travelled to Europe once more. Again Billy remained behind. With time to himself for experimentation and reflection, he composed the beautiful, languorous "Daydream," a classic which is even more widely performed and recorded today than when first written. (Ellington put the finishing touches to the song when he returned from Europe, and a short time later, lyrics were added by John LaTouche.) But it wasn't talent alone that accounted for such a rapid rise within the Ellington ranks. Shortly after he came on board, a strike by the songwriters' representative organization ASCAP (the American Society of Composers and Publisher), of which Ellington was a member, resulted in Billy's being handed important assignments at a swifter rate than might have otherwise been the case (Strayhorn was a member of the competing BMI group). The strike raged on until the latter part of 1941 during which time virtually no ASCAP compositions were heard on the radio; but anything Strayhorn wrote was permissible. To some degree Billy might have acted as a "front" for Duke, i.e. a vessel through which Ellington could funnel his own writings, but this is clearly not the reason he was hired originally.
Around the time Strayhorn wrote "Daydream," in 1940, he also began appearing as a pianist, without credit, on some of the band's recordings. Similarities between Ellington and Strayhorn's piano playing were apparent almost from the beginning, but it wasn't just a case of protective coloration on Strayhorn's part; it also worked the other way around. Wrote jazz critic Barry Ulanov in 1945, "Billy picked up Duke's florid arpeggios, Duke picked up his [Strayhorn's] bright skipping notes. . .." Not only were their playing styles beginning to merge, their arranging styles were also become more and more similar.
Songwriter Don George in his memoir of Ellington points to the total indispensability of Strayhorn to Ellington, asserting that the self-effacing Billy "was Duke's musical equal, with all the musicality and all the great classical knowledge he brought to Duke. For example, on many pieces that appear with Duke's name, occasionally Sweetpea [Strayhorn] got the credit, but so many others were written with Duke doing part, then handing it to Sweetpea, saying, 'Here, man, you finish it.'" Conversely, George notes, "Duke seeing some of the things Sweetpea started, would take them from him in the middle, saying, 'Hey, man, I'll finish that thing.' They had gotten into each other's minds and musical areas so completely that when it came to anybody's being able to discern who wrote what, very often they themselves didn't know what part each had written. They were incredibly close musically."
Sometimes the two even worked via long distance phone, often with uncanny results. Strayhorn was hospitalized in New York when Ellington was writing his first "Sacred Concert" in California. The Duke phoned up and told Billy he wanted him to write something: "Introduction, ending, quick transitions," he said. "The title is the first four words of the Bible—In the Beginning God.'" Strayhorn had not heard the Duke's theme, but what he sent to California started on the same note as Ellington's. Duke wrote in his Music is My Mistress, "Out of six notes representing the six syllables of the four words, only two notes were different."
In 1962 Strayhorn told Down Beat magazine that the musical mind meld existing between the two was "an uncanny feeling, like witchcraft, like looking into someone else's mind. "Whatever the ultimate creative ratio actually was, what is clear is that the dynamic between the two of them resulted in healthy rivalry and mutually beneficial competitiveness:
"Billy was inspired by Ellington and wanted to do things for him," wrote Mercer Ellington. "And then, like flexing your muscles, just to show off, to show Billy what he was capable of, Ellington began to write more himself."
The professional jazz world through which Billy began to move back in 1938—more than a half-century ago—was just as ill-disposed to homosexuals as mainstream society. . .if not more so. In a 1995 interview, vibist Gary Burton said he believed that "of all forms of music, jazz is the least tolerant of homosexuality." He deemed the jazz milieu," macho in the extreme."
Typical of the times, Billy's social life was not exclusively gay, but instead consisted of a shifting "set" made up of black and white straight, gay, male and female (mostly) artists and entertainers, one of whom was dancer Talley Beatty, who was gay. The former star of the Katherine Dunham troupe recalls that there was never talk of sex, no matter what the their free-floating salon's gender makeup of the moment might have been: "We weren't guarded, but we came from families where conversation and manners were so puritanical."31
"Oblique jokes about homosexuality were permitted," writes Jay Weiser of a '40s scene such as this, "but in some salons, breaking the taboo could mean expulsion."
Initially, world-class womanizer Ellington probably wasn't aware that Billy was homosexual. And the likelihood is that by the time the Duke finally knew—Billy would eventually become more open about his sexual orientation—he was too indispensable for Ellington to bother putting his prejudices into operation. It was very daring to be "out" in the jazz world; and it has been suggested by some, that dwelling in the semi-anonymity of Ellington's shadow was the price Strayhorn paid for his gayness.33 In the long run, Ellington increasingly picked and chose from the useful palette of Strayhorn's colorful life in such a way that he was able to assume the marketable demeanor of a an urban sophisticate. British jazz journalist Derek Jewell quoted a friend of his as noting that "Duke was a much simpler character before he met Strays [Strayhorn]. You could even say he was sweeter. But he was so much more interesting once Strays happened along. Duke picked up some of his language from the elegant sentences Billy used. He had an ear for sentences. Peculiar words fascinated him." "Duke Ellington didn't even go to the Taj Mahal," Jewell added. "He let Billy Strayhorn cover it for him."
One day in 1940 Billy was riding the 8th Avenue Express (i.e. the "A" train) when he pulled out pen and paper and began working on an instrumental designed to appease the appetite of the ever-hungry Ellington big band machine. Given the circumstances, it was only natural the song eventually be titled "Take the A Train," the lyrics for which, when they were added a few months later by Billy, transformed the number into an attempt at solving a New York City transportation problem (one that continues to some degree to this day). "They were building the Sixth Avenue Subway at the time," he later recalled to writer Stanley Dance, "and they added new trains, including the 'D' Train, and it would go to Harlem and 145th Street, and then turned off and went to the Bronx, but the 'A' Train kept on up to 299-and-something street. People got confused. They'd take the 'D' Train, and it would go to Harlem and 145th Street, but then the next stop would be Eighth Avenue under the Polo Grounds, and the one after that would be in the Bronx. So I was writing directions—take the "A" Train to Sugar Hill. The 'D' Train was really messing up everybody. I heard so many times about housewives who ended up in the Bronx and had to turn around and come back."35 Ironically, "'A' Train," one of the most famous of New York City songs was first recorded in Los Angeles when the band was appearing in the memorable stage production Jump for Joy.36 Unquestionably, the most well-known of Strayhorn's songs, it is one seldom properly credited to him; instead being generally attributed to Ellington, even though the latter almost always referred to it as "Billy Strayhorn's 'Take the A Train'"—which, in the early 1950s replaced "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" as the Ellington theme song.
For Ellington, Strayhorn wrote suites, jump numbers (with and without lyrics), riff tunes and programmatic material, but it was his ballads, many inspired by Billy's interest in French impressionist composers like Debussy and Ravel, that have had the most lasting impact. "Chelsea Bridge," a 1942 instrumental happens to closely resemble Ravel's "Valse Nobles et Sentimentales."37 Curiously, when the similarity was brought to Strayhorn's attention, he insisted he'd never even heard the Ravel work. Billy's "Passion Flower," which in turn was thematically similar to "Chelsea Bridge," was the inspiration for one of Strayhorn's several nicknames—"P.F." He was also known as "Weely" [i.e. Willy] and "Strays," but the one which finally took hold was given him sometime during the early 1940s when the band was en route to a date via train.
"Your new name is 'Swee' Pea,'" band member Toby Hardwicke told him.
"Because you look like him."
"Who?," asked Strayhorn whose tastes tended to run to French literature rather than comic strips.
"Oh," Billy reflected for a moment. "Oh," he repeated, then laughed. "Popeye in the comic strip of the same name. Oh."
Aside from his duties as an alto and baritone sax player in the band, part of Hardwicke's job seems to have been handing out nicknames: among the other Ellingtonians who were renamed by him were Joe Nanton who became "Tricky Sam" and Roy Eldridge, re-monickered into "Little Jazz." Befitting his elfin, yet dignified bearing, almost always after that Billy was known as Swee' Pea (songwriter Don George described Strayhorn as looking like "a small, slightly burned, whole wheat toast owl").
The account of how Billy became 'Swee' Pea' is from Barry Ulanov's 1946 book Duke Ellington, the first major work devoted to the bandleader. Ulanov also writes about Strayhorn's long friendship with Lena Horne. But in keeping with the prevailing attitudes of the time, it is not possible to gauge from the Ulanov's prose that Lena and Billy were just good friends. Typical of the times, Ellington felt that all Strayhorn needed to set himself "straight" was the love of a good woman.40 And so, long before Billy and Lena ever met, would-be matchmaker Ellington began dropping hints to both of them. The meeting finally took place in Los Angeles in 1941 at the premiere of Ellington's Jump for Joy. "At intermission," Horne later recalled, "a pixie, brown color horn-rimmed glasses, beautifully cut suit, beautifully modulated speaking voice, appeared as if by magic and said, 'I'm Billy Strayhorn—Swee' Pea."
"We became one another's alter egos. We were both at that time necessary to other people, me as a provider, Billy as Duke's collaborator. But when we were together we were free of all that. We seemed almost like siblings. We knew what each other was thinking, the same things were funny, the same food was good. We seemed wrapped in a web of good will that people spun around us. It was Lena and Billy. Billy and Lena. Everything we thought and said to each other made sense—and I began to talk and it poured out of me. I had a friend."
In 1993 Lena Horne came out of several years of retirement to take part in a tribute to Strayhorn at the JVC Jazz Festival in New York City. Undimmed by time, if possible even improved, Horne scored a memorable triumph singing a half-dozen songs by her "soul mate" who, she informed the audience, comes to her in dreams three or four days before any "musical crisis in my life." Avoiding the "hits" like "A Train" and "Lush Life," she instead concentrated on lesser known songs such as "Maybe," "Love Like This Can't Last" and "You're the One," written especially for Horne, but not recorded by her until 1993 in an album that followed shortly on the heels of the JVC evening. The lion's share of the material on the release, "We'll Be Together Again, was by Strayhorn.42 Essentially the recording operated as a tribute album to her friend.
Because of Lena Horne's strict upbringing she didn't force the sexual issue during the few months the couple "dated," and Strayhorn had no sexual interest in women. Horne later said that Billy had never once discussed his homosexuality with her.43 Son Mercer recalls that his father "once surprised the hell out of a late party in his suite at the Shamrock Hotel in Houston by airing his belief in a Faggot Mafia. Stanley Dance [jazz journalist and Ducal confidante] was there and he found the idea amusing until he realized how serious Pop was."44 But even though he never could quite make peace with homosexuality itself, Ellington apparently became resigned to Strayhorn's—in the parlance of the times—differentness.45
"Swee' Pea never worked the neighborhoods, never cruised. Most homosexuals I've known cruise," wrote songwriter Don George in his Ellington biography Sweet Man. "If they don't cruise they keep their eyes open for someone to make it with. Swee' Pea wasn't like that. Swee' Pea was faithful, sincere with his friend.46 He never cruised or rampaged around, not even when he had a few drinks. He was always the gentlemanly fellow in the group. Homosexuality was as normal for Swee' Pea as any other area of life, heterosexuality or whatever, was for anybody else."47
Despite his general discretion, Strayhorn (whose watch cry was "Ever onward and upward")48 had his moments. He liked to drink and party, and he tended to act as a lightning rod for to the free-form social set which seemed to spring to life where ever he touched down. Talk at such gatherings—liberally oiled by alcohol—tended to run the gamut from music to books to clothing and Billy's favorite hobby—French. He often lapsed into self-taught French. . ."Quel drole. It est fou a lier, un hurlerberlu. Ooh. I've been waiting for a chance to use that idiom. Mmmm."
One of Billy's extracurricular activities when he was not on the road or working with the Duke was acting as president of the legendary tap dancers' social club, the Copasetics. He spent much time socializing with its members whose roster included such dancers as Cholly Atkins and Honi Coles as well as "civilians" such as B. B. King and Dizzy Gillespie. Among its activities, the organization staged shows to aid various charities; Strayhorn was a regular contributor, sometimes composing complete revues such as Welcome Aboard, which, like the others, was never recorded or filmed and today is presumed to be lost.
Sometimes Billy would play too long and too hard and drop with exhaustion. He was proud of his ability to fall asleep without spilling so much as a drop of liquor; he also boasted that he could smoke a cigarette down to the last quarter-inch without losing the ash.51 Strayhorn was accompanied on many of these nocturnal revels by his longtime companion and roommate Arnold Bridgers, a non-pro musician who acquired thoroughly professional pianistic skills through the coaching of Art Tatum and Billy. On the subject of piano, Strayhorn was often at pains to defuse the mystique surrounding the similarity between his and Ellington's approach to the keyboard:
"Although my style of playing away from Duke is quite different, when I play with the band I play like the leader. I know what Duke would do in a particular section of a composition, and I know what the band expects to happen."
Strayhorn not only recorded prolifically with the Ellington band, he also often took charge in live performances, playing the piano and leading until Ellington arrived on the stand after a strenuous round of table-hopping and backstage socializing. In addition to his many credited and unbilled appearances as an Ellingtonian, he was a sideman on other musicians' studio sessions (Clark Terry, Johnny Hodges, et al), as well as recording a handful of albums under his own name. One of the most memorable Strayhorn discs is a release on which he duets with Ellington throughout; "Great Times," recorded in 1950, is the only collection of their playing in tandem.53 When Billy first heard the finished results, he was initially uncertain as to who was playing what: "I really have to sit down at the keyboard and play it out to know who is playing."
There is disagreement among Strayhorn’s friends and associates as to whether being overshadowed by Ellington all his professional life bothered Strayhorn. Ellingtonian Toby Hardwicke insisted, "Neither money nor business was an issue between them ever. Billy just wanted to be with Duke, that was all. It was love—a beautiful thing." Lena Horne, on the other hand, found the relationship loving, protective, but somewhat destructive. "It wasn't physical at all," she told writer David Hadju. "But it was very, very sexual. Billy loved Duke. Duke loved Billy. The problem is, Duke treated Billy exactly like he treated women, with all that old-fashioned chauvinism." Ultimately, as Horne saw it, her friend was unequipped to deal with the vicissitudes not only of his profession but of daily life (Strayhorn's family experienced great difficulty with the IRS after his death). The tradeoff that Strayhorn made allowed him rare social freedom as a homosexual in a highly competitive, macho-driven profession. But the price he paid was near total invisibility as an artist.
In a variation on Ellington’s relation with his former manager Irving Mills who took writing credit on songs he had nothing to do with, similarly Ellington is known to have placed his name as co-writer on at least two songs penned by Strayhorn before he ever met the bandleader—“Something to Live For” and “Your Love Has Faded.” Ascertaining the extent of Billy’s uncredited contributions to numerous other projects is now the basis of a still-expanding cottage industry of musicological research and scholarship, On at least one occasion, however, Ellington must have insisted Billy share the spotlight, for both appear on the cover of their fondly remembered reworking of "The Nutcracker Suite." But Strayhorn appears more than a little self-effacing, smiling, eyes cast down, while Ellington stares straight at the camera. Socially the two might have been worlds apart, but music made the situation "all right,"58 Billy once remarked; while Ellington described the symbiosis that transpired between the pair as a "covetous collaboration between flower and beast."59 Ellington deferred to Strayhorn on nearly all musical matters. He seldom went into a recording session without having him on hand in the engineer's booth, and Billy generally had the final say-so on which takes were to be issued. Sexual preference was undoubtedly on Strayhorn's mind when he said—somewhat in code—the following: "What it comes down to is that, although we feel very differently about life [itals. mine], we really understand what each of us wants in a composition."
Billy Strayhorn was responsible for writing, arranging or shaping hundreds of songs and extended works in the Ellington repertoire including, in addition to those already mentioned: "Just a Sittin and a Rockin," "Satin Doll," "Rain Check," "Grievin'," and the lovely but overlooked ballad "My Little Brown Book" (from Billy's high school revue Fantastic Rhythm), and such longer works (mostly co-written with Ellington) as "A Drum is a Woman," "Such Sweet Thunder," and "Suite Thursday." In addition there are numerous instances of Strayhorn's rolling up his sleeves and acting as an equal collaborator, but receiving no credit at all; with the most widely discussed examples of his self-effacment being two of the Duke's stage musicals, Jump for Joy and Beggar's Holiday, to which Billy contributed but received no official credit.61
Ironically, the Ellington band played little or no part in popularizing the composition with which Billy Strayhorn is most often associated, "Lush Life." In 1949, long before it had become a standard, Strayhorn told writer Stanley Dance in "Down Beat" that it was "a song most persons have to listen to twice before they understand it."62 Perhaps this was because "Lush Life," in the vein of other songs by homosexuals like Cole Porter, John LaTouche and Noel Coward, was not exactly reminiscent of hard-core heterosexual sentiment.
"The only ones who knew the old tunes were my friends in Pittsburgh. One night I remembered it and played it for Duke. He liked it and we've been using it occasionally, with Kay Davis singing, and myself on piano. I made a record of it once for an album of modern arrangers' works Norman Granz [owner of the Norgran and Verve jazz labels] was putting together, but it wasn't used," he told Stanley Dance. "I was calling it "Life is Lonely," but when anyone wanted me to play it, they asked for 'that thing about lush life.'"63
It is probable that Strayhorn somewhat overstated Ellington's liking of the song. While the Duke perhaps appreciated the number from a strictly technical standpoint, in all likelihood he found its outlook far too decadent for his tastes. Curiously (or not so), Ellington himself never got around to commercially recording "Lush Life"; perhaps it unconsciously pressed several of his homophobic buttons. And were it not for the intercession of Nat 'King" Cole, "Lush Life" might never have been widely heard. One day in early1949, Cole happened to be cutting some instrumentals at Capitol the day Billy was recording "Lush Life." Cole hung out at the session and when he heard the tune he immediately asked Billy for a copy of the music. Cole cut his record of the composition a few weeks later in April of 1949. Although the undistinguished novelty number on the other side of the recording was projected to be the "A" side, finally it was Strayhorn's song that captured all the the attention, setting it off on its course toward eventual standardhood. "Lush Life" has now been recorded commercially by nearly every respected jazz instrumentalist and singer, with the glaring and notable exception of Frank Sinatra who did, in fact, once try to give it a whirl. A bootleg recordings exists which captures him attempting to come to grips with the song, intended for his album Only the Lonely. But after several false starts and stops, he can be heard slamming a door and storming out of the studio—the closest that the unarguable final arbiter of American Popular Song came to recording this late-blooming classic, one of the few to have eluded his imprimatur.
A few months before his death in the spring of 1967, Strayhorn sat for an extended interview with Ellington historian Stanley Dance who wrote that his subject "was recuperating from his first serious operation [for cancer of the esophagus], but he was apologetic about getting anyone up so early in the day. He felt at his most alert then, the medicines he was obliged to take making him drowsy in the afternoons." Although the last few months of his life were physically painful, he maintained a moderately active life as well as his sense of humor: Even though he could no longer eat most of his personal chef's cooking, he retained his services, telling Dance, "I can still smell can't I?"66
The final days of Strayhorn's life were spent in the care of Lena Horne.
She took him with her to California for a final visit and then returned with him to New York City where she remained with him at his home until May 31st of 1967 when between three and four a.m. he died in her arms. He was 51. Word of
Strayhorn's death reached Ellington in Reno, Nevada where he was performing. The reaction of the normally unflappable Duke was to lock himself in his hotel suite where he plunged himself into a state of profound and inconsolable rage. Outside in the hotel corridor he could be heard inside the room sobbing and banging his head against the wall. When he had sufficiently recovered, his first act was to pen a eulogy.
Services for Billy Strayhorn were held at New York's St. Peter's Church. In attendance were friends from diverse worlds, such as ballplayer Jackie Robinson, filmmaker Otto Preminger, record producer John Hammond, many of his hoofer friends (after Strayhorn's death, his title of President of the Copasetics dancers' fraternity was permanently retired), as well as hundreds of other civic leaders, politicians, artists from every field as well as past and present Ellingtonians. Pianist Billy Taylor played "Chelsea Bridge" and "Passion Flower" and Ellington vocalist (and trumpeter-violinist) Ray Nance's sorrowful and funereal rendering of "Take the A Train" is still vividly remembered by many of those who were that day. Ellington's eulogy went, in part:
"Poor little Sweet Pea, Billy Strayhorn, William Thomas Strayhorn, the biggest little human being who ever lived, a man with the greatest courage, the most majestic artistic stature, a highly skilled musician whose impeccable taste commanded the respect of all musicians and the admiration of all listeners. . .He spoke English and French very well. He demanded freedom of expression and lived in what we consider the most important of moral freedoms: freedom from hate, unconditionally; freedom from self-pity (even through all the pain and bad news); freedom from fear of possibly doing something that might help another more than it might help himself; and freedom from any kind of pride that could make a man feel he was better than his brother of neighbor. . .His patience was incomparable and unlimited. He had no aspirations to enter into any kind of competition, yet the legacy he leaves, his ouevre, will never be less than the ultimate on the highest plateau of culture (whether by comparison or not)."
All that was left to be said (and the normally profoundly egocentric Duke would have been the first to admit it) was that without the contributions of Billy Strayhorn, the Ellington Legend and Mystique as we have come to know it today would probably have never come to pass. A few years later Ellington recalled these Four Freedoms at a White House celebration of his 70th birthday; film of the occasion shows a Richard Nixon made decidedly uncomfortable, in sharp contrast to the Duke's confidently rendered reading.
After Strayhorn died, whenever performing in public, Ellington opened up with a haunting and painstakingly slow piano treatment, performed in the dark before the spotlight came up, of one of Billy's loveliest compositions, "Lotus Blossom"—an unorthodox beginning to an evening of big band jazz and a mediation upon the memory of Billy Strayhorn of whom Duke Ellington until his death in 1974 would always speak of in the present tense.
Shortly after Billy's passing there came the first strong wave of interest in his music with an identity apart from Duke Ellington; triggered by the album "And His Mother Called Him Bill," a superb collection of Strayhorn's music cut by the Duke himself shortly after his collaborator's death. This growing awareness of the latter reached a pinnacle of sorts in 1991 with the best-selling "Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn" by saxophonist Joe Henderson. The Grammy-winning album not only helped solidify its subject's reputation, but also worked to put Henderson back on the map. It was a mutual renaissance that saw the saxophonist pouring out the notes and tones of Swee' Pea's work on global TV as well as in “live” milieux on several continents.
This musician's life—from when he was taken up by Duke Ellington until his death—was unprecedented. Up to that time no black artist had ever been so unhampered in the creative act, so devoid of the surround of racial strife—thanks to the protection and freedom afforded by the association with Ellington. As such, Billy Strayhorn suggests a model of something that still has not completely come to pass; African-American artists functioning to their full potential minus the obstacle of racism.
Postscript to 1st edition: David Hajdu’s superb Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn, appearing two years before the initial 1998 publication of this book, launched a cottage industry of Strayhorniana in the form of TV documentaries, CD anthologies, and wide critical coverage of the book itself. Movie rights for Lush Life were also quickly snapped up by producer Irwin Winkler (Rocky, GoodFellas, with Jay Cocks (The Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York) set as screenwriter. Will Smith and Denzel Washington were announced as Winkler’s leading men of choice But as of this writing, realization of the project has not occurred. Perhaps it still languors in Hollywood “turnaround” hell.
A review by Joel Roberts in the publication All About Jazz nicely sums up the excitement generated by Hajdu’s bio, which was a major best-seller (rare for a jazz book).
“Hajdu follows Strayhorn from Harlem to Hollywood to Paris, as he lives out the "lush life" of his fantasies. We are presented with vivid and memorable portraits of Strayhorn's friends and associates from various walks of life, including Lena Horne, Rachel and Jackie Robinson, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medgar Evers, as well as Ellingtonians like Ben Webster, Jimmy Blanton, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, and most of the major figures in the jazz world. All of them, it seems, held Strayhorn in extraordinarily high regard, as a uniquely talented musician and as a man of rare intelligence and grace. By the end of this extremely personal account of Strayhorn's life, we have come to know him quite well and the tragic details of his final months are extremely distressing. David Hajdu has done an outstanding job of elucidating the complicated life of this enormously talented and too often overlooked artist. This is surely one of the best books ever written about jazz.” (emphasis mine) More than any other subject covered in the first edition of this book—the sui generis Sammy Davis, Jr. and Dinah Washington aside—Billy Strayhorn has been fortunate to have finally received cultural retrospection commensurate with his major artistic contributions.