Tag Archives: Billy Strayhorn

Songs For Strayhorn

Billy Strayhorn 1This year marks the centenary of one of the great unsung heroes of jazz history, a man who was also half (and sometimes, arguably, more than that) of one of the greatest musical partnerships of the 20th Century – and the composer of such classics of the jazz repertoire as Take the A Train and Lush Life. His name was Billy Strayhorn.

In late 1938, this quiet young musician in his rather past-its-best Sunday suit was taken backstage in a Pittsburgh theatre to be introduced to the great jazz bandleader and composer of the day, Duke Ellington. As Ellington rested between performances, relaxing on a reclining chair while his valet tended to his hair, the 23-year-old Strayhorn was ushered in.

Strayhorn, Ellington & Preminger

Strayhorn & Ellington on the set of Anatomy of a Murder for which they wrote the score. Director Otto Preminger looks on.

Ellington may not have bothered to open his eyes to take a look at his guest, but by the end of the short visit, Strayhorn – who dazzled Duke with a series of piano performances of Ellington tunes first as the composer himself would play them, and then in his own arrangements – had been wholeheartedly accepted into the organisation.

So began a three-decade relationship that was one of the most fruitful and – according to those who witnessed it – loving in jazz history. From the outset, the refined and cultured Strayhorn, a dedicated Francophile and follower of fashion – who had never really belonged in the Pittsburgh shack in which he was raised – was not so much Ellington’s right-hand man as his alter ego.

Constantly on the road with his band, Ellington entrusted composing and arranging assignments to Strayhorn, who had absorbed the Ellington orchestra sound and was more than happy to devote himself to keeping it up to date with new music, and keeping the royalties pouring in to the organisation which had many mouths to feed.

Bob Wilber, the 86-year-old American clarinettist and saxophonist (pictured below) who was a member of a celebrated small group put together by Strayhorn in the 1960s, says: “He so completely assimilated Duke’s music that often you couldn’t tell in an arrangement which part was Duke and which part was Billy. He was absolutely indispensable to Duke.”

Strayhorn, who had been a frustrated would-be cosmopolite in Pittsburgh – where his sexuality was never discussed but always assumed as gay – blossomed in Manhattan, living initially with members of Ellington’s entourage in the boss’s Harlem penthouse, and spending his days soaking up all the art and cocktails that he could during his non-writing time. “A miniature, black Noel Coward” was how one friend later described him.

As his biographer David Hajdu writes: “In Pittsburgh, who he was had inhibited Billy Strayhorn from doing what he could do; in New York, what he could do enabled him to be who he was.” And what he was was a young gay man who loved the finer things in life, and was able to set up home with his boyfriend secure in the knowledge that – unlike many employers back then – his sexuality, and his openness about it, would not be an issue with Ellington who treated him as one of the family, possibly even better than he treated his own son, Mercer, who also wrote for the band.

Not only did his association with Ellington provide him with the bon vivant lifestyle he had dreamt of, it also gave him an outlet for his artistry and allowed him to flourish as a composer. He may have been composing and arranging for the Ellington outfit from 1939 – and Bob Wilberhave been the author of Take the A Train, a massive hit which Ellington quickly promoted to the band’s signature tune – but Strayhorn wasn’t credited as composer or arranger for his contribution until the 1950s, after a brief period when he had split from the organisation.

Everyone in the band, however, knew that he was a prolific writer of their music – and he was terrifically well liked and respected. Tommy Smith, the  director of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra which is performing three concerts this month to celebrate the “Jazz Genius of Billy Strayhorn” – from such “big”, familiar pieces as Isfahan, Chelsea Bridge and Satin Doll to rare, recent rediscoveries – recounts a story told to him by one-time Ellington trombonist Buster Cooper.

“He told me he was once sitting next to Strayhorn on a plane, and Strayhorn had his briefcase out. He opened it and there was some manuscript there, and Buster was really excited because he thought he was going to get to see what Strayhorn was going to write – they were all in awe of him and never sure who had written what. But Billy Strayhorn lifted up the manuscript – and there was a bottle of whisky there. He offered Buster a drink, and put the manuscript away. Buster never got to see what the music was.”

One song which everyone knew was 100% Strayhorn was the evocative ballad Lush Life, the poetic words and haunting music of which he had mostly penned even before he met Ellington. It’s long been a favourite of jazz singers – and its recent performance by Lady Gaga boosted her credibility with the jazz community because it is, as Bob Wilber points out, “a very tricky song”. Indeed, Strayhorn was incensed by both the arrangement and the fluffed lyrics in Nat King Cole’s famous recording of it.

Annie Ross, the British-born jazz singer, met Strayhorn in the early 1950s when they were both living in Paris – the city he had written about in Lush Life. She says: “We hit it off immediately. He liked the way I sang and he taught me Lush Life. He was a gentle soul. They called him the Swee’ Pea precisely because he was so gentle.”

It might also have been something to do with the love of flowers and nature that he inherited from his devoted mother– a love that is obvious from such song titles as Passion Flower, Lotus Blossom and Violet Blue, which were written as features for alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges whose gloriously plaintive sound was the perfect match for Strayhorn’s beautiful but dark-tinged melodies, and sumptuous arrangements.

When, in March 1965, Strayhorn – whose piano playing was usually done in the recording studio or just to entertain friends – was asked to put together a band for a concert featuring his first solo piano performance, Bob Wilber got the call that one might have expected Hodges to get. “I don’t know how he had heard me – whether it was only on record – but he realized that I would be the ideal interpreter for the compositions that he wrote for Johnny Hodges. It was an absolute thrill being called to be in that band – which he named the Riverside Drive Five. I was thrilled to do it.”

One of the tunes performed at the concert and then long forgotten about was Orson – Strayhorn’s portrait of Orson Welles. The music for it was discovered in box stuffed with manuscripts in Strayhorn’s basement long after his death from cancer in 1967. The handwriting on the music helped shed light on Strayhorn’s enormous contribution to the Ellington repertoire and sound, while stacks of his own pieces underlined the fact – long known amongst musicians and Ellington experts – that he had been a brilliant composer in his own right;Billy Strayhorn solo that he alone had composed many of the numbers that had been thought to be collaborations.

Now, in Strayhorn’s centenary year, he will perhaps receive more of the widespread recognition he deserves – and his rarely heard compositions, among them the afore-mentioned Orson, will reach a broader listening public, not least audiences who attend the SNJO’s concerts this month.

* The SNJO (with Brian Kellock on piano) – The Jazz Genius of Billy Strayhorn is at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on February 20, Buccleuch Centre, Langholm on February 21, and at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow on February 22.

* First published in Scotland on Sunday on February 15

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Sometimes there’s a CD …

We interrupt this year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival coverage to tell you about a CD. Usually, I listen to a CD for review, write the review and then the disc enters a big pile of CDs to be filed away. But, to use Lebowski-speak, sometimes there’s a CD …

Sometimes there’s a CD which you just can’t set aside even though you know it’s time to move on to the next one for review. It just will not leave your brain – and it most certainly will not leave your CD player. Most recently, this has happened to me with an album sent to me by the New York-based clarinettist and saxophonist Dan Block.

I can’t recommend his CD, From His World to Mine – Dan Block Plays the Music of Duke Ellington (Miles High Records), highly enough. It features Block on clarinet, bass clarinet, alto and tenor sax, and is one of the best Ellington albums I’ve heard.

As the title suggests, it’s a very personal take on the Ellington back cataglogue, and it’s also undoubtedly been a labour of love. So much so that the cover was painted by Block’s 17-year-old daughter, Emma. (I have to confess that her picture reminds me of a similar one I did, for my own dad, of the same band when I was at school.)

The highlights are many. There’s the funky take on Billy Strayhorn’s Kissing Bug which opens the CD and sets out Block’s stall as an original thinker when it comes to presenting familiar tunes. Great play is made of Mark Sherman’s vibes, Renato Thomas’s percussion and Brian Grice’s drums on this number  – and on Mt Harrissa, which has the same line-up and is also particularly funky. Its vibes-led opening reminds me, every time without fail, of the “porn party” scene in The Big Lebowski when the Dude visits porn magnate Ben Gazzara.

New York Blues is a favourite, thanks to its lovely laidback and sultry feel and Block’s wistful tenor playing (and the gorgeous opening passage in which he plays unaccompanied). Then there’s almost cinematic The Beautiful Indians on which Block multi-tracks, playing two clarinets, bass clarinet and basset horn.

Other stand-outs include the sublime Billy Strayhorn Ballad Medley (All Heart and Change My Ways) on which Block, first on clarinet and then on alto, is accompanied by pianist Mike Kanan, and my personal number one, Portrait of Bert Williams. This catchy, quirky and slightly poignant number is a gem; Block’s bluesy bass clarinet beautifully offset by the trio of James Chirillo (guitar), Lee Hudson (bass) and Pat O’Leary (cello).

Yup, sometimes there’s a CD …

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Norwich Jazz Party 2010: Annie Ross

I’m writing this en route back from the Norwich Jazz Party – in the hope that it will be of interest to anyone considering visiting Ronnie Scott’s in Soho on Wednesday or Thursday night..

One of the highlights of the Norwich event this year was a series of sets by Annie Ross, the soon-to-be octogenerian singer who is appearing at Ronnie Scott’s this week. Perhaps the word “vocalist” would be more appropriate as what the deep-voiced Ross does these days is as much about speaking the lyrics as it is about singing them.

Nobody expects a voice to sound as if it’s been unaffected by the ravages of time – not to mention a life in jazz – so there’s no point in going along expecting to hear the Annie Ross who made her name in the 1950s with the tongue-tying Twisted and her other hits with the pioneering vocalese group of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.

I hadn’t heard Ross live before but had watched her on YouTube and had read reviews of her performance in Glasgow three years ago. I knew the voice wasn’t what it once was, but I expected that the appeal and pleasure of the experience would lie as much in the history that she represents (she’s a direct link to Billie Holiday, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Zoot Sims, etc) as in the performance she would give.

So it came as something of a surprise to find that hers were some of my favourite sets of the weekend – especially her opening session on Saturday night. After being taken aback initially by quite how ravaged her voice is – and fast tunes like Twisted aren’t perhaps the best showcase for it – I became first attuned to and ultimately blown away by her performance, especially on ballads.

Lush Life, from the Saturday night set, was simply a masterpiece of storytelling. Accompanied by her regular pianist Tardo Hammer, she seemed to inhabit every word, making the familiar Billy Strayhorn song deeply personal in the process. Fran Landesman’s All the Sad Young Men, on Sunday, had a similarly moving effect; its lyrics invested with experience and Hammer’s piano accompaniment exquisitely elegant and sensitive.

She certainly knows how to put a band together, does Ms Ross. Her other secret weapon is the magnificent cornettist Warren Vache who sat slightly to her side and beamed like the teacher’s pet when she glanced his way. On slower numbers, his beguiling obbligato playing wrapped itself round her sparse vocals like furls of smoke, and ramped up the raunchiness and pzazz of faster tunes. He and Hammer are integral to the Annie Ross show.

As is the acknowledgement of the past which, in Ross’s case, is rich with legends from the jazz world – from Prez, Coltrane, Bird and all the other jazz greats who feature on the roll call that is Music is Forever, the homage Ross wrote to all her old musician friends, to Billie Holiday, to whom Ross paid tribute with a lovely interpretation of Travellin’ Light.

I remember seeing Ross in a documentary on Billie Holiday in which she said that her favourite Holiday LP was Lady In Satin, which Lady Day recorded at the end of her life – and on which her voice sounded painful and worn-out. Ross said she loved the fact that this was a voice that had lived.

While listening to Ross isn’t the harrowing experience that listening to “late-era” Billie is, it is the voice of experience nonetheless – and its appeal to those of us who were moved by her music in Norwich echoes her own feelings about Lady in Satin.

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