Tribute to Billy Strayhorn
VAIL – Those fortunate enough to garner tickets for session seven of the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Festival will be treated to a very special tribute to one of jazz’s true greats – Billy “Sweat Pea” Strayhorn.Sunday evening, four bands will pay homage to the man who inspired, collaborated with and in fact wrote many of Duke Ellington’s best-known compositions.The bands will each play Strayhorn’s music using their own rhythms, styles and interpretations. Listening to each version of “A Train” in that environment, played by consummate blues, Latin, and jazz musicians is a unique opportunity to appreciate just how superb the piece is.While that in itself would be reason to attend, there will be a talk about Strayhorn during the first set by Bill Cunliffe the renowned pianist, followed by vintage footage of Strayhorn and the Ellington’s band, shown throughout the evening.
Considered by many to be one of the geniuses of jazz, William Thomas Strayhorn was born in Dayton, Ohio, almost 90 years ago. An immensely talented composer, arranger and pianist, Strayhorn was grossly underrated in his time and spent the majority of his career eclipsed by his more ostentatious boss. Diligent searching of the Strayhorn archives by David Hadju, author of “Lush Life” a biography of Strayhorn, uncovered Strayhorn’s enormous contribution to the Ellington legacy.It now appears that there are several instances where Strayhorn compositions were registered as Ellington/Strayhorn pieces, or even some where their collaborations were listed only under Ellington’s name, or under no name at all.Even tunes that were Strayhorn’s alone have suffered; the most notorious being “Take the A Train” – perhaps Strayhorn’s most famous, but long thought of as a Ellington song.Strayhorn is renowned for other acknowledged classics such as “Lotus Blossom” “Rain Check” “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing” “Mid-Riff,” and the would be title of Hadju’s biography, “Lush Life.”
Strayhorn’s more sweeping works demonstrate clear and classically driven compositions, quite different from Ellington’s.Enrolled by his father, Strayhorn studied classical music at the Pittsburgh Musical Institute and ultimately developed far more classical training then typical jazz musicians of his time. It was to become his life-long love, but being black at a time when the genre was the white man’s domain, eventually led him to jazz.As it happened, a friend of a friend eventually introduced Strayhorn to Ellington, when the already famed band stopped in Pittsburgh in 1938. After hearing Strayhorn play, the Duke was immediately impressed enough to give him work. The following year, Strayhorn moved to New York without so much as a contract of any kind, to join Ellington as an arranger, composer and sometime pianist.Over the years, Strayhorn collaborated with Ellington on many suite compositions, as well as musicals such as “Jump For Joy” and “Saturday Laughter.” The two also collaborated on the score for the acclaimed film “Anatomy of a Murder.”Strayhorn did, however, record a few solo albums, worked in partnership with Luther Henderson for the theater and wrote songs for the fabulous Lena Horne, even coaching her in classical music to extend her knowledge and enhance her style of singing.
Tragically, in 1964, the gifted, emotionally tormented, openly gay musician was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. While still in the hospital, Strayhorn submitted his fittingly titled but last composition, “Blood Count,” to the Ellington band.After Strayhorn’s death in 1967, and as a tribute to his long time associate, Ellington recorded what critics cite as one of his greatest works “And His Mother Called Him Bill.” Sometime later, Ellington and the Julliard School of Music established a scholarship fund in Strayhorn’s name.The impact on jazz and on Ellington himself by “Sweat Pea” Strayhorn was later encapsulated in Ellington’s own words, “Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head and his mine.”Stew Mosberg is a regular contributor to the Vail Daily. He lives and works in Blue River and can be reached at wrtrF@aol.comVail Colorado