Billy Strayhorn (11/29/1915-05/31/1967)
2015 is a big centennial year for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Billy Strayhorn. But I feel that Billy Strayhorn’s celebration is overshadowed by the other two centenaries. Not to take away any due praise from the two vocalists, but I would love to see him get the attention and honor that he so truly deserves. This past May 31 marks 48 years since his untimely death at 52 years young. He is indelibly linked with Duke Ellington, another towering figure in 20th Century music. He not only gave Duke the gift of a song when coming to see Duke in NYC for the first time, but a song that eventually became the band’s signature tune, “Take the A Train”. He also brought his advanced harmonic understanding and classical restraint to the Ellington sound.
The essence of their relationship is revealed in a paragraph that David Hadju wrote in “Lush Life”, his biography on Strayhorn. In it he states that Duke needed a small ensemble work to be completed. They sat down across from each other and stared into each other’s eyes for ten minutes, silently and wordlessly, and then Billy went off and completed it. Regardless of the dynamics of their relationship or the eternal human power struggles and jockeying, the important thing to remember is that this collaboration produced glorious, profound and lasting music. It was also noted that Duke took emotional and economic care of Billy like one of his mistresses and recognized his genius while offering him a platform and artistic home in which to create his phenomenal music. It must be remembered that this was a time when homophobia and deep seated hatred of homosexuals was the prevailing attitude. That is quite remarkable in itself.
Ella Fitzgerald was asked by Carol Sloane what her favorite song was, and in a heartbeat her response was Strayhorn’s “Something To Live For”. His final composed song was “Bloodcount”, written on his deathbed, which has been lyricized by Elvis Costello (“My Flame Burns Blue”), by Dominique Eade (“The Last Light of Evening”), and M.B. Stillman (“Bloodcount”). So here’s to the genius of Billy Strayhorn who wrote a masterpiece in his late teens that eerily predicted his own fate, “Lush Life”.