Classical Music Review: New Releases

Something To Live For: The Music Of Billy Strayhorn. Walter van de Leur, Oxford University Press $35.00).

Billy Strayhorn has never been a household name, and though he wrote for Duke Ellington and his orchestra for nearly 30 years, the older composer has always overshadowed the younger one. His gifts were never fully appreciated during his lifetime, but are beginning to be. David Hajdu's 1996 bio has righted many wrongs, and brought Strayhorn's myriad achievements to light. He may have written jazz standards like "Take the "A" Train " (1939) (the band's 3rd and final theme song ), "Lush Life" (1933-36) -- covered by everyone from Nat "King" Cole and Johnny Hartman to Linda Rondstadt and Donna Summer -- "Chelsea Bridge" (1941), and "Day Dream" (1939), but his role as both a composer and arranger for Ellington hasn't been fully ascertained till now. Dutch musicologist Walter van de Leur has literally gone into the vault to find out who did what and why. And so his book, which took him a decade to research and write, presents a much fuller picture of Strayhorn's musical personality than Hajdu's. The composer certainly was, in African-American playwright Lorraine Hansberry's phrase, young, gifted, black; and gay, and though van de Leur doesn't shy away from that aspect of Strayhorn -- he is, if anything, too discreet -- he integrates his psycho-sexual side into who he thinks he was.

Strayhorn was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1915, to a working class family, who shortly thereafter moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His father was frequently drunk and vented both verbal and physical abuse on his family, with young Billy  an especially vulnerable target. His mother was fortunately protective, and sent him to her in-laws in Hillsborough, North Carolina, where his grandmother, a church organist, encouraged him to express himself at the keyboard. Back home he studied piano with Charlotte Catlin, whom he found through the local music store. Strayhorn worked as a soda jerk and in 1936 enrolled at the Pittsburgh Musical Institute where he studied with Charles Boyd, who died during his term of instruction. "He was so wonderful, " Strayhorn told an interviewer in 1962, " that I didn't think there was anyone else there who could teach me so I didn't stay." Still, he continued to write songs including the knowing, world-weary "Lush Life", which, with its long, recitative-like verse is almost like a French chanson, and the book, dialogue and music for the revue, Fantastic Rhythm, for his high school alma mater, which was quite successful. And, like just about everyone else at the time, Strayhorn listened to the Ellington orchestra's radio broadcasts, and  heard the band in the flesh in his hometown in June 1934. "[Ellington] played The Rape of a Rhapsody, that was the name of the number. Oh, it was wonderful... that's what really got me. He had a chord which I have never discovered, I haven't heard it since, I couldn't figure this chord out. I went home after going to see this show at the Penn Theatre..., and I couldn't figure out what was in that chord, it was just wonderful," he recalled. Strayhorn finally got to meet Duke backstage when his orchestra was in town again in 1938. "He had an idea for a lyric," Strayhorn remembered. "He said: ' You go home and write a lyric for this,' and I did. I was so thrilled I didn't know what to say."

Ellington invited Strayhorn to visit him in New York, and then he and his band embarked on their second European tour -- March to May 1939 . But just before he left he "parked" the younger composer in his Harlem house, and told his sister Ruth, and son Mercer -- "he's going to stay with us." During his absence Strayhorn began a thorough study of his scores -- they were often sketches, and in his idiosyncratic musical shorthand -- and almost immediately started arranging for the orchestra. In the fall of the same year, he met his lover, African-American pianist Aaron Bridgers, through Mercer, and they subsequently got their own apartment, and lived together till Bridgers moved to Paris in 1947.

Though van de Leur doesn't softpedal Strayhorn's personal life, he's much more interested in the music. He finds, for example, that some of his own work was performed and recorded soon into his tenure with the band. The author also analyzes the similarities and differences between the composers in great detail, and, in the procees, clarifies the uniqueness of both. Ellington, of course, wrote for the musical abilities and personalities of his phenomenal soloists -- saxists like Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, and Ben Webster, to name just a few -- and favored cross-section voicings, in which chord or harmonic changes were assigned to different instruments, uncommon orchestrational blends, and continuity achieved through timbral contrasts. Though van de Leur doesn' go into it here, others have noted that the collaborative give and take in the band resembles the working methods of African music which thrives on communal ideas and improvisation. While Ellington seemed to be searching for new sounds as sound, Strayhorn apparently heard everything in his head, and his work, though extremely intuitive, moved more logically and linearly to its necessary conclusion. He was also, in a sense, an old style control freak, whose pieces, were more or less completely set, on paper. But Strayhorn was indispensable to the band, and he contributed hundreds of uncredited arrangements to its book ( Duke's homophobic publicist Joe Morgen had a hand in this), and thereby helped shape its sound in a very big way.

As in any relationship, there were conflicts, and with two complex and sometimes temperamental geniuses this was unavoidable. Though apparently happy to shoulder many arranging assignments for the band -- "even the unscheduled work .. is behind schedule" he once dryly noted -- Strayhorn  walked out of a gala party honoring Ellington only, for the work they both did on the troubled 1946 show Beggar's Holiday. The 50's were an especially difficult period for both of them -- Ellington struggling to keep his band going, and Strayhorn writing ever more personal works which went largely unperformed. But they were also rewarding -- the 1956 Rosemary Clooney Columbia LP Blue Rose, and 2 Bethlehem LPs were dominated by his arrangements. But van de Leur oddly neglects to emphasize the friendship forged with the singer, or the even more rewarding one he later formed with Lena Horne -- they considered themselves to be soulmates. The composers worked hand in hand through the even more difficult for jazz sixties, and Strayhorn made significant contributions to Ellington's ambitious and largely unknown suites, especially The Far East Suite (1963-66), which contains his now classic Johnny Hodges feature "Isfahan", which is a model of his melodic grace.

Though apparently shy, Strayhorn lived the jazz artist lifestyle -- cocktails and smokes -- to the end, and his untimely death in 1967, when, one could argue, his star was just beginning to rise, robbed the music world of one of its most gifted, and delicate artists. Ellington probably knew and appreciated his gifts better than anyone else. And many believe that his increasingly feverish activity as his own end neared -- he died in 1974 -- was out of grief for the irreparable loss of Swee' Pea. Devotion like that is almost a thing of the past. Van de Leur's book expands our knowledge of both composers and it will, I think, like them, reverberate for many years to come. It's also a work full of impeccable scholarship, with notes galore, and insights in spades.

Note: Van de Leur has overseen four Strayhorn CDs by The Dutch Jazz Orchestra on Challenge Records.

Michael McDonagh