Recording Date: Mar 21, 1939 - Apr 6, 1953
All Music Guide
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For nearly three decades Billy Strayhorn worked in close collaboration with Duke Ellington, serving as second pianist, sole arranger of non-Ellington material, co-arranger and co-composer of in-house material and composer of his own original works, which the Ellington band performed. Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington collaborated on more than 200 compositions in the Ellington band's repertory. During these years the Ellington-Strayhorn axis would develop such a closeness that it is frequently impossible to distinguish where the work of one begins and the other one ends.
William Thomas Strayhorn was born in the early hours of November 19, 1915 in Dayton, Ohio, the fourth child of Lillian Strayhorn, nee Young, and James Nathaniel Strayhorn. Two of Strayhorn's older children died at a very young age, and their fourth child was also born sickly. For this reason his parents decided not to name him and on his birth certificate he was referred to as Baby Boy Strayhorn. By the age of 10 his parents had amended his birth certificate, naming him William Thomas Strayhorn. By that time young Billy had lived in Dayton, Ohio, Montclair, New Jersey, Hillsborough, North Carolina and in Braddock and Rankin, suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1926 the Strayhorns settled in the Homewood district of Pittsburgh. The single-family house there would be the first place Bill would know as a permanent home.
Billy's interest in music was aroused during his school holiday stays with his grandparents in Hilisborough, North Carolina, His grandmother played piano and Billy began to experiment at the keyboard. There was no piano in the Homewood house, the Strayhorn family budget could ill afford such a luxury. At the age of eleven Bill bought himself a second hand piano, with the money he had made selling newspapers. He now took piano lessons from Charlotte Catlin, a black teacher who was associated with Volkwein's music store, that was the hub of musical activity in Pittsburgh. Strayhorn subsequently attended Westinghouse High, where he flourished under the tutelage of Carl McVicker and Jane Patton Alexander. He eventually became first pianist of the school's forty-nine piece Senior Orchestra and received an extensive training in music, primarily in the classical field at Westinghouse High. Strayhorn also began to compose during his high school years, his "Concert for Piano and Percussion" was performed by the high school orchestra in 1934.
At high school Billy had befriended fellow student Mickey Scrima, the later drummer with Harry James' band. Scrima and another friend guitarist/arranger Bill Esch stimulated Strayhom's developing interest in jazz. In 1937 Strayhorn formed a jazz trio, along the lines of the Benny Goodman Trio, with a similar clarinet, piano and drums line-up, jerry Eisner played clarinet and Calvin Dort was the drummer. In 1938 the Strayhorn group expanded to a quintet with bassist Bob Yagella and vibraphonist Buzzy Mayer. After a stint as a bar pianist, Strayhorn now was looking for a bigger musical challenge, During all his musical activities, he had worked to gain a reputation as an arranger, contributing arrangements to drummer Bill Ludwig's local rehearsal band.
In December 1938, Duke Ellington and his Orchestra played a week long engagement at Pittsburgh's Stanley Theatre. During this engagement Strayhorn got a chance to audition in Ellington's dressing room. The young pianist impressed the Duke, who assigned him to write a lyric to an instrumental piece and to harmonize a vocal feature for Ivie Anderson, a slow tempo version of Two Sleepy People". The Ellington band performed Strayhorn's arrangement on the last night of their Stanley Theatre engagement.
On January 23,1939, Billy Strayhorn became a member of the Duke Ellington organisation. The Ellington band already had a pianist, so Duke hired Strayhorn with no job description, no contract and not even a verbal understanding of general responsibilities and terms of compensation. Thus began a musical collaboration that proved to be unique in the history of music.
The first Billy Strayhorn composition the Ellington band recorded was "(I Want) Something To Live For", a beautiful ballad Strayhorn had written in his Pittsburgh days, and which he had performed for the Duke in that audition at the Stanley Theatre. The singer on this March 21,1939 recording date was Jean Eldridge, a fine talent destined for a great career in show business, who somehow disappeared after a short stay with the Ellington band. Trumpeter Wallace Jones and Strayhorn are also heard on this fine side.
The arrival of Billy Strayhorn, soon folbwed by the entry of bassist Jimmie Blanton and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster into the Ellington ranks provided Ellington with an extraordinary infusion of fresh ideas and new orchestral possibilities, which Duke was quick to explore and exploit.
It was especially with Billy Strayhorn that Ellington felt he had acquired a creative associate both as a composer and arranger whose musical ideas were totally in accord with his own conception.
During the next three-years the Ellington band enjoyed their greatest period in which it created a body of work that has rarely been equalled let alone surpassed in the history of jazz. By October 1939, bassist Jimmie Blanton had joined the Ellington band and on October 19, 1939 the band recorded "Grievin'", a composition by Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington, with solos by Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart and Lawrence Brown.
While the Ellington band toured Europe during the spring of 1939, Strayhorn stayed behind in New York to work on a new compositions and arrangements and to study Ellington's own scores for an essential understanding of his technique. Among the tunes Strayhorn composed during this period was "Day Dream", a lushly evocative ballad. In November 1940, while in Chicago, Strayhorn supervised and played piano on the recording of "Day Dream" by a Johnny Hodges small group. "Day Dream" became one of the standard pieces for Hodges' sensuous alto sax.
When a legal scuffle between the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and the radio industry forced all ASCAP music off the air in 1941, Duke commissioned Strayhorn and his son Mercer to compose a new library for the band. The immediate result was Strayhorn's hard swinging "Take The "A" Train" which became the signature tune of the Ellington band, as well as its biggest commercial success up to then. Strayhorn's "After All" was another early contribution to the Ellington library, a mood piece with solos by Lawrence Brown and Johnny Hodges. "Clementine", written and arranged by Strayhorn, is a delightful bounce with solos by Duke, Johnny Hodges, Ray Nance and Rex Stewart.
"Passion Flower" was another creative triumph for Strayhorn. This gorgeous mood piece was specially designed to bring out the sensuous quality of Johnny Hodges' alto sax. The song was premiered on record on July 4, 1941 by a Johnny Hodges small group, and will forever be associated with the great alto player.
The unusual "Raincheck" was another masterpiece Strayhorn wrote for the Ellington band. Juan Tizol states the theme on this fine up-tempo score, followed by solos from Ben Webster, Ray Nance and Strayhorn himself. "Chelsea Bridge", from the same December 2, 1941 recording date, depicts Strayhorn's musical personality and serious orientation. This hauntingly, beautiful impressionistic miniature opens with Strayhorn's Debussyesque piano followed by Ben Webster, Strayhorn again and Juan Tizol.
By 1945 the line-up of the Ellington band had changed dramatically. A virtually new trumpet section was now in place, while stalwarts like Barney Bigard, Ben Webster and Jimmie Blanton had been replaced by Jimmy Hamilton, Al Sears and Junior Raglin respectively. "Kissing Bug" was an assignment for the charming and confident voice of young Joya Sherrill with further solos by Al Sears and Jimmy Hamilton. "Midriff1 is a relaxed swinging mid-tempo piece which finds trombone soloist Lawrence Brown as well as the band in splendid form. "A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing" recorded by a Johnny Hodges small band in late 1947 is another Strayhorn composition in the same voice as "Chelsea Bridge", "Passion Flower" and "After All". This tune was conceived for Hodges' lush alto sax who recites the tune beautifully.
Strayhorn's "Flippant Flurry" from a 1947 live recording by the Ellington band is a feature for the modern clarinet of Jimmy Hamilton with a bass break by the great Oscar Pettiford who had strengthened the Ellington band in 1945. "Lotus Blossom" is another great performance by Johnny Hodges of a Strayhorn ballad, recorded for the Mercer label by a Johnny Hodges small group in late 1947. Strayhorn's piano accompaniment on this track is particularly striking.
"Lush life", is one of the greatest popular songs of the 20th century. Billy Strayhorn wrote the song as early as 1933, a masterpiece of fatalist sophistication, on which Strayhorn perhaps evoked his homosexual experience. The lyrics of the song, which Strayhorn originally named "Life Is Lonely", belie the young age of its author. Nat King Cole was the first performer to commercially record "Lush life" in March 1949. Accompanied by strings, pizzicato harp, woodwinds, French Horns and Latin counter rhythms, under the baton of Pete Rugolo, Cole's version is totally different from the many versions of "Lush Life" that followed in its wake that usually concentrate on the intimacy of the song. For many years Strayhorn had kept "Lush Life" as a private song, a tune that was not to be recorded , and that Strayhorn only performed at parties, among friends. Cole's version ended this privacy, and gave the song to the world, but the Ellington band never recorded it.
"Snibor" was one of Strayhorn's most striking contemporary compositions, which the Ellington band recorded on September I, 1949, it features Ray Nance in an extended lyrical trumpet solo.
"Johnny Come Lately", a jump number with its angular and harmonically modern structure, was first recorded by the Ellington band in June 1942. On this Proper Introduction to Billy Strayhorn we include a February 1952 version of the song by Louie Bellson's Just Jazz All Stars, an unusual combination of seven Ellingtonians, a bebop tenor and a West Coaster. Bellson was Ellington's drummer at the time of this recording, which demonstrates how well the tune adapted itself to the bop idiom. It features solos by Clark Terry and Wardell Gray, topped off by eight delightful bars from Harry Carney.
Instead of the classic version of "Take The "A" Train" from 1941, we include a lengthy album version by the Ellington band from June 1952, which blends elements of the classic version with new ideas. Vocalist Betty Roche demonstrates her bebop chops while tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves gets the opportunity to stretch out.
The original version of Ellington and Strayhorn's greatest hit "Satin Doll" from April 1953 serves as a fitting finale to this Proper Introduction to Billy Strayhorn one of the most accomplished composers/arrangers of the 20th century.
- Joop Visser