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Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life

As famous as Duke Ellington is (and apparently he isn't to all. In front of the Ellington exhibit at the Smithsonian some years ago, a small child asked who he was. Her mother muttered, "I don't know, some kind of royalty," and hustled her off to a toy exhibit down the hall.), so largely unknown is Billy Strayhorn. Yet an argument can be made that Strayhorn (or as he was known to friends and family, Swee' Pea, Strays, Billums,  or as Ellington famously titled his brilliant tribute, And His Mother Called Him Bill) was certainly the equal and perhaps even the greater talent in a musical partnership that spanned over three decades and profoundly shaped not only American jazz, but American music overall.

Strayhorn's rise to greatness wasn't inevitable. Born so ill his parents at first did not even name him, and raised in poverty with an abusive father, he nevertheless survived and was almost immediately drawn to music. His dream of a classical career was impossible in those segregated times and he moved then toward jazz. A backstage meeting set up through a friend so impressed Ellington that he offered Strayhorn a job - even though he didn't really have a specific one in mind - and the two never worked with anything more than a handshake and an understanding (which would unravel to some degree in later years as Strayhorn felt recognition for his work...and his copyrights...were sorely lacking).

Strayhorn effortlessly fit into his role as arranger for Duke's orchestra and the ASCAP radio ban opened the door to a flood of his compositions, including "Take the A Train," which became the band's theme song. From from his high school days, when he wrote the classic "Lush Life," to his final composition, "Blood Count," Strayhorn created a brilliant body of work, timeless in beauty, sophistication, and appeal. Among his many other classics are "Chelsea Bridge," Lotus Blossom," "Isfahan," and "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing."

A rare performance clip of Strayhorn with the Ellington Orchestra playing his classic, Take the A Train: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WtYvGJaIRn0

November 29th is Strayhorn's centennial birthday and to mark the occasion Billy Strayhorn Songs, Inc. , a family-run corporation set up handle estate business and bring greater recognition to his work, published Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life. As the title suggests, the emphasis is on illustrated. This lavish coffee-table book is filled with drawings, paintings, sheet music covers, posters, his own handwritten scores (!), and especially photos. And Strayhorn was an immensely photogenic subject. As Mercedes Ellington, Duke's granddaughter comments in the book, "...when you look at pictures of Billy, it's as if he knew that somebody was taking photos of him, and he was never caught unaware," nor, one might add, poorly dressed or anything less than elegant regardless of the setting.

In its two major sections, "Musical  Orbits," and "Moral Freedoms," Strayhorn tells the story of both his music, and his intellectual and political interests, including his extensive involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and his life as an openly gay man well before the gay rights movement.

Now when it comes to the first, David Hajdu's groundbreaking and brilliant 1996 biography, Lush Life, remains the gold standard - with its vast number of interviews, depth of information and perspective, and style nearly as elegant as its subject. More importantly, Lush Life provided the first clear and powerful evidence of the range and depth of Strayhorn's contribution to what had previously largely been regarded as Ellington's work (thanks in part to many pieces being credited solely to Ellington or as collaborations with him even if they were the work of Strayhorn).

For an understanding of his music, Walter Van de Leur's Something to Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn is also unsurpassed. Van de Leur not only provided solid scholarship about Strayhorn's known pieces, but with the treasure trove of personal documents that went to the family after Strayhorn's death, he was able to document and analyze a surprising number of new compositions, which have since been presented in recordings with the Dutch Jazz Orchestra.

Thankfully this book relies heavily on both those works, as well as material Robert Levi gathered for his PBS/Independent Lens documentary, Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life, including interviews that had not made the final cut of the film.

While Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life is not the equal of the aforementioned projects and at times, as a family-sponsored effort, takes on a rather hagiographic tone, it is nevertheless a beautiful tome with the kind of visual elegance that parallels Strayhorn's own. For the more casual reader or the jazz fan on your Christmas list, it's a great place to start to appreciate an artist whose work is of such genius that it will still be celebrated when his bicentennial rolls around.

For more about Strayhorn, see the official website, which includes music, videos, centennial events, and more: http://www.billystrayhorn.com/

-- Chris Heim
KMUW FM89.1 Global Village, Night Train, Crossroads
Night Train, Mon.-Thurs. 10 p.m. , celebrates Strayhorn's centennial throughout November.