When reflecting in LGBT+ history month and American black history month, we should remember the life and work of Billy Strayhorn, Jazz’s first openly gay musician and perhaps one of America’s greatest ever composers, influencing countless artists to this day.
Strayhorn was born in 1915 and raised partly by his grandparents to avoid a drunk abusive father. His grandmother introduced him to piano, initially learning Hymns. He originally wanted to become a classical pianist, but unfortunately this career path was essentially closed to Black musicians in that period. He soon began writing and playing Jazz and in 1938 met famous band leader, Duke Ellington. The two would become musical partners working, arranging and writing together until Strayhorn’s death in the 1960s.
Strayhorn’s beliefs led him to participate in the civil rights movement and he was a committed friend of Martin Luther King, co-writing works with Ellington in support of King and the civil rights movement.
When listening to Stan Getz’s Blank on blank interview, it struck me that when reflecting on his stint in Woody Herman’s big band, Getz noted how “there were no f**s in that band, let’s face it: Jazz is a man’s game.”
This awful homophobic and sexist sentiment is representative of the male dominated intensely competitive “machismo” nature of Jazz in the 30s, 40s and 50s, as well as the archaic attitude about all gay men being effeminate. This sentiment however, seems highly at odds with the respect Getz had for Strayhorn. Getz often cited him as one of “America’s great composers” and ironically during that same interview, Getz’s version of Strayhorn’s tune ‘Lush Life’ plays in the background. Strayhorn was the first openly gay jazz musician and was unafraid of public commentary on his identity, never denying his sexuality.
The fact that Strayhorn wrote ‘Lush Life’, a very harmonically complex and mature tune when he was only 16 years old, speaks to his maturity and is perhaps autobiographical. The lyrics are sophisticated and refined but also manage to convey such raw and sincere feelings of melancholy and despair with the tune never quite resolving itself. The vocal version by Johnny Hartman and the John Coltrane quartet stands out to me as one of the most gloomy but powerful recordings in all of music.
Strayhorn’s compositions were not limited to melancholy ballads, however. Despite him starting to compose in the 1930s, Strayhorn continued to create groundbreaking and complex pieces throughout his career, but also had the ability to create simple and catchy tunes like ‘Take the A Train’.
According to his biographer, David Hadju, many of his friends and musical collaborators sought to keep him out of the wider spotlight in order to shelter him from the abuse he would receive due to his sexuality, Strayhorn was largely ok with being a more “behind the scenes” figure. However, this unfortunately resulted in many of his works being disassociated with him.
Billy Strayhorn ultimately stands out as a testament to strength and courage, being both musically bold and innovative, but also in having the courage to be himself and never hiding his true identity in spite of the difficulties and barriers that he had to face as a result.
If you are interested in Strayhorn’s music, here are some tunes written by Strayhorn to check out:
- ‘Take the A Train’ – One of the Duke Ellington band’s most famous signature tunes, as Jazz folklore would have it, Strayhorn wrote this tune based on the directions Ellington gave him to his house to show his song writing capabilities.
- ‘Lush Life’ – As mentioned above, a sad but powerful ballad, Johnny Hartman’s and Nat King Cole’s voices really convey moving emotions in their respective renditions.
- ‘Isfahan & The Far East Suite’ – Part of Strayhorn and Ellington’s album The Far East Suite recorded using sounds and musical ideas they witnessed when on a US state department funded tour of Asia, Isfahan’s melody is soft but picturesque.
- ‘Chelsea Bridge’- Inspired by a painting of Battersea Bridge, this tune evokes light shimmering off the water below, Joe Henderson’s version of Chelsea Bridge is a must listen.
- ‘Lotus Blossom’ & ‘Blood Count’ – During his last days in hospital, Strayhorn was still writing music, his final tune ‘Blood Count’, was written in hospital as his blood was being taken during his cancer treatment shortly before his death. That same year Ellington recorded an album in his memory; (His Mother called him Bill,) it features Duke’s solo piano rendition of Strayhorn’s ‘Lotus Blossom’ as the rest of the band were packing their instruments after the recording session, making it feel as if Duke does not want the music to finish or to say goodbye to his long-time friend and musical accomplice.
Image “Billy ‘Sweet Pea’ Strayhorn” by William Paul Gottlieb, 28 Jan 1917 – 23 Apr 2006 is marked with CC0 1.0.