Welcome to From Basin St. to Birdland

by mikeconklinmusic


Billy Strayhorn

In all of jazz history, the compositions of William Thomas Strayhorn, have had the most profound impact on mebar none.

This is a brazen statement considering the myriad of composers and wonderful works since the inception of the music.

This post will provide some insight via audio clips from the beautifully composed documentary Lush Life by Robert Levi, in addition to musical examples and analysis (on the Jazz and Theory page).

I will also be referencing two exquisitely researched and written books on Strayhorn: Something to Live For by Walter van de Leur and Lush Life by David Hajdu.

Let’s get started!

(The music in the background is a tune called Cashmere Cutie by Strayhorn and it is being performed by the The Dutch Jazz Orchestra & Jerry van Rooijen on an album entitled, Portrait of a Silk Thread – Newly Discovered Works of Billy Strayhorn.

The composition that is most often associated with the Duke Ellington Orchestra is Take the A Train. Here’s some background on how their collaboration began…we’ll address the Orchestra’s theme song shortly after:

Strayhorn was determined to be a part of the Ellington organization: Ellington initially thought Billy would be a lyricist, but upon hearing Strayhorn play a composition that he composed around the age of 16, Ellington knew he would be of greater use:

FYI: The song that Strayhorn was referring to  (that he “didn’t finish”) was Take the A Train – he composed one of the most famous compositions in jazz history based on the directions to Duke Ellington’s residence!  I digress…

The song that astonished Ellington, Lush Life, thought to be autobiographical and references Strayhorn’s homosexuality is below with Billy accompanying himself as he sings:

Here’s some background from the Billy Strayhorn website prior to embarking on Take the A train:

If you are familiar with the jazz composition, “Take the A Train,” then you know something about not only Duke Ellington, but also Billy “Sweet Pea” Strayhorn, its composer. Strayhorn joined Ellington’s band in 1939, at the age of twenty-two. Ellington liked what he saw in Billy and took this shy, talented pianist under his wings. Neither one was sure what Strayhorn’s function in the band would be, but their musical talents had attracted each other. By the end of the year Strayhorn had become essential to the Duke Ellington Band; arranging, composing, sitting-in at the piano. Billy made a rapid and almost complete assimilation of Ellington’s style and technique. It was difficult to discern where one’s style ended and the other’s began. The results of the Ellington-Strayhorn collaboration brought much joy to the jazz world.

Take a listen and dig it!