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On the 50th anniversary of Billy Strayhorn's death "The biggest human being who ever lived"

May 30, 2017 by Beate Sampson

When the jazz musician, composer, arranger, pianist and lyricist Billy Strayhorn died on May 31, 1967, Duke Ellington described him in his funeral speech as the greatest person who had ever lived. He had good reasons for this - after almost 30 years of close cooperation. Because without Strayhorn, things would have turned out differently for Ellington.

For decades, "Take the A Train" was the signature tune of Duke Ellington's orchestra. The jazz classic was written by Billy Strayhorn when he first came to New York in the spring of 1939. Months earlier he had played some of his songs in his hometown of Pittsburgh for the world-famous band leader who was guesting there. Ellington was blown away, recognized the genius of the 23-year-old and invited him to participate in his "organization". This is what Ellington called his orchestra - and "specialists" he called the great musical personalities he had gathered in it. One day Duke Ellington would say about his new young specialist: "He was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head, and his in mine."

An encounter that changed everything

The tip of taking the A Train to get to Ellington's apartment on Sugarhill in Harlem had inspired Billy Strayhorn to write a song whose lively jumps in tone seem to reflect his anticipation of the future collaboration. The young man had dreamed of this opportunity since he saw the film "Murder at the Vanities" in 1934, in which Duke Ellington played his "Ebony Rhapsody". The scene became a real awakening experience for him. "Something inside me changed when I saw Ellington on stage, like I hadn't been living until then," said Billy Strayhorn later.

From classical to jazz

William Thomas Strayhorn was born on November 29, 1915 as the fourth of nine children and soon fell ill with rickets. He was very short, wore glasses, and was extremely inquisitive. Mother and grandmother promoted his musical talent as best they could. The family was poor, and the boy, nicknamed "Sweet Pea", had to earn money for piano lessons and later for his own instrument while taking lessons at Westinghouse High School. There he was given a profound classical education. He wrote a musical and at the age of 19 played Edvard Grieg's piano concerto in A minor in concert. But as an African American, he was denied a career in the classical subject. And so Billy Strayhorn turned to jazz.

"Lush Life"

As a teenager, he wrote pieces that became timeless classics - such as "Lush Life". When he was 17, he could hardly have led the life he describes in this song: at the bar with jazz and too many cocktails with all the others who were disappointed in love. He brought the story into an unusual song form with several independent themes and thus created a solitaire in jazz history that is reinterpreted time and again to this day. Jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Johnny Hartman have found themselves in the character piece, but also pop divas like Donna Summer and Queen Latifah. The song also went wonderfully with the life that Billy Strayhorn led in Harlem as the right and left hand of Duke Ellington. He sang and played "Lush Life" himself at almost every one of the many parties he attended.

Close collaboration with Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington Orchestra | Source: Hans Bernhard Over the years, Billy Strayhorn has contributed more than 200 compositions to the repertoire of the Ellington Orchestra - his own and those that were created in close collaboration with the Duke. Like the hit "Satin Doll," which Ellington later referred to as his retirement plan. He had provided the basic idea, which Strayhorn developed further in the musical diction of the band leader. More typical of his style, however, were his own titles such as "Day Dream", "Johnny come lately", "Rain Check", "Chelsea Bridge" and "Something to live for".

Sensually flattering melodies with unusual leaps in intervals - Dizzy Gillespie recognized him as "Septenkönig" - underlaid Strayhorn with advanced harmony, in which he often conjured up dense, surprising sounds with just a few corner tones. Strayhorn's experience with symphonic and musicals enabled the composer duo to work with large forms. "Jump for Joy" was the name of their first musical together in 1941 - a social satire about racism in the U.S.A. Their suite "Black, Brown and Beige" followed two years later. "Such sweet thunder", "A Drum is a Woman", "Isfahan", "Far East Suite" and "The Concert of Sacred Music" were other joint works.

"A flower is a lovesome thing"

Billy Strayhorn's "floral" compositions are particularly beautiful. As a little boy he loved the flowers in his grandmother's garden, as a composer and lyricist he then set their magic to music in songs such as "Passion Flower", "Lotus Blossom" and "A flower is a lovesome thing". In it he described how roses and daffodils, azaleas and gardenias feel when they drink the pale moonlight or rock themselves in daydreams.

A friendship crumbles

Unfortunately, Duke Ellington, as a music publisher, often failed to name his co-composer and, overall, often failed to draw attention to Strayhorn's large number of joint compositions. This led to conflicts in the complex relationship between the two brilliant musicians, which was actually characterized by great respect and understanding. In the early 1950s, Strayhorn went his own way for some time, but eventually returned. The charismatic stage person Ellington needed him as an authority in the background: his ideas, his hard work and his feedback. Strayhorn's constant impulses helped Ellington keep his big band going for decades. "Strayhorn does a lot of the work, but I get to take the bows," Duke Ellington once said.

Billy Strayhorn was a brave person. He lived his homosexuality openly at a time when gays were treated like criminals and socially ostracized. Men and women - such as the actress and singer Lena Horne - fell in love with the party animal with the engaging personality, although he was neither particularly tall nor beautiful. Billy Strayhorn was seriously committed to everything he believed in: the civil rights movement, for example. He and Martin Luther King became good friends. His musical revue "My People" is dedicated to the activist.

Moving funeral speech

In 1964, Billy Strayhorn was diagnosed with cancer. He worked and composed until shortly before his death. His last piece was supposed to be called "Blue Cloud", but because he was in the hospital he called it "Blood Count" - that's the English term for a blood count. Billy Strayhorn died on May 31, 1967. He was 51 years old. Duke Ellington wrote a moving funeral speech and from then on emphasized the great importance of his closest confidante. In August 1967 he went into the studio with his band and recorded the album "And his mother called him Bill" with selected compositions by Billy Strayhorn. They have all become jazz classics that have been reinterpreted over and over again. Also the piece that Billy Strayhorn always liked to hear Duke Ellington play - "Lotus Blossom".

Special broadcasts on the 50th anniversary of Billy Strayhorn's death on BR-KLASSIK

Wednesday May 31, 2017

7:05 p.m .: Classic Sounds in Jazz
11:05 p.m .: Jazz time