by David Hajdu
Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1996
The young pianist and composer Billy Strayhorn was introduced to Duke Ellington, already a major international star and leader of one of the world's most popular bands, for the first time backstage at an Ellington Orchestra performance at the Stanley Theatre in Pittsburgh in December 1938. After a brief audition, which consisted of Strayhorn playing a few of his own compositions as well as interpretations of Ellington numbers, Duke hired him on the spot - even though there was no specific role for him in the band, which already had a regular pianist. The partnership between these two immensely talented musicians would continue for the next twenty-five years, until Strayhorn's death from cancer and alcoholism at the age of 52, and produce some of the most beautiful, exciting, and important American music of the century.
While Strayhorn, who rarely performed in public and recorded infrequently, has long been respected in jazz circles as an arranger and as the composer of such classic songs as "Take the 'A' Train," "Chelsea Bridge," "Lotus Blossom," and "My Little Brown Book," he has never really received his due as an independent artist. In his tremendously moving book "Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn," David Hajdu goes a long way towards remedying this historical oversight by focusing long overdue attention on this shy, modest man who always shunned the spotlight during his lifetime.
An aspiring classical pianist, Strayhorn's musical interests as a young man ran more towards Stravinsky and Ravel than Louis Armstrong or Fletcher Henderson, however he saw in Ellington an ambitious popular composer who had already experimented with longer works in a semi-classical vein. Equally as important, Duke was the personification of Strayhorn's youthful daydreams of urban sophistication and elegance, a milieu Strayhorn was only able to imagine in songs like "Lush Life," the ultimate paean to cafe society, penned, amazingly, when he was just twenty-one. "Ellington," writes Hajdu, "projected an air of Continental polish that meshed exquisitely with Strayhorn's own infatuation with townhouse culture: jazz and cocktails in the very gay places on the wheel of life. Billy Strayhorn read the New Yorker; Duke Ellington was one, as Strayhorn could become by working with him." And, indeed, once settled in New York, Strayhorn quickly became a stylish fixture in the world of New York nightlife, moving easily between high society parties and Harlem nightclubs like Minton's Playhouse, where he impressed early beboppers like Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach with his piano skills. He also became one of New York's most notorious drinkers, a habit that would only increase as the years passed.
Hajdu suggests that the relationship between Ellington and Strayhorn was as much a familial one as a professional one. Within days of arriving in New York, after staying unhappily at a Harlem YMCA, paid for by Ellington, Strayhorn had moved into Duke's palatial Harlem penthouse along with Duke's sister Ruth, his son Mercer, and Duke's girlfriend. Never in their long association were Strayhorn's precise duties within the Ellington organization clearly defined. "Strayhorn had no job description and no contract," writes Hajdu, "not even a verbal understanding of general responsibilities and terms of compensation. 'I don't have any position for you,' remarked Ellington. 'You'll do whatever you feel like doing.'" Duke never even paid Strayhorn a regular salary, he simply took charge of all Strayhorn's financial affairs, paying for housing, food, wardrobe, and living expenses.
Musically, Ellington granted Strayhorn enormous autonomy. "He left me to my own devices," said Strayhorn. "He never sat down and said, 'Well, this is the way you do this.' Never, never - never." The men's personal and artistic rapport became so strong that Ellington began allowing Strayhorn to finish writing some of his uncompleted songs or compositions that he was struggling with, and most observers have a hard time telling where Duke's work ends and Strayhorn's begins. Strayhorn, though, was seldom given a publishing credit for these co-writing duties, and when his own originals became part of the orchestra's songbook, Ellington often took a co-composer's credit, a practice common among bandleaders in this period.
Although frequently frustrated by the lack of recognition for his contributions to the Ellington Orchestra, an issue that led him to leave Duke briefly in 1955, Strayhorn himself was disinclined to seek too much public acclaim. Openly homosexual, Strayhorn, says Hajdu, was a triple minority: "he was black, he was gay, and he was a minority among gay people in that he was open about his homosexuality in an era when social bias forced many men and women to keep their sexual identities secret." If American society was barely prepared to accord a black man like Ellington, with all his charisma, poise, and flair for self-promotion, the respect he deserved as a world-class creative artist, it was far from ready to show that same respect for a gay black artist like Strayhorn. Had he sought a higher profile, perhaps leading a band of his own, Hajdu suggests, he would have had to keep his sexual orientation closeted. "Forsaking public prominence, Strayhorn sought personal freedom in service to the Duke Ellingtion Orchestra. Now there might not be a Billy Strayhorn Orchestra. But there was a Billy Strayhorn."
Within the Ellington organization, Strayhorn's homosexuality was never an issue. Duke accepted him as he was. Period. This was undoubtedly an important factor in Strayhorn's devotion to Ellington. One friend of Strayhorn's said: "Duke Ellington afforded Billy Strayhorn that acceptance. That was something that cannot be undervalued or underappreciated. To Billy, that was gold." Another friend added: "We all hid, every one of us, except Billy. He wasn't afraid. We were. And you know what the difference between us was? Duke Ellington."