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Night Lights Classic Jazz

The Billy Strayhorn Songbook

Billy Strayhorn was Duke Ellington’s composing/arranging partner for 27 years, writing “Take the A Train,” “Lush Life,” and many other eventual jazz standards.

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  • Ellington and Strayhorn

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    Photo: CD cover art

    Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn: their creative partnership was complex and dynamic.

  • Johnny Hodges With Billy Strayhorn

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    Photo: LP cover art

    Strayhorn also made numerous records with fellow Ellingtonians away from the band itself.

  • Billy Strayhorn The Peaceful Side

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    Photo: LP cover art

    Strayhorn's dates under his own name were infrequent.

  • Billy Strayhorn 1

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    Photo: William Gottlieb/Library of Congress

    Strayhorn at work.

  • And His Mother Called Him Bill

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    Photo: LP cover art

    Ellington's 1968 memorial album ...AND HIS MOTHER CALLED HIM BILL featured many Strayhorn compositions, including one of his last, "Blood Count."

Billy Strayhorn spent much of his professional life in the shadow of his boss and writing partner Duke Ellington. While historians continue to debate the complexities of that relationship, there’s no doubt that Strayhorn’s work forms a significant part of the Ellington canon–and that it stands alone in its own right and style. “All of his tunes,” Ellington trombonist Lawrence Brown said, “have a deep feeling behind them. You hear him in his music, which to me is the mark of a real musician.”

Strayhorn was born in Dayton, Ohio on November 29, 1915 and grew up in Pittsburgh; he demonstrated his considerable music talent early on and was composing prolifically by his teens. Through a friend of a friend he was introduced to Duke Ellington in late 1938, and Ellington was so impressed with the young songwriter’s talent that he literally took him in, eventually putting him up in his New York City apartment.

A Separate Musical Entity

For the next 27 years Strayhorn would be a crucial partner in Ellington’s music-writing efforts, composing “Take the A Train,” “Chelsea Bridge,” “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” “Raincheck,” “Lotus Blossom,” “Day Dream” and many more pieces. He also collaborated with Ellington on some of his important extended works such as Such Sweet Thunder, A Drum Is a Woman, and The Far East Suite. As Strayhorn scholar Walter van de Leur has noted, Strayhorn

created a separate musical entity within the realm of Ellingtonia, employing an original and sophisticated musical vocabulary that drew from a different harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic source….His sound is built on formal balance, an advanced harmonic language, and an economic use of musical material.

There’s a sort of yearning spirit that informs all of Strayhorn’s work–a lyricism that draws on loneliness, a love for life, and a sense of beauty lingering around the edges of the world. After he passed away in 1967, Ellington said of him, “Because he had a rare sensitivity and applied himself to his gifts, Billy Strayhorn successfully married melody, words and harmony, equating the fitting with happiness.”

Strayhorn On the Show

We’ll hear interpretations of Strayhorn’s music by:

  • Duke Ellington
  • Ellingtonians such as Ben Webster, Ray Nance, and Johnny Hodges
  • John Coltrane
  • The Dutch Jazz Orchestra
  • Strayhorn himself

Strayhorn By the Book

Duke Ellington on the death of Billy Strayhorn (particularly poignant from 2:15 on, and includes footage from Strayhorn’s memorial service):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_b6BFrgTc9E

Watch Ellington in 1965 introducing Strayhorn as he comes out to take the piano chair on “Take the A Train”:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tjc7mu9leYw

Music Heard On This Episode

A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing
Billy Strayhorn — Piano Passion (Storyville, 1961)
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A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing
Billy Strayhorn — Piano Passion (Storyville, 1961)
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Passion Flower
Duke Ellington — The Collection: 1946-47 Recordings (Hindsight, 1946)
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Johnny Come Lately
Duke Ellington — Never No Lament (RCA Bluebird, 1942)
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Chelsea Bridge
Ben Webster — Music for Loving (Verve, 1954)
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Your Love Has Faded
Johnny Hodges — With Billy Strayhorn and the Orchestra (Polygram, 1961)
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Lush Life
Billy Strayhorn — Lush Life (Red Baron, 1964)
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UMMG (midpoint music bed)
Billy Strayhorn — Lush Life (Red Baron, 1964)
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My Little Brown Book
John Coltrane/Duke Ellington — Duke Ellington and John Coltrane (Impulse, 1962)
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Tonk
Dutch Jazz Orchestra — Portrait of a Silk Thread (Challenge, 1995)
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Wounded Love
Dutch Jazz Orchestra — Portrait of a Silk Thread (Challenge, 1995)
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Blood Count
Duke Ellington — And His Mother Called Him Bill (RCA Bluebird, 1967)
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Snibor
Duke Ellington — And His Mother Called Him Bill (RCA Bluebird, 1967)
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Take the A Train
Ray Nance — Body and Soul (Mighty Quinn, 1969)
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David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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