London Jazz Festival Preview (9) Strayhorn the Songwriter

London Jazz Festival Preview
(‘Strayhorn the Songwriter’, QUEEN ELIZABETH HALL (NB CHANGE) on Saturday November 20th, by Alex Webb)

‘The kind of things that provide inspiration are always those that nobody – by which I mean the public – ever considers. The public always considers that people who are inspired go off in a fine frenzy, tear their hair and all that business, and then come up with the Fifth Symphony. Actually inspiration comes from the simplest kind of thing, like watching a bird fly.’– Billy Strayhorn

Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington’s co-composer and arranger from 1939 to his death in 1967, the composer of “Lush Life” – at the age of only 18- and “Take the A Train,” was charming, gifted, and an enigma.

David Hajdu’s captivating biography of Strayhorn sent me back to the records, and the more I listened the more intrigued I became. I suggested to bandleader, arranger and saxophonist Frank Griffith – another Strayhorn fan – that it would be worth doing something public to celebrate Strayhorn. It was one of those naïve ideas your throw out over a pint, and it dawns on you that you’ve committed yourself to quite a major enterprise.

There were loads of Strayhorn songs lying about, unheard – things he’d written for Lena Horne, Rosemary Clooney, lesser-known Ellington things too. Then there were the songs he might have written, or probably did write, but didn’t get the writers’ credit for. And then – and this particularly interested me – there were the great instrumentals like Rain Check and Johnny Come Lately which sounded like they were begging for lyrics, or perhaps had once had lyrics and lost them along the way.

We needed a couple of strong singers, and were able to draft in China Moses, Dee Dee Bridgewater’s daughter, from Paris, and Alexander Stewart. Frank got to work organising new arrangements from some of the great talents in his Nonet – Henry Lowther, Adrian Fry, Robbie Robson, as well as Parisian pianist Franck Amsallem. I got to work writing a spoken narrative which would link all this music together and remind people of the story of this quietly extraordinary man. Strayhorn was a string of paradoxes, a Shakespeare-loving sophisticate born poor, an ‘out’ gay in a macho world, a politically conscious black man who rejected racial classification.

Washington-born Sirena Riley, herself a notable jazz vocalist, will be narrating and the Frank Griffith Nonet performing, along with China Moses and Alexander Stewart. And yes, we’ll be doing Take The A Train, Lush Life and Satin Doll … and a lot of equally wonderful, less familiar things besides.

Billy Strayhorn by Herman Leonard
(c) Herman Leonard Photography LLC

Jazz composers have that way of leaving deep inspiration behind them, without most people ever being aware of who they are. And that inspiration is like a relay baton – you want to hand it on to your fellow musicians, your listeners. A tune like “Take The A Train” has been passed on around the world many times, and won’t ever stop.

‘I started out studying the three ‘B’s – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Then one day I heard Ellington!’ said Billy Strayhorn. He couldn’t have imagined that for some of us, he’s now also one of the ‘B’s.

Categories: miscellaneous

2 replies »

Leave a Reply