Thursday, July 31, 2008

Billy Strayhorn: In the Mantle of Duke Ellington


Duke Ellington's mystique starts with his sound. The mood is indigo indeed, as even the up tempo numbers have a dark overlay, and even bright spikes of brass sound a little like screaming. Then, there's Ellington's regal elegance in dress, but also in his courtly enunciation, and elevated diction -- "Beyond category." He kept himself and his band above the indignities of segregation by such means as buying a private rail car to avoid having to sleep in segregated hotels. While other bands performed songs and hits, Ellington also wrote film music, music suites, sacred concerts, instrumental songs in the form of Shakespearean sonnets, and adaptations of symphonic music. The fact that Ellington did all that exerts gravity that pulls even his pop songs out of the orbit of lightweight tunes by his peers. He added to the mystique with his memoir MUSIC IS MY MISTRESS, so clouded with impressions and tangents and idiosyncracies that I couldn't make sense of it. That's one reason I sought out this biography of Billy Strayhorn, though it really doesn't lift the cloud of mystery surrounding Ellington. It just shows how much Strayhorn wrapped himself in it.

For Strayhorn, the Ellington mantle was a cover that protected him from the vicissitudes of a career in music, and from the society's disapproval of gay men; but if Ellington offered paternal protection, he also kept Strayhorn in line. Son Mercer Ellington reflects that his father's men were all like sons to him, and, in the old aristocratic manner, he let his sons fight for position beneath him, though Mercer also at one point says that Duke "pampered" Billy more like a daughter.

The heart of the book is the chapter "So This is Love," about Billy Strayhorn's arrival in New York City as Ellington's newly hired arranger. Before then, we've read about Strayhorn's life in Pittsburgh, despised by his own father for being "mama's boy," growing to be composer and lyricist of school shows, accomplished pianist, student of classical music. We've studied the richness in his music and lyric "Lush Life," and we've laughed at the pretensions of the eighteen year old lyricist's "dreaming of a week in Paris, [when he] rarely walked past Frick Park" -- and we've combed it for signs that he intended the double meaning in the first two lines, "I used to visit all the very gay places / Those come what may places." Author David Hajdu concludes that Strayhorn had not lived any such "lush life" to that point, in the restricted social and musical milieu of Pittsburgh.

Now, in New York, Billy Strayhorn is living two dreams -- his, and Ellington's, too. Already knowledgeable on high culture, on modern composers, and music theory, Strayhorn studies a book on etiquette and buys fancy socks (p. 78). He moves in with a lover. And, musically, he provides the sophistication and polish that Ellington wanted and didn't have the patience or time to complete. Some of Ellington's aura, says one intimate, "was hocus-pocus -- grand gestures and particular five-dollar phrases that he'd pronounce with dramatic emphasis. Meanwhile, he never really read anything except the Bible . . . and he knew far less about the fine arts, including other composers, than he like to let on" (Herb Jeffries in Hajdu, p. 78).

So Duke, taking care of business, needed Strayhorn to finish himself. There's some hint here that Ellington was temperamentally averse to finishing anything at all, to the point of avoiding divorce (he just moved in with #2) and avoiding the unpleasantness of firing a musician (hiring a replacement and leaving it to the guys to figure it out).

The major theme of Hajdu's book, perhaps over-emphasized, is the idea that Ellington got all the recognition for Strayhorn's work. Exhibit "A" is Ellington's signature song, "Take the 'A' Train" clearly labeled as Strayhorn's, but always thought of as Duke's. It was one of several songs that Strayhorn and Mercer Ellington composed overnight when Ellington and other members of the composer's union ASCAP had a dispute with the Broadcasting industry. To go on the air, the band needed a new repertoire of songs by non-union composers Strayhorn and Mercer Ellington.

Hajdu makes a big deal of showing how Duke gets the applause and shares the composing credits for works that Strayhorn did alone. The extreme example is a Broadway show (BEGGAR'S HOLIDAY -- I've never heard of it) for which Strayhorn composed songs, played in rehearsal, and even composed music for act two during act one of a preview performance (p. 103). Ellington got sole credit for composing, Strayhorn for "musical arrangements," and Ellington got critical acclaim (though the show failed). For Strayhorn, that was some kind of breaking point, and he sulks away from Ellington for some time.

While Hajdu implies that Strayhorn had made a Faustian bargain, gaining the freedom to indulge his taste for martinis and to live "out of the closet" in return for his soul, it's hard to see it that way, because Ellington seems to be no Mephistophiles. At worst, Ellington seemed to be a bit preoccupied, maybe presuming that everyone had the same feeling of team spirit that he had.

The best evidence for that is how the big turnaround in their relationship happened at the exact moment that Duke was strongest. Duke's career was on the skids when be-bop and small ensembles and rock and roll killed off the big bands. He kept his alive, paying his men their salaries from the royalties for his pop songs (p. 141). Then came Duke's big break, a performance at Newport Jazz Festival in 1956. Hajdu says it was a "referendum" on Duke's whole career. His showmanship, pumping his fist to keep tenor sax man Paul Gonsalves improvising chorus after chorus of one song, brought the live audience to rush the stage, and brought world-wide acclaim for the live recording. Suddenly Duke's face was on magazine covers, and his career was reborn, greater than ever.

In his great success, Ellington reaches out to Strayhorn. Ellington promises, from now on, "whatever you want" (p. 152). They do the high-falutin' projects such as the Shakespearean program and Tchaikovsky arrangements that emphasize Strayhorn's particular talents. Ellington makes sure to emphasize Strayhorn's role, on stage, in credits, in interviews.

By the time of Strayhorn's early death from stomach cancer, Ellington is a gracious, loving, openly appreciative leader.

Go to Youtube and look for Ellington Strayhorn for several videos of Duke paying tribute to Strayhorn, playing Strayhorn's music, and, in one, featuring Strayhorn as soloist with the band.

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