Monday, May 11, 2009

A Tribute to Billy Strayhorn

Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington’s long-time arranger and collaborator, lived in the shadow of the bandleader, but contributed many compositions that became signature songs for Ellington. Billy Strayhorn grew up in a hardscrabble section of Pittsburgh. At a very early age, he showed an affinity for music – though not able to read yet, he learned the tunes to all the records a neighbor owned and could find any song when someone requested it. Using money from working at a newsstand and doing deliveries for a pharmacy, Strayhorn purchased a piano and started taking music lessons. Before he graduated from high school Strayhorn had composed pieces that his music teachers mistakenly thought had been written by classical composers.

After high school he began playing with musicians at clubs and at parties expanding his repertoire to include jazz numbers. Strayhorn played for Ellington when the bandleader came to Pittsburgh in 1938. Ellington was so impressed that he offered Strayhorn a position: “I would like to have you in my organization.” Their artistic collaboration started soon after that. In 1939 Strayhorn moved to New York to work for Ellington. The song that he composed as a gift for the bandleader and their inaugural collaboration used the directions for getting to Ellington’s apartment as the lyrics. Strayhorn had so completely replicated the Ellington style that many in the orchestra thought that Ellington wrote it and “Take the A Train” became the signature song for the bandleader.

In New York, Strayhorn found a cosmopolitan world that suited his wide-ranging interest in music , and the other arts. Before the end of the first year Strayhorn moved in with Aaron Bridgers, a fellow musician, living out of the closet during a homophobic time. As a minority within another minority he later forged a friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr. whom he’d met through his circle of friends. Though his contributions to Ellington’s catalog, and to other projects with the bandleader cannot be overstated, compensation and credit did not always follow.

The Art, Music and Recreation Center will present the display “A Tribute to Billy Strayhorn” through June 19, 2009 on the 4th floor of the Main Library.

This display has been mounted in conjunction with “The Billy Strayhorn Session, In Tribute to Musical Genius and Political Change" a lecture and performance held on Saturday, May 16, 2009 in the Koret Auditorium. This program is both a concert performed by the 19-piece Junius Courtney Big Band and a staged dramatic reading featuring Denise Perrier. “The Billy Strayhorn Session,” presented by the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center and the African American Center of the San Francisco Public Library, is presented in a partnership with The Museum of the African Diaspora who are also are hosting the exhibit "Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African-American Portraits” through June 14.

All events at the San Francisco Public Library are free. “The Billy Strayhorn Session” is supported by the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library.

Related books:

Lush Life: A Biography Of Billy Strayhorn by David Hajdu. (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1996).

Something To Live For: The Music Of Billy Strayhorn by Walter van de Leur. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

Related scores:

Lush Life: The Billy Strayhorn Songbook. (Amsco Publications, 1997).

Billy Strayhorn: An American Master / piano, vocal, guitar. (Cherry Lane, 2001).

Take The "A" Train: 1941 / transcribed by Brent Wallarab, edited by Gunther Schuller. (Smithsonian Institution, 1993).

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