Jazz at 100 Hour 31: My Brainwaves in His Head, and His in Mine – Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn (1941 – 1967)

Duke Ellington – Billy Strayhorn

Duke Ellington was the well-spring that flowed through many decades of jazz. In 1938, Ellington found his soul-mate in composer/arranger Billy Strayhorn. By the early 1940s, Strayhorn combined with bassist Jimmy Blanton and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster to reinvigorate both Ellington and his band. In the next hour, we will feature the compositions and arrangements of Ellington’s most important collaborator, Billy Strayhorn, from Take the A Train and Chelsea Bridge through Satin Doll and Lush Life to his dying lament – Blood Count – from 1967.

“Ellington’s devoted partner … was the ingeniously protean yet personally reserved Billy Strayhorn (1915 – 1967), a composer in his own right as well as Ellington’s co-composer, rehearsal pianist, deputy conductor and occasional lyricist. A diminutive, introverted, owlish-looking intellectual who declined the limelight, Strayhorn seemed to be Ellington’s polar opposite at first glance. Yet he was Ellington’s closest associate for twenty-eight years, the one man to whom any musical task could be reliably delegated” – Gary Giddens & Scott DeVeaux

Strayhorn Arrives.
“Strayhorn’s first tune with Ellington was based on the directions Ellington gave him to his apartment: When you get to Manhattan, take the A train (rather than the D train, which headed off to the Bronx) to reach Harlem. ‘Take the A Train’ relied heavily on swing conventions, but its harmonic ingenuity and the sureness of its orchestral textures provided the band with a new classic.” – Gary Giddens & Scott DeVeaux

Take The “A” Train. Duke Ellington Orchestra
(Wallace Jones-tp, Ray Nance-tp, Rex Stewart-tp, Sam Nanton-tb, Lawrence Brown-tb, Juan Tizol-tb, Barney Bigard-cl, Johnny Hodges-as, Harry Carney-bs, Otto Hardwick-ts, Ben Webster-ts, Billy Strayhorn-p, Fred Guy-g, Jimmy Blanton-b, Sonny Greer-d). 2/15/1941.
Chelsea Bridge. Duke Ellington Orchestra
(Wallace Jones-tp, Ray Nance-tp, Rex Stewart-tp, Sam Nanton-tb, Lawrence Brown-tb, Juan Tizol-tb, Barney Bigard-cl, Johnny Hodges-as, Harry Carney-bs, Otto Hardwick-ts, Ben Webster-ts, Billy Strayhorn-p, Fred Guy-g, Junior Raglin-b, Sonny Greer-d). 12/2/1941.
Listen for the gorgeous release by Ben Webster!
Johnny Come Lately. Duke Ellington Orchestra
(Wallace Jones-tp, Ray Nance-tp, Rex Stewart-tp, Sam Nanton-tb, Lawrence Brown-tb, Juan Tizol-tb, Chauncey Haughton-cl, Johnny Hodges-as, Harry Carney-bs, Otto Hardwick-ts, Ben Webster-ts, Billy Strayhorn-p, Fred Guy-g, Jimmy Blanton-b, Sonny Greer-d). 6/26/1941.

Just A-Settin’ and A-Rockin’.
“Just A-Settin’ and A-Rockin’’’ is perfect: perfect tempo (aptly described in the title), perfect solos, perfect presentation—not a hair out of place. The four-bar introduction is divided between Ellington and Blanton, who establishes the rhythmic gait. Webster states the theme, although the division of labor between Webster and the orchestra is even—each exchanging one-bar phrases in an Ellingtonian demonstration of figure-and-ground. In the final eight bars of the chorus, after Nance plays the release in his yearningly personal style, the figure-and-ground is reversed. Webster has the second chorus to himself, and he sounds suitably comfortable, as though he were fanning himself on the front porch. At the bridge, the band prods him with stop-time accents. Joe Nanton gets to purr for the first half of the third chorus, in which figure-and-ground is reversed again: he leads the ensemble in the first eight and follows it in the next. Bigard whirls into the release over stop-time pumping to complete the chorus. The punctilious coda allots two bars to Ellington, one to Blanton, and one to the orchestra. Perfect.” – Gary Giddens

Just A-Settin’ and A-Rockin’. Duke Ellington & His Famous Orchestra
(Wallace Jones-tp, Ray Nance-tp, Rex Stewart-tp, Sam Nanton-tb, Lawrence Brown-tb, Juan Tizol-tb, Barney Bigard-cl, Johnny Hodges-as, Harry Carney-bs, Otto Hardwick-ts, Ben Webster-ts, Billy Strayhorn-p, Fred Guy-g, Junior Raglin-b, Sonny Greer-d). 6/5/1941.
Satin Doll. Duke Ellington & His Famous Orchestra
(Cat Anderson-tp, Willie Cook-tp, Ray Nance-tp, Clark Terry-tp, Quentin Jackson-tb, Juan Tizol-vtb, Britt Woodman-tb, Russell Procope-as/cl, Rick Henderson-as, Paul Gonsalves-ts, Jimmy Hamilton-cl/ts, Harry Carney-bs/bcl, Duke Ellington-p, Wendell Marshall, Butch Ballard-d). 4/6/1953.
Although Ellington would record prolifically and successfully over the next twenty years, Strayhorn’s “Satin Doll” would be his last hit record, the proceeds from which would subsidize the suites and tone poems that characterized Ellington’s later offerings.

Johnny Hodges & Billy Strayhorn.
Perhaps there was no more powerful interpreter of Strayhorn’s music than his Ellington Orchestra bandmate, altoist Johnny Hodges, who included Strayhorn compositions in many of the sessions he led under his own name.

Day Dream. Johnny Hodges and His Orchestra
(Cootie Williams-tp, Lawrence Brown-tb, Harry Carney-bs, Duke Ellington-p, Jimmy Blanton-b, Sonny Greer-d). 11/2/1940.
A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing. Johnny Hodges and His Orchestra
(Taft Jordan-tp, Lawrence Brown-tb, Johnny Hodges-as, Al Sears-ts, Billy Strayhorn-p, Oscar Pettiford-b, Wilbur De Paris-d). 12/1947.
Passion Flower. Johnny Hodges and His Orchestra
(Ray Nance-tp, Lawrence Brown-tb, Harry Carney-bs, Duke Ellington-p, Jimmy Blanton-b, Sonny Greer-d). 7/3/1941.

Ellington – Strayhorn Duo.
Ellington rarely recorded in a duo setting, perhaps only the four tracks with Jimmy Blanton from 1940 and these two intimate recordings with Billy Strayhorn from 1946. “He was not, as he was often referred to by many, my alter ego. Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head, and his in mine.” – Duke Ellington

Tonk. Duke Ellington – Billy Strayhorn duo
(Duke Ellington-p, Billy Strayhorn-p). 1/10/1946.

Early Recognition as a Composer.
Today, many of Billy Strayhorn’s compositions are standards, such as Passion Flower, Take the A Train, A Flower is a Lovesome Thing, Chelsea Bridge and Lush Life. Many players have recorded full tributes to Strayhorn’s music with Ellington, for example, soprano saxophonist Michael Hashim, tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, pianists Fred Hersch and John Hicks, trumpeters Art Farmer and Terell Stafford, and trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis. But, although he started composing with and for Ellington in 1939, only a few musicians picked up Strayhorn’s music throughout the 1940s. Among the first were pianists Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson and Nat King Cole.

Just-A-Sittin’ And A-Rockin’. Art Tatum solo
Art Tatum (-p). 1949.
After All. Oscar Peterson- Ray Brown duo
(Oscar Peterson-p, Ray Brown-b). 1950-08.
Lush Life. Nat King Cole
(Sid Cooper-cl/fl, Al Richman-frh, Nat King Cole-p/voc, Irving Ashby-g, Joe Comfort-b, Jack Costanzo-bgo, Mel Zelnick-d, Strings). 3/29/1949.
“[Strayhorn’s] first classic tune, ‘Lush Life’ (a major hit for Nat King Cole, who slightly simplified the challenging harmonies), written as a teenager, reflected his sense of isolation as a black man who refused to compromise his homosexuality. (Ellington said the song brought him to tears).” – Gary Giddens & Scott DeVeaux

“…and his Mother Called Him Bill.”
Billy Strayhorn died in May 1967 and in August, Ellington “… decided to pay tribute to Strayhorn by recording an entire album of his music for RCA. It was the first time since 1941 that he had featured his protégé’s compositions so extensively, and the result was a considerable achievement, the best-played studio album of his old age, in part because the program was chosen from the whole of Strayhorn’s output rather than consisting only of new work.” – Terry Teachout

Blood Count. Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
(Cat Anderson-tp, Mercer Ellington-tp, Herb Jones-tp, Cootie Williams-tp, Clark Terry-tp, Lawrence Brown-tb, Buster Cooper-tb, Chuck Connors-tb, Jimmy Hamilton-cl, Johnny Hodges-as, Russell Procope-ts, Paul Gonsalves-ts, Harry Carney-bs, Duke Ellington-p, Aaron Bell-b, Steve Little-d). From …and His Mother Called Him Bill. 8/28/1967. (The Norton Jazz Recordings)
“The tune begins with more harmonic ambiguity than was usual for Strayhorn. We don’t know where we are or where we’re heading. In this bleak territory, Johnny Hodges, Strayhorn’s favorite soloist (he wrote several pieces for him, including ‘Day Dream’ and ‘Chelsea Bridge’), plays the lead melody with characteristic knife-edged timbre, controlled vibrato, and unnerving glissandos. The piece proceeds with quiet resignation, first through D minor, then D major, until the second bridge, when it erupts in a violent crescendo. It’s as if the normally serene Hodges, overwhelmed by the resentment and impatience Strayhorn had encoded in the chromatic harmonies, explodes into an outpouring of grief, pressing against the physical limitations of his alto saxophone” – Gary Giddens & Scott DeVeaux

Lotus Blossom. Duke Ellington solo
(Duke Ellington-p). From …and His Mother Called Him Bill. 8/30/1967.
“The final track was a hushed solo version of ‘Lotus Blossom’ that he tossed off while the musicians were putting up their instruments at the end of a recording session. The engineers had the good sense to keep the tape rolling, and you can hear the men in the studio stop packing their horns and fall silent as their leader runs through the song that Strayhorn had loved to hear him play. It is an unutterably poignant moment. ‘When I got a copy the other day of the new album we did of Billy’s tunes, I couldn’t even look at it, let alone listen to it,’ he later told a reporter. ‘I just threw it on the bed.’” – Terry Teachout

“William Thomas Strayhorn, the biggest human being who ever lived, a man with the greatest courage, the most majestic artistic stature demanded freedom of expression and lived in what we consider the most important and moral of freedoms: freedom from hate, unconditionally; freedom from self-pity (even throughout all the pain and bad news); freedom from fear of possibly doing something that might help another more than it might himself; and freedom from the kind of pride that could make a man feel he was better than his brother or neighbor.” – Duke Ellington’s elegy to Billy Strayhorn.

Traditional New Orleans jazz was largely marginalized during the Swing Era, but it came back ferociously as a reaction to bebop. Long-time players like Chicago cornetist Muggsy Spanier, soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, and clarinetist George Lewis all saw greater opportunities in this backlash, which was symbolized by Louis Armstrong’s return to the sextet format in 1947, with the founding of his All-Stars.

The Norton Jazz Recordings – 4 Compact Discs for use with JAZZ by Scott DeVeaux and Gary Giddens. W.W. Norton 933796.
Duke Ellington – Never No Lament – The Blanton-Webster Band. Bluebird/RCA 82876508572
Billy Strayhorn – Passion Flower. Proper Records 2046.
Swing Time: Vol. 021, Duke Ellington Small Groups Vol. 5 (1940-41). The World’s Greatest Jazz Collection.
Johnny Hodges – The Jeep Is Jumpin’. Proper Records ProperBox 58.
Duke Ellington – Complete Jazz Series: 1945 – 1946. Classics 985.
Art Tatum – Piano Grand Master. Proper Records ProperBox 60.
Music By Oscar Peterson – Keyboard. Columbia 33CX 10062.
… And His Mother Called Him Bill. Bluebird/RCA 63744.

Cohen, Harvey G. 2010. Duke Ellington’s America. Chicago, IL. University of Chicago Press.
Giddens, Gary & DeVeaux, Scott. 2009. JAZZ. New York, NY. WW Norton & Company.
Chapter 8. Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
Giddens, Gary. 1998. Visions of Jazz: The First Century. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 27. Duke Ellington (Part 2: The Enlightenment)
Chapter 28. Billy Strayhorn (Passion Flower)
Gioia, Ted. 2011. The History of Jazz. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 5. The Swing Era
Hajdu, David. 1996. Lush Life – A Biography of Billy Strayhorn. New York. North Point Press.
Morton, Brian & Cook, Richard. 2011. Penguin Jazz Guide, the History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums. New York, NY. Penguin Books.
Duke Ellington – Never No Lament – The Blanton-Webster Band
Ratliff, Ben. 2002. The New York Times Essential Library of Jazz. New York. Times Books.
Chapter 17. Duke Ellington, The Blanton-Wester Band (1940-1942)
Simon, George T. 1981. The Big Bands. New York. Schirmer Books.
Teachout, Terry. 2013. Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington. New York. Gotham Books.

Annotated playlists and streaming links for all the Jazz at 100 broadcasts: Jazz at 100

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