Billy Strayhorn - Dutch Jazz Orchestra CDs
At a 1964 BBC Television concert Duke Ellington called the audience’s attention to ‘a great, distinguished and rather eminent personage who happens to be with us tonight. While he is one of the most important people in our group he’s very seldom seen in public appearances, but he’s always heard. It’s my pleasure to introduce the eminent composer-orchestrator Billy Strayhorn.’ To a generous applause a shy, small man rose in the audience. He nodded, smiled, then quickly took his seat again.
Duke’s introduction points up the remarkable invisibility that Strayhorn maintained during his long connection with the Ellington Orchestra, an invisibility that stands in marked contrast with his significance as a jazz composer. From the moment he had joined the band in 1939 until his untimely death in 1967, virtually every performance and almost every studio session of Duke Ellington and his Orchestra had included compositions and arrangements by Strayhorn.
On the average, Billy Strayhorn wrote at least one piece a week during all thirty years he worked with Duke Ellington. That was more than the Ellington Orchestra could handle, especially since Duke himself composed incessantly. Choices had to be made and thus many pieces fell by the wayside, never having appeared on any of Duke’s many records. Among those ill-fated scores were some of the finest works Strayhorn ever wrote. Luckily, the music of Strayhorn has been preserved for future generations in hundreds of handwritten scores that are safely stored in various music collections.
The present CD contributes to the documentation of the rich troves of unknown Strayhorn material. Eight tracks may rightfully claim the epithet ‘world-premiere’ since they feature pieces that were never heard before. The other tracks were recorded by Ellington or Strayhorn at some point in the past, but this CD gives the original first versions, often written decades earlier than their issued counterparts.
Recording unknown Strayhorn music with a contemporary jazz orchestra requires some important artistic decisions. First of all, the Dutch Jazz Orchestra decided to refrain from meddling with the original compositions. Of course, an incidental mistake in the score was corrected, and band leader Jerry van Rooijen called for a piano introduction here and an extra solo chorus there, but that is perfectly in synch with the way Strayhorn himself would have dealt with these scores. However, not a single bar was added — this CD gives you pure Strayhorn.
Second, the Dutch Jazz Orchestra retained its own sound. Needless to say, before going into the recording studio the musicians studied the sound of the Ellington Orchestra. Their goal, however, was not to imitate this orchestra, but rather to assimilate the individual voices of that greatest of all bands. Apart from the fact that imitating the Ellington band is downright impossible, the Dutch Jazz Orchestra wanted to demonstrate that Strayhorn’s music holds its own today and that it is still vital, even though some of the pieces may be over fifty years old.
1. Le Sacre Supreme (1943-1944)
Le Sacre Supreme (The Highest Offering), with its touch of modality in the opening bars, is one of those many tunes in which Billy Strayhorn pushes the limits of the jazz idiom of his time. Modality—ignoring the traditional relationships between chords and creating a stagnant harmonic layer instead—came in vogue a decade later in pieces like Miles Davis’s So What.
Le Sacre Supreme emits an uneasy atmosphere with its haunting, chromatic trumpet line on a dissonant layer of clarinets with muted trumpet, and with its agitated background of trombones and saxophones in the solo chorus. Here, a tension surfaces that is present in so many of Strayhorn’s compositions, even in some of his most lyrical pieces.
2. Lana Turner (1944-1945)
Retitled Charpoy, Lana Turner found its way to Ellington’s 1967 Strayhorn tribute ‘...And his mother called him Bill.’ The original 1940s score recovered for this CD shows some important differences with the version that was eventually recorded by Ellington and his Orchestra. Apart from a different bridge on the first theme, Strayhorn gives an extensive through-composed coda that illustrates his fine sense of musical form.
3. Tonk (1940)
By 1940, Ellington had written many concertos for his star soloists, but he had modestly overlooked himself as a candidate for such a feature. Strayhorn took care of that omission with Tonk, a striking, dissonant composition. The original score reveals that Ellington had to analyze the chords and jot them down on the manuscript in order to know what to play. Presumably composer and soloist played the piece through a couple of times - which may have occasioned the birth of the four-handed piano version that Duke and Billy occasionally performed for fun.
4. Pentonsilic (1940-1942)
Was the cryptically entitled Pentonsilic Strayhorn’s first attempt at getting Black, Brown and Beige under way? Particularly the striking congruence between Black, the first movement of Ellington’s ‘tone parallel to the history of the American Negro,’ and the lengthy Pentonsilic makes one wonder whether the works are somehow related. Both movements open with a curtain-raiser, then move to a ballad, and team up the two main themes in the final section.
Ellington had been discussing Black, Brown and Beige at various occasions starting in the late 1930s, and in all likelihood the two composers discussed the project with each other. The considerable differences between the resulting works illustrates how the famous Ellington-Strayhorn collaboration took the form of mutual inspiration rather than of a joint effort at writing the actual notes.
Pentonsilic opens with a vaudeville melody that travels through a variety of keys in imaginative orchestrations. With a five-part fugue, unprecedented in jazz, Strayhorn even salutes Bach. After a violent transition he turns to a richly harmonized theme in a new, slower tempo. Strayhorn later used twenty-eight bars of this section in the first movement of the 1944 Perfume Suite.
The majestic finale of Pentonsilic exhibits the tremendous inspiration and skill of Ellington’s young associate. Incessantly modulating, Strayhorn masterly joins the two main themes while the orchestra's sections exchange thematic material. The result is downright breathtaking.
In Pentonsilic and consecutive works like Overture to a Jam Session, Strayhorn successfully solved a problem that various composers had tried to tackle before: the fusion of African-American and European musical idioms. Unlike Gershwin, who worked jazzy elements into an otherwise traditional symphonic style, Strayhorn used classical techniques while writing for a genuine jazz orchestra. And that was a radical innovation.
5. Blue Star (1940-1942)
After a year with Ellington, Strayhorn had, in Duke’s words, ‘broken the code’ and his ‘Mood Indigo opening trio’ for clarinet, trumpet and trombone shows that he was completely at ease with the Ellington-style. The rather unexpected modulation to E-major, a key very uncomfortable for the tenor saxophone, may have been the reason Blue Star was kept out of the band’s book. Did Ben Webster veto it? Toon Roos shows ‘Big Ben’ that it can be done.
6. Love Has Passed Me by Again (1960-1967)
Although he wrote frantically for Ellington, Strayhorn managed to be active outside Duke’s band as well. Together with composer Luther Henderson, for instance, he worked on a show called Rose-Colored Glasses. The show was never staged, but Strayhorn revitalized one of its songs for the big band, possibly to feature a vocalist. Here, Ack van Rooijen states the irregular theme (fourteen, eight, and ten bars) against Strayhorn’s characteristic orchestral backgrounds, as always composed with painstaking detail.
7. Wounded Love (1953-1954)
Intended for a theater show that eventually remained on the shelves, Wounded Love displays Strayhorn’s versatility in writing ballads. The song’s structure is uncommon, divided as it is in six-bar phrases with two-bar interludes. With its lyrical melody, harmonic complexity, sophisticated orchestrations, irregular form, and sheer beauty Wounded Love brilliantly exhibits what Billy Strayhorn’s music was all about.
8. Bagatelle (1955-1957)
The French title is an understatement: Bagatelle is far from a trifle. Strayhorn composed two melodic lines, one for the trombones and one for trumpets and tenors, and intricately pieced them into one thematic statement. A bebop-ish break, something seldom heard in the Ellington Orchestra, leads to a string of blazing solo choruses. A final chorus with rhythmic and melodic interlocking figures tops off this virtuoso piece.
9. Lament for an Orchid (1942-1943)
Another piece that was revamped twenty years after it was originally composed, Lament for an Orchid was in the band’s book during the mid-1940s, alternately titled Fluid Jive and Water-Lily. For the 1963 Afro Bossa LP Strayhorn rearranged the tune as Absinthe, with Paul Gonsalves in the solo role. As dozens of contemporaries of Lament for an Orchid reveal, Strayhorn could turn out numbers like this with remarkable ease, alternating lyrical solo lines backed by advanced harmonic progressions with rich orchestral tuttis.
10. Cashmere Cutie (1955-1957)
Strayhorn was capable of addressing various topics in one and the same composition. Like other Strayhorn dance-tunes such as Snibor and Smada, Cashmere Cutie is in the first place perfectly suitable for the dance hall. Yet, the orchestrations subtly allude to the sounds and flavors commonly associated with Central Asia, for instance in the parallel octaves in the reeds, the syncopated figures in the brass, and the metric shift of the theme in the final chorus. But most of all, Cashmere Cutie is about composition. The score is loaded with harmonic complexities, sophisticated voicings, and deviations from traditional orchestral practice, without ever getting in the way of the music itself.
11. Portrait of a Silk Thread (1944-1945)
Miles Davis once said that the Birth of the Cool recordings were simply a continuation of what Ellington and Strayhorn had been doing all along. Indeed, the vanguard orchestrations in works like Portrait of a Silk Thread bear close resemblance to those Gil Evans composed during the 1950s. To whom or to what the title refers is not known, but the musicians in the Dutch Jazz Orchestra ended up calling this piece The Self Portrait. If one thinks of a silk thread as invisible but strong, and capable of weaving beautiful and intricate patterns, the title stands as a metaphor for the person of Billy Strayhorn.
12. The Hues (1955-1967)
Although he wrote many ‘blue tunes,’ Strayhorn showed less aspiration than Ellington for composing songs that were inspired on traditional blues. True, he wrote the famous out-choruses of Ellington’s C-Jam Blues, but generally Strayhorn preferred melodic lines longer and more complex than one will usually encounter in blues-oriented themes. Modeled on a somewhat uncommon eight-bar blues progression, The Hues is a felicitous exception to Strayhorn’s avoidance of bluesy riff-themes. Band leader Jerry van Rooijen takes the opportunity to show off the Dutch Jazz Orchestra's brilliant soloists.
The larger part of Billy Strayhorn’s work for Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra consisted of writing arrangements. Close to six hundred of his arrangements survive, of which literally hundreds eventually were performed or recorded by the Ellington band. Yet, Strayhorn’s inspiration seemed boundless, and still numerous arrangements had to be shelved. As Mercer Ellington recalled, “If I waited for the band to have a rehearsal, there would always be things by Billy they wanted to play.”
Strayhorn, an accomplished composer, tackled his arrangements with serious dedication. “You should say, ‘I wouldn’t treat this any less carefully than I would that,’ he once said. “You treat them [originals and arrangements] equally. I put the same effort into whatever I do. I try to do the best I can. I feel it is not right for an artist to turn his back on a simple melody just because it’s not a great suite or something or other. It’s a matter of being humble. All artists are humble. All great artists are humble. The ones who’re not are not great artists.”
The recorded arrangements on this CD serve as a case in point. Strayhorn virtually recomposes each song, on its own terms. His adaptations carefully follow the emotional content of the lyrics (even if its an instrumental arrangement), and often provide commentary. In his hands, the standards from the “American songbook” reveal new and deeper layers, with the same overtones that resonate throughout Strayhorn’s own compositions. The dates on these arrangements underline the innovative character of his writing, which was years ahead of that of his peers.
None of the arran bgements on this disc were ever recorded commercially, with the exception of Where or When, which was recorded by the Ellington orchestra as an instrumental, and is given here in its original vocal guise. Lover Man, too, has been recorded, but in an abridged form -- the Dutch Jazz Orchestra plays it as written. Some of the other works (I’ll Buy That Dream, I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man and Yesterdays) have been preserved on recorded radio broadcasts, which currently are hard to obtain. The remaining eight arrangements are not known to be ever captured on record -- this is their world premiere.
1. Autumn in New York
2. Where or When
3. The Man I Love
4. I'll Remember April
5. I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance
6. Moon River
7. Lover Man
8. You Go To My Head
9. Night and Day
10. Can't Help Lovin' That Dream
11. I'' Buy That Dream
13. I've Got The World on a String
1. Anatomy of a Murder
2. Swing Dance
3. Blue Heart
5. Feet on the Beat
6. So this is Love
9. Flame Indigo
14. Lonely Again
The present CD is the successor of the widely acclaimed Portrait of a Silk Thread: Newly Discovered Works of Billy Strayhorn, which was first released in 1995. Again, the Dutch Jazz Orchestra plays Strayhorn works that have never been recorded before. In a number of instances, these works have never been performed either. The selection includes works that Strayhorn wrote or arranged while still in Pittsburgh: So This Is Love, Remember and Valse. Strayhorn wrote these four pieces for quite different occasions. The Chopinesque Valse was a piano solo which he must have performed numerous times as the piano-playing errand boy from Pittsburgh’s Pennfield Drugs, while So This Is Love in all likelihood was intended for his first theater show, Fantastic Rhythm. Strayhorn arranged Irvin Berlin’s Remember for The Rex Edwards Orchestra, a mixed-race rehearsal band that he worked with in 1938.
Other works evolve around the Copasetics, a group of tap-dance professionals Strayhorn presided. Their yearly revues were packed with Strayhorn originals and from these origins stem Feet on the Beat (from the 1961 Copasetics revue On the Riviera) and Swing Dance (from the 1962 Anchors Aweigh).
Yet the larger part of the titles on this CD are related to Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. Several hitherto unrecorded numbers have been played in all likelihood (though not necessarily in public), such as Flame Indigo (which stems from the 1941 theater show Jump for Joy) and Boll Weevil Ballet and Fol-De-Rol-Rol (both from the 1946 Beggar’s Holiday). Other pieces were performed by the orchestra but in different guises: Blue Heart is the original version of the later Paradise, while Orson, and Pomegranate (the latter from A Drum Is a Woman) -- respectively recorded by Ellington in 1953 and 1956 -- are given here in their original full-length versions, since in both cases more than half of the music was cut for the original recording.
The remaining tracks, Jo, Lozit (for Juan Tizol), Tiffany and Matinee are fully unknown numbers Strayhorn wrote for the Ellington band. Finally, Lonely Again is certainly one of the most exciting finds: this is one of two arrangements that Strayhorn wrote the very day after he first met Duke Ellington, December 1938. Strayhorn arranged the work at Ellington’s request, who was deeply impressed with the song and its lyrics, written by Strayhorn while still a teenager in Pittsburgh. The Ellingtonians never performed the piece, and it would take another decade before Lonely Again became widely known under a different title: Lush Life.
1. Fantastic Rhythm
2. A Penthouse on Shady Avenue
3. Let Nature Take its Course
4. Something to Live For
5. Everything is Copasetic!
6. Day Dream
8. Blue House
9. Sprite Music
10. The Flowers Die of Love
11. Love, Love
13. Pretty Girl
14. Chelsea Bridge
15. On the Wrong Side of the Rail Road Tracks
The larger part of the pieces on this fourth Strayhorn CD evolve around music Strayhorn wrote for the theater. In 1935, just out of high school, he composed a short show Fantastic Rhythm. A handful of numbers have survived, including the title song and the cynical Let Nature Take Its Course. A Penthouse on Shady Avenue (one of Pittsburgh’s most elegant streets), might stem from the show too, but the evidence is elusive. Although textually these songs are somewhat juvenile, musically they bear all characteristics of Strayhorn’s later compositions.
Another group of theater works stems from 1953, when Strayhorn provided music to a Federico García Lorca play titled The Love of Don Perlimplín for Belisa in Their Garden. Apart from Wounded Love—premiered by the Dutch Jazz Orchestra on Portrait of a Silk Thread—his hitherto unrecorded score includes Sprite Music, The Flowers Die of Love and Love, Love. Strayhorn’s music for Lorca’s surrealist play is restrained and honest, yet personal and emotionally expressive.
He wrote Everything Is Copasetic! for one of the annual shows by the Copasetics, a group of tap-dance professionals Strayhorn presided. From the early 1950s on, they staged cabaretesque fundraisers (never recorded), with music and lyrics largely by Strayhorn. These shows were important events in New York’s black community, and boasted sold-out houses.
The other works on this CD are “regular” pieces, composed or arranged for Duke Ellington’s orchestra. Chelsea Bridge and Pretty Girl, well-known works, are featured here in their full, unabridged form, as never before recorded, while Hip, Hipper-Bug and Blue House and the arrangement of Something to Live For are true world-premieres.
Strayhorn’s arrangement of Day Dream for Ella Fitzgerald was recorded by Ellington’s orchestra in 1957, but modern recording techniques warranted an overhaul of this majestic score, since now all details of Strayhorn’s writing can be brought to light.
The final track on this CD is the rousing On the Wrong Side of the Rail Road Tracks, composed for yet another theater show: Beggar’s Holiday. Both Ellington and Strayhorn wrote different arrangements of this tune. This one, by Strayhorn, features an orchestral background that calls up a noisy railroad switch-yard.
- Walter van de Leur
Musicologist Walter van de Leur (1962) graduated cum laude from the University of Amsterdam with a Master's Thesis on the Ellington-Strayhorn collaboration. He unearthed and researched the music for this CD, and prepared the performance editions. Van de Leur is currently writing a book on the music of Billy Strayhorn.
Special thanks to Dr. Gregory Morris, Executor of the Strayhorn Estate. Without his help this project would have been impossible.
Copyright © 2009, Dutch Jazz Orchestra. All rights reserved.