The music of Billy Strayhorn is literally coming out of the closet. Preserved by his family, boxes of manuscripts languished unexamined since Strayhorn's 1967 death until recently. Strayhorn, the Black gay composer best known for his lengthy collaboration with jazz icon Duke Ellington, wrote dozens of compositions that have remained unknown to world. A pair of local concerts by the Chicago Jazz Orchestra will highlight Strayhorn's music and mark the Strayhorn family's donation of several dozen handwritten scores to Chicago Jazz Archives at the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago.
The concerts, 'Something to Live For: A Tribute to Billy Strayhorn' presented on March 29-30 at the Museum of Science and Industry and the Harold Washington Library, respectively, are a collaboration between the National Jazz Museum and Chicago Jazz Orchestra. Call (312) 409-3947.
Strayhorn is 'a phenomenal composer whose works need to be heard,' said Orbert Davis, jazz trumpeter and one of the featured soloists at the concerts. Davis, a recording and performing artist who also sits on the National Jazz Museum's board, said previously the perception of the Ellington-Strayhorn collaboration was that of a Batman and Robin partnership where Robin had no voice. Not knowing that Strayhorn had penned such a quantity of music, Davis says Strayhorn's legacy now stands on its own.
Davis says the public knows only a fraction of the jazz idiom. As a result, Strayhorn's music needs exposure. Susan Motley, program director at the Jazz Museum, believes the public takes jazz for granted because its influences permeate the culture. Motley believes Strayhorn is a genius of modern American music who fused African American elements, European instruments and sensibilities, bringing about a new expression.
The National Jazz Museum's Strayhorn concerts are one prong of its current programming. A jazz education series involving Orbert Davis, and an oral history are part of the National Jazz Museum's preservation of the quintessential American music.
Gays should embrace Strayhorn's music because Strayhorn was an out gay man at a time prior to the Stonewall era, asserts National Jazz Museum program director Motley. Strayhorn's niece Alyce Claerbaut said her composer uncle was courageous for being as out as he was. That Strayhorn was gay was never a problem for the Strayhorn family. Claerbaut, who also knew Duke Ellington, said Ellington did not have a problem with Strayhorn's sexual orientation. Claerbaut said forces greater than Billy over which Strayhorn had no control, including the Ellington publicist, resulted in reducing her uncle to a footnote. Fortunately, the assessment of Strayhorn's work and his role vis-à-vis Ellington are beginning to change. Claerbaut said that as a result of her work with her uncle's legacy she has gained insight into Strayhorn. Strayhorn counted Lana Turner, Orson Welles, and Martin Luther King as some of his many friends and wrote music dedicated to Welles and Turner. The composition 'Blood Count' was practically written on Strayhorn's death bed.
Claerbaut said thousands of pages of manuscripts were discovered when the Strayhorn family gained possession of Billy's personal affects. Sorting out the discovery included disengaging some works from the Ellington publishing company and related copyrights. Over the last 10 years, Dutch musician Walter van de Leur studied Strayhorn's manuscripts. As a result of van de Leur's research, a new understanding of the Ellington-Strayhorn collaborations has developed.