New York City will host several events to mark the 100th anniversary of Billy Strayhorn’s birth. Details can be found at a special centennial website. Ah, to be in New York this autumn.
Fortunately, we all have access to his incredible body of music. Here’s just a short selection of recommendations and some of my favorite recordings of Billy Strayhorn music.
Never No Lament – The Blanton-Webster Band: Billy joined the Ellington band in 1939. This album covers the years 1939-1942. Included are some of Billy’s earliest masterpieces, including “Chelsea Bridge,” “Raincheck,” and the band’s theme “Take the A Train.” Additionally, some of Ellington’s strongest works are here. This album belongs in any music lover’s collection.
Great Times! Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn Piano Duets: These are recordings made around 1950 for the short-lived Mercer record label. Riverside reissued it in 1984. Unfortunately, the master tapes were lost, so they had to use the original LPs as source material. Thus, the sound quality can be a bit uneven. Nonetheless, it is fascinating to hear the two long-time collaborators playing together. My favorite piece is the track “Tonk.”
Cue for Saxophone – Billy Strayhorn’s Septet: This recording had a lot of politics behind it. Long time Ellington associate Stanley Dance wanted to produce an album with Johnny Hodges and asked Strayhorn to write the arrangements and play piano on it. This, despite the fact that Dance was one of the reviewers who derided Billy’s music in the 1940s as too mawkish. According to Strayhorn’s friends, he did the gig mostly for Hodges, whom he adored and loved to work with. The resulting music is actually very nice. My late brother Robert found a copy of this album for me about a year before he died, so it has a sentimental quality for me.
The Peaceful Side: This is probably the only album under Strayhorn’s name that he supervised away from the Ellington Orchestra that was released in his lifetime. It was recorded in Paris, 1961, just after working with Ellington on the soundtrack for the movie Paris Blues. (Side note: Not a great film, but fascinating because of its soundtrack AND it features a short cameo by Billy’s former partner, and lifelong friend, Aaron Bridgers.) Billy plays piano and presents understated interpretations of some of his works, including “Passion Flower,” “A Train,” “Multi-Colored Blue,” and “Just A Sittin’ And A Rockin’,” a piece from the Blanton-Webster years. Most find the album has an inner tension, despite the title.
Billy Strayhorn – Lush Life (The Big Band, The Small Band, Piano Solos): This is one of the best showcases of Billy Strayhorn playing his own work. It opens with Billy himself singing his signature tune “Lush Life” to his own piano accompaniment. His singing is somewhat tongue and cheek, but sincere and rather moving. The next track is the only one Billy does not appear on. The Ellington Orchestra plays a gorgeous version of “Passion Flower,” with Johnny Hodges front and center, soloing. The rest of the album features Billy with musicians that accompanied him in a concert he gave to an Ellington appreciation group in 1964. Ozzie Bailey, another black gay man, sings on a few tracks, including on my favorite version of “Something To Live For” to Billy’s piano, a recording of great significance to me.
…And His Mother Called Him Bill: I wrote about this album in a post a few years ago. It is Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra’s tribute to their longtime friend and colleague after he died of cancer in 1967. Read my earlier post for a fuller description of this essential album.
Other artists have over the years recorded Strayhorn’s music. A good place to start includes Lush Life: The Billy Strayhorn Songbook. This was issued as an accompaniment to David Hajdu’s award-winning biography referenced throughout my posts. It features Sarah Vaughan in probably my favorite version of “Lush Life,” Art Farmer, Louie Bellson, Ben Webster, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald with the Ellington Orchestra (their only appearance on this disc), Frank Morgan, Cecil Taylor, Johnny Hodges with Billy, Billy Eckstine, Joe Henderson, Stan Getz, and the Jazz at the Philharmonic All-Stars.
Joe Henderson recorded an album of Strayhorn covers, also called Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn.
Billy was very possessive of “Lush Life” and lost it when Nat King Cole recorded a version, without permission, in the 1940s. One version that stands out, apart from The Divine One’s mentioned above, is the John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman rendition from the John Coltrane – Johnny Hartman album. Coltrane also recorded an album of mostly Strayhorn music called Lush Life.
My absolute favorite recoding of the Strayhorn standard “Chelsea Bridge” appears as the opener on Gerry Mulligan’s album Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster. Like. Butter. Run, don’t walk, to get this excellent album, not just for the Strayhorn track but for everything that follows.
Another fine recording of “Chelsea Bridge” appears on sax master Anton Schwartz’s album The Slow Lane. It has a relaxed feel and the air of a musician playing the tune meditatively on a warm summer evening on the sidewalk for his own benefit.
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