Monday, November 29, 2010

In Memoriam: Billy Strayhorn

Billy Strayhorn was only 16 when he wrote Lush Life, a song filled with the kind of world-weariness normally found in a much more experienced man; then again, being black in a white world (as well as gay in a straight one) could have that effect on a person, especially in the 1930s...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1915, Strayhorn originally wanted to enter the classical music field; that avenue of expression, though, was then strictly segregated - even more than it is now. Instead, he brought a kind of classical expression to jazz when, in 1939, he joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra, at the time the world's foremost purveyors of the form; because of Strayhorn's influence, Ellington's works may one day be studied on a par with Beethoven, Chopin, or Tchaikovsky.

In the more than two decades of their collaboration, Strayhorn's music, lyrics, and arrangements - and in some cases, all three, as with the band's theme song Take the A Train - became famous, while the man himself preferred to stay in the shadows and let his more flamboyant boss take the bows; Strayhorn was even said to have coached Lena Horne, behind the scenes, helping to hone her natural ability with just enough classical technique to define her signature sound. For this reason alone, he's entitled to more kudos than we can ever give him.

Strayhorn's circumspection, naturally, was born out of the homophobia of the times; living openly with Bill Grove, as he did, probably cost Strayhorn a career away from the safe confines of his protector, mentor, and friend Duke Ellington. Yet, in his shy way, Billy blazed two equally important trails...

Before there was a civil rights movement Strayhorn was involved in one; in fact, he was one of a pair of gay men whose vision informed that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (the other being Bayard Rustin), and probably kept the early civil rights movement from being as homophobic as it might otherwise have been. So, too, before there was a gay rights movement, Strayhorn was the one gay man even the most homophobic person could own up to liking, and his modest good nature (as much as his talent) likely made him the most respected gay man of his times.
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