Lush Life… The Genius of Billy Strayhorn

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I wish I’d met Billy Strayhorn. I wish I’d been able to tell him what a profound effect he, his life, and more importantly his music has had on me. I was 16 or 17 when I first heard Nat King Cole perform Billy’s song Lush Life. It knocked the stuffing out of me then, and knocks it out of me still. Its a hymn to broken hearts, broken lives and the truth of the human condition. I’ve never met a singer who wasn’t simultaneously won over by it and terrified by it.

I’ve performed it occasionally over the years and at the age of 43 I’m only beginning to do it justice, because now I’ve lived at least some of what he wrote about. I only really started to “get” Lush Life when I was in my late 30’s. When my younger vocal students express an interest in performing it I put them off. Yet Billy Strayhorn wrote it when he was only 17 years old.

The wonderful Scottish jazz vocalist Annie Ross knew and liked Billy. Now in her 80’s, and having lived the words of this song, her time-served performance of it filmed in Glasgow captures its very essence.

Billy Strayhorn’s body of work is huge, and he shares the credit on hundreds of works with his mentor, boss, collaborator and friend Duke Ellington. Here was a young, shy, urbane, highly intelegent African American man working in one of the highest profile entertainment organisations in the United States, but who was also unashamedly and openly gay in a very intolerant age. He was everything that America told him he was not allowed to be.

Though the Duke Ellington band was always chock full of creative talent, Billy is arguably its most important alumus. He was employed initially to be Ellington’s staff arranger, orchestrating Ellington’s compositions and those of his own that Ellington requried. But he ultimately became Ellington’s collaborator, each of them working together on the same work. They were so in sync musically, that its sometimes hard to know where Ellington stopped, and where Strayhorn began.

In 1940, the American Society of Composers and Publishers went on strike, and society members, including Ellington, were banned from recording their work for broadcast. However Billy wasn’t a member and came up with a huge pile of new tunes for broadcast. Within this pile was a score that he’d written as his audition piece for the Ellington band, its title the simple direction Ellington had given him to get to there: Take the A Train.

Though he lived his professional life in Ellington’s shadow, Billy could and did exercise his right to compose music of incredible sophistication for himself. Lush Life, Chelsea Bridge, Upper Manhattan Medical Group, Blood Count, Isfahan, Johnny Come Lately and Satin Doll – a song often incorrectly credited to Ellington. I don’t think there was any malice in Ellington blagging the credit for one of Billy’s tunes, but Ellington had a colossal ego and for all that Billy was his closest friend, never shied away from exerting his own artistic influence: Ellington knew a hit when he heard it and Ellington was the boss. Always.

Ellington and Strayhorn had been a team for 28 years until Billy died from cancer in 1967. Ellington’s wry response to those who called Billy his alter ego was  “Billy is only my right arm, left foot, eyes, stomach, ears and soul – not my ego”. Ellington had ego enough for both of them. Billy Strayhorn’s legacy doesn’t need an ego to back to it up.

The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra present the music of Billy Strayhorn  in venues across Scotland in February. 

 

 

The Happiest Band in the Land

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One of the best things to have come into my life in the last couple of years is the wonderful, swinging aggregation known as the London Gay Big Band. Led by trombonist Peter Jay and managed by trombonist and marketing whizz Stefan Doering, this accomplished bunch of musicians have enriched my musical life in a way I never thought posible. As a singer, a pianist and an arranger I’m a dyed-in-the wool, self confessed big band nut, and along the way I’ve performed with some of the best bands in the business. So any chance to sing with a good, well drilled and hard swinging band is one that I jump at. The minute I met the London Gay Big Band, it was love! They swing, they groove, they roar – all the attributes that I love in a big band, and they liked my singing and my not-to-subtle approach to banter with adult audiences. Besides, they are the best natured bunch of musicians its ever been my privilege to work with. It’s a match made in heaven. Aside from which its great to be an on-stage advocate for the LGBT community.

As an ensemble they’ve come a long way since that impressive first gig: we’ve toured to Germany with the marvellous Drag artiste La Voix, who then took the band to the semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent. We’ve also worked extensively right across the country with Swing Patrol, the joyous bunch of swing dance teachers who so impressed the Dragon’s Den team that Deborah Meaden gave them a huge wad of cash to help them jive their way to success. Being on stage with the London Gay Big Band in front of 800 swing dancers (few over the age of 40!) is like stepping  into a technicolour movie from the early 1950’s and being transported to an age where people really knew how to dance, and dancing was an art practised before a swinging 20 piece band. I’ve documented all of our encounters and you can see photos of us doing our Swing Thing in this gallery, and indeed in the videos below.

But one question pops up again and again, from the community at large and indeed from within the gay community; why does the world need a Gay Big Band? 

One of the musicians in the band, saxophonist and multi-wind player Peter Reynolds also works with the London Gay Symphony Orchestra and the London Gay Symphonic Winds. He argues that retaining the ‘gay’ in the name of organisations like this – be they musical or otherwise – is more about respect for the forbears and creators of the gay community who have allowed contemporary gay men and women to the lives we do. And I absolutely agree with him. We expect there will be for a very long time a gay community, and so Peter suspects there will always be organisations that bear that community’s name. Further down the line, even if being gay ever becomes a non-issue, and I pray it does, he suggests that in the same way that Grimethorpe Colliery Band is not at all comprised of members of the mining community anymore and really should just be Grimethorpe Band, so too will gay community groups continue to respect their origins, no matter the mix of sexualities within them. I should point out that the London Gay Big Band is only 95% gay!

With the attention the band has brought to itself with is superb performances it has begun to play important role in becoming the face of the community and aid massively in projecting a positive image of it to the masses. We’re still in a time where much of the media portray gay men as a shady underclass, intent only in hedonism. Organisations like London Gay Big Band, the various orchestras, and the many Gay and Lesbian choirs across the country go a long way to help project a more accurate, more acceptable image of the community and aid the process of normalising it.

It is also a matter of safe space for the vulnerable. In the years I’ve been a professional musician, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of openly gay jazz musicians I’ve met, but have lost count of the number of people who have joined LGBT musical groups because they are trying to come to terms with their sexuality and don’t quite know how to do that. But what they do know is music; being able to do something you love and are happy when doing, whilst also interacting with people who know exactly what you’re struggling through has literally been a lifeline for many. In the 1990’s I was pianist for the Glasgow Gay Men’s Chorus and saw shy, retiring chaps – many in the older age bracket – suddenly flower and emerge from their shells because they had a sense of unity and pride for the first time in their adult lives. Some argue that they could create a “Straight” band. But to the people in the situation I’ve just described (and indeed most gay musicians I know), EVERY band already is the “XYZ straight band”. As I said, the London Gay Big Band is the best natured and most diverse group of musicians I’ve ever worked with. Its an honour to be part of their fabulous Swingin’ World.

I’m performing on Valentines night with the London Gay Big Band at Wilton’s Music Hall in London, in association with Swing Patrol.

The Atomic Mr Basie

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When I was a wee boy in the 70’s and 80’s, you could turn on the TV and often hear and see jazz. Saturday night telly usually had one or two exponents of “Proper Grown Up Music” on a chat show; Buddy Rich, Sammy Davis Jnr, Sarah Vaughan amongst those I remember on Michael Parkinson’s show.  And jazz based music never seemed to be far away from the radio thanks to the ubiquitous BBC Big Band and presenters like Humphrey Littleton and Alan Dell on Radio 2. I don’t know where I first heard Count Basie and his Orchestra, but it was at a very early age and I knew that I loved the sound this band made, and knew from his name that he must be very important. As I morphed into a jazz obsessed teenager, it was the music of Basie’s band that drew me along, and that I return to time and time again. For me, it’s a sound that’s life affirming. My favourite incarnation is the band of the 50’s and 60’s, post war big band jazz at its best. The musicians and arrangers took all that they had learned from  the swing era and the birth of be-bop and took the music out of the ballroom and into concert halls and clubs. The Count Basie Orchestra was a streamlined jazz machine whose sections interlocked like gears and hit audiences with the force of a locomotive. The record executives compared it to a nuclear blast, and called it the Atomic Mr Basie. And the centre of it all is Basie’s spare, perfectly nuanced piano. What’s not to love?! This track is for music historian and author Richard Havers. Richard, lets try it one more once!