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. 

 

 

Remembering Sir Johnny

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The late Sir John Dankworth was my “Pocket Legend” on Jazz House the other week, to commemorate his birthday. His daughter Jaquie is on radio a great deal promoting her new album, and so he and his music have been in my thoughts a lot of late.

Johnny Dankworth, as he is remembered as by the public, was a figure writ large in my early jazz life. He was one of those entertainers who was always on the radio and tv when I was a wee boy, and as such his music had a great effect on me; to me it was entertaining, exhilarating and exciting even before I new it was called jazz. I had the great pleasure of meeting and interviewing him and wife Dame Cleo Laine a few times; I found him to be urbane and witty, and he made a great cup of tea.

He was born in Woodford, Essex, in 1927 and fell under the spell of Jazz as a teenager. He studied the clarinet at the Royal Academy of Music, but he had to smuggle his saxophone in to the building. He took the pragmatic view that if he was going to consider something as frowned upon by the establishment as playing jazz for a living, he might as well learn enough about music to prepare him for any kind of gig. He was wise beyond his years.

By the mid 1940’s he was an established professional and under the spell of Charlie Parker and bebop – in fact he played alongside Parker at the Paris Jazz Festival in 1949, and was the best known modern jazz soloist in Britain. As the 1940’s turned into the 50’s, the young Dankworth formed one of British jazz scene’s most celebrated groups, the Johnny Dankworth Seven

He was the enfant terrible of British jazz, and his seven, which included one of Scotland’s top exports trumpeter Jimmy Deuchar, quickly became the top bebop band in the UK. But in 1953, amid cries of bafflement and that no good would come of it, he announced that he was disbanding the seven, and that he was going to start a big band, and so the Johnny Dankworth Orchestra was born. As well as being a fabulous soloist, John was already an accomplished arranger, and had contributed some brilliant arrangements to the library of Britain’s top big band,  Ted Heath And His Music, whose polished musicianship John was taking on full square. Even though one of its main functions was to play for dancing, John’s band was from the off an out and out jazz orchestra, playing adventurous and hard-swinging music.

He was Britain’s first internationally renowned jazz soloist, and an arranger and composer of real quality and originality. Here’s a wonderful example of his playing and arranging, and get a load of that wonderfully unique brass section!

Eydie Gormé – A Voice the Microphone Loved

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Once upon a time a good pop singer was expected to swing, sing in tune and know every standard in the book. When Eydie Gorme auditioned for the new Steve Allen Show in 1953, she was asked how many songs she knew. “Oh, about 2,000”. She was hired to sing for 4 weeks and stayed for 5 years, as the programme evolved into the legendary “Tonight” show, meeting her husband and singing partner Steve Lawrence into the bargain.

For my money, Eydie had one of the greatest post war voices. Ella Fitzgerald adored it, Sinatra loved it. Her records and TV appearances are a real masterclass in singing standards, in selling a lyric and in subtle swing. I can’t help but wonder if she hadn’t stepped out of the limelight to have children, if she’d have been a much bigger star. She wasn’t a jazz singer per say, but she occupied that swinging high ground in classy, grown-up pop music, and boy could she belt out a song…

Eydie was my pocket legend on this week’s edition of Jazz House on BBC Radio Scotland. You can listen to it again here.