Seventy years ago this month, a meeting took place that would prove to be a milestone in the history of jazz in particular and American popular music in general. It was a cross-country meeting that started in Pittsburgh and concluded in Newark, N.J., and cemented one of the great songwriting teams of 20th century music.
Duke Ellington and his powerhouse jazz orchestra had just started a weeklong engagement in Pittsburgh’s Stanley Theatre (now the Benedum Center) in December 1938 when an acquaintance asked him to meet with a young man who had impressed his teachers with some remarkable musical gifts but couldn’t seem to catch a break. Duke agreed to a meeting, and on Dec. 2 a 23-year-old drugstore delivery boy named Billy Strayhorn was ushered up to Ellington’s dressing room.
According to the oft-repeated story, Ellington was reclining in a chair, getting his hair conked, when Strayhorn arrived. Not even opening his eyes, he invited the young supplicant to play something on the piano. Strayhorn then proceed to play two renditions of Ellington’s ballad “Sophisticated Lady,” first in a note-perfect duplication of Duke’s style, then in his own, slightly more up-tempo version that opened Duke’s eyes and brought him to his feet. Strayhorn duplicated the feat with “Solitude,” this time with Ellington standing behind him. Deeply impressed with Strayhorn but unsure of how to use him — the band did, after all, already have a pianist — Ellington gave Strayhorn a songwriting assignment and, after another meeting, left Pittsburgh with a promise to send for him once he ws back in New York. He also left Strayhorn with subway directions to his Harlem apartment.
The second installment of the meeting took place Jan. 23 at the Adams Paramount Theatre in Newark, N.J. Strayhorn, who had not received any followup communication from Ellington, boldly took a train to Philadelphia, where he had been told Duke would be playing a mid-January engagement, then continued to Newark when he learned he’d missed Ellington. He brought with him a new song written from the subway directions. That song, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” became the Ellington orchestra’s concert theme, and Billy Strayhorn became Duke Ellington’s right-hand man.
Bear in mind that by 1938, Ellington had already written many of his best-known songs, several of them classics that would have secured his place in history. Strayhorn, who was deeply knowledgeable in classical music, brought that expertise to his work with Duke’s work, and his arrangements consistently brought out the strengths of the oprchestra’s musicians.
One of the best pieces of music writing you’ll ever read is “The Hot Bach,” a 1944 New Yorker profile of Ellington that offers an amusing look at their working method:
The train rounded a long curve and Duke stopped writing. He began again and then evidently decided he wanted to try the music out on someone. “Sweepea? Sweepea!” he called. Sweepea is William Strayhorn, the staff arranger and a talented composer in his own right. Strayhorn, who, incidentally, does not play in the band, is a small, scholarly, tweedy young man with gold-rimmed spectacles. He got his nickname from a character in a comic strip. Strayhorn, who had been trying to sleep, staggered uncertainly down the aisle in answer to his boss’s summons.
“I got a wonderful part here,” Duke said to him. “Listen to this.” In a functional, squeaky voice that tried for exposition and not for beauty, Duke chanted, “Dah dee dah dah dah, deedle dee deedle dee boom, bah bah bah, boom, boom!” He laughed, frankly pleased by what he had produced, and said, “Boy, that son of a bitch has got a million twists.”
Strayhorn, still swaying sleepily in the aisle, pulled himself together in an attempt to offer an intelligent observation. Finally he said drowsily, “It’s so simple, that’s why.”
Duke laughed again and said, “I really sent myself on that. Would you like to see the first eight bars?”
“Ah yes! Ah yes!” Strayhorn said resignedly, and took the manuscript. He looked at it blankly. Duke misinterpreted Sweepea’s expression as one of severity.
“Don’t look at it that way, Sweepea,” he said. “It’s not like that.”
“Why don’t you reverse this figure?” asked Strayhorn sleepily. “Like this.” He sang shakily, “Dah dee dah dah dah, dah dee dah dah dah, boomty boomty boomty, boom!”
“Why not dah dee dah dah dah, deedle dee deedle dee dee, boom bah bah bah, boom?” Duke said.
“Dah dee dah dah dah!” sang Strayhorn stubbornly.
“Deedle dee deedle dee dee!” Duke answered.
“Dah dee dah dah dah!” Strayhorn insisted.
Duke did not reply; he just leaned eagerly forward and, pointing to a spot on the manuscript with his pencil, said, “Here’s where the long piano part comes in. Here’s where I pick up the first theme and restate it and then begin the major theme. Dah dee dah, deedle dee deedle dee, boom!”
The train lurched suddenly. Sweepea collapsed into a seat and closed his eyes. “Ah yes!” he said weakly. “Ah yes!”
(“Sweepea,” incidentally, referred to Sweet Pea, Olive Oyl’s baby boy. That band-bestowed nickname reflected an interesting mixture of respect, affection and possibly faint contempt for Strayh0rn’s homosexuality and his curious business relationship with Ellington, who never gave him a salary or an official job role but paid Strayhorn’s bills and funded his lavish lifestyle.)
Strayhorn also made a try at a solo career, though his name would forever be entwined with Ellington’s legend. Strayhorn’s song was “Lush Life,” performed here by Johnny Hartman:
Strayhorn’s last song for Ellington, composed merely days before he succumbed to esophogeal cancer in May 1967, was “Blood Count,” written while he was in the hospital. It is one of the key songs on …And His Mother Called Him Bill, the tribute album Ellington recorded later that year:
…And His Mother Call Him Bill is Ellington’s masterpiece: a great starting point for anyone looking to explore Duke’s vast body of work, but also a returning place during the exploration. The tunes are uniformly strong, and the playing is alive with the conflicting emotions of great musicians (some of whom were not far from the end themselves) expressing not only sorrow but defiant joy in the life-affirming power of their music.
The recording includes a beautiful solo rendition of “Lotus Blssom,” which Ellington played while the other musicians were packing up, and the combination accidentally made for a poignant farewell note. But there is also an ensemble performance that should not be missed: