10 New Tributes to Celebrate Great America Jazz Composer Billy Strayhorn’s 103rd Birthday
November 29, 2018 marks the 103rd birthday of great American jazz composer Billy Strayhorn. The centennial year in 2015 saw nationwide celebrations ranging from a New York City MTA vintage subway takeover to an original arrangement of “A Train” performed by Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and more. Three years later, Strayhorn’s lasting impact on the arts and culture seem to only grow stronger, as people from all over the world continue to draw inspiration from his life and canon. We’ve highlighted ten recent projects that pay tribute to the legendary musical icon:
1. Frank Sinatra’s Take on “Lush Life”
Dubbed “the one that got away,” Frank Sinatra’s legendary demo recording of Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” finally saw the light of day last month, after spending 60 years in studio vaults. In the unfinished take, which Capital Records released as part of Sinatra’s Only The Lonely deluxe reissue, Sinatra can be heard shouting “Put it aside for about a year!” in response to the session conductor’s suggestion to put it aside for a moment, as the crooner was struggling with the tune’s complex melodies. As Variety notes: “In the history of incomplete works by the 20th century masters, the idea of Frank and an unfinished ‘Lush Life’ ranks up there in tantalizing myth with novels like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Last Tycoon’ or Raymond Chandler’s ‘Poodle Springs’ (also started in 1958, coincidentally). Those works were rendered incomplete by the authors’ deaths, of course, whereas Sinatra had another 30 years in which to have taken another go at ‘Lush Life,’ if he’d wanted to. But the effect remains the same: just as with an unfinished novel or symphony in which you dread the point of cutoff coming and are thinking, ‘Come on, stay alive a little longer,’ listening to Sinatra do a few abortive takes of ‘Lush Life’ and eventually get as far as the chorus, you may find yourself murmuring to the 1958 Frank to please keep going.” Stream the unfinished demo here:
2. Library of Congress Acquires Personal Archive
The Library of Congress announced today that it now holds 18,000 documents from Strayhorn’s personal archive, and the collection is available to the public. The Billy Strayhorn Musical Manuscripts and Estate Papers contains artifacts from the composer’s youth, including an original handwritten manuscript of “Fantastic Rhythm,” the full-length musical he wrote while still in high school, and also his classic tune “Something to Live For,” plus materials from his 25-year run as a collaborator with Duke Ellington, and even letters from his personal life outside of his professional career. David Hajdu, author of “Lush Life” a landmark Strayhorn biography, told The New York Times, “One of the big messages of this archive is how distinct and unique and original a musical voice Strayhorn was. It’s a testament not only to the depth of his contribution to the world of Duke Ellington, but a testament to the breadth of his work away from Ellington and apart from Ellington. This archive is staggering.” Read more from the NYT’s reporting here:
3. Help!: The Beatles, Duke Ellington, and the Magic of Collaboration
In Duke University musicologist Thomas Brothers’ recently released book, Help!: The Beatles, Duke Ellington, and the Magic of Collaboration, he outlines Strayhorn’s incredible contributions and “creative cooperation” to the works for which Ellington is best known. While clarifying the historical record of who wrote what, he gives credit where credit is due and as the Wall Street Journal’s book review of Help! notes, Strayhorn was “a ‘supertalented mate’ with high-art tastes, who could turn short songs into an album-length suite.” The book delves deeply into the Strayhorn-Ellington collaborative relationship in a fascinating examination of the pair’s working relationship alongside another celebrated songwriting duo, John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
4. BBC’s Composer of the Week
This week, BBC Sounds celebrates Strayhorn as their Composer of the Week, in a multi-part radio documentary that celebrates the life and work of the acclaimed composer. Episodes explore five key environments including Pittsburgh, New York, and Paris, that shaped Strayhorn’s personal and musical trajectory. Listen here.
5. Halfway to Dawn
This October, REALITY dance company premiered the theatrical performanceHalfway to Dawn, in collaboration with choreographer David Rousseve in Los Angeles. The show’s dynamic dance interpretations of Strayhorn compositions redefines a ‘biography’ as the intersection of fact, conjecture, comment, abstraction, and fantasy: “Halfway to Dawn creates an abstract portrait by layering video-projected text conveying the biographical facts of Strayhorn’s life, projected abstract video art exploring the emotional undercurrents of his journey, and expressionistic physical theater expanding the political urgency of his narrative into our own lives.” The show heads to Brooklyn in December, as part of the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Tickets available here.
6. Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett’s “Lush Life” Duet
Not the most recent tribute on this list, but Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett’s duet of “Lush Life” off their 2014 album, Cheek To Cheek, bears a repeat listen. Gaga’s recent turn as the destined-for-stardom singer in this year’s hit-remake A Star Is Born, is another reminder of the starlet’s giant talent, but “Lush Life” fans will know that Gaga always had a knack for reinventing older materials. The pair earned a 2015 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Pop Vocal album for their collaboration. Stream the Grammy-Award winning work below:
7. Reservoir Playlists
If playlists are your thing, have a listen to two of our recent ‘home-grown’ Strayhorn tributes. Our Colors of the Strayhorn Rainbow playlist dives deep into Strayhorn’s prominent knack for colorful imagery, while our Flowers playlist notes the beauty of one of Strayhorn’s most commonly referenced elements.
8. Queer Songbook Orchestra
The Toronto-based Queer Songbook Orchestra found inspiration in Strayhorn’s story, as an openly-gay black man navigating the music industry. Shaun Brodie, artistic director of the Queer Songbook Orchestra, drew inspiration from Strayhorn to uplift and support the queer community, noting, “I think it’s good for people in the community to realize queer people were so much a part of what was going on, in an invisible kind of way most of the time.” The group, which presents the works of queer artists, in the form of music, storytelling, and narrations, and recently performed a string of dates across Canada, this past Fall. Read more about QSO’s Strayhorn tribute here.
Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning Best Comedy series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel featured Strayhorn’s “Take The A-Train” in episode 5 of Season 1. It’s no surprise the show won a Creative Arts Emmy for Outstanding Music Supervision! As the show prepares for its highly-anticipated Season 2 on December 5, catch up on all that’s going on in Midge’s world with a re-watch of the Amazon Prime hit and keep your ears open for the Strayhorn synch. Stream it here.
10. The Nutcracker Suite
Just in time for the holidays, East Stroudsburg University and the Al Cohn Memorial Jazz Collection will present “Duke Ellington Nutcracker Suite” at the Cecilia Cohen Recital Hall at the Fine & Performing Arts Center on the ESU campus. The composition was written in 1960 when Strayhorn and Ellington put their distinctive big band sound on Peter Tchaikovsky’s 1892 ballet music, creating lively and complex jazzy versions of the classical tunes: “Dance of the Reed-Pipes” becomes “Toot Toot Tootie Toot,” the toy soldier “March” transformed to “Peanut Brittle Brigade,” and “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy” is now “Sugar Rum Cherry.”