Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life is a collection of essays, photographs, and ephemera celebrating Billy Strayhorn, one of the most significant yet under-appreciated contributors to 20th-century American music. This luxurious coffee-table book offers intimate details of the composer’s life from musicians, scholars, and Strayhorn’s closest relatives.
Learn more about this jazz icon from A. Alyce Claerbaut, president of Billy Strayhorn Songs, Inc. and editor of Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life.
You’re still very involved with the jazz scene. What do you think Strayhorn’s greatest impact was on jazz music?
Billy Strayhorn penned some of the world’s most definitive jazz standards and most enduring American music of the 20th century: “Lush Life,” “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Day Dream,” and “Lotus Blossom” to name only a few. These songs still excite musicians and listeners for a number of reasons, but partly because Billy brought new ideas into jazz. For example, Dr. Billy Taylor credits him with expanding the swing vocabulary of chord voicings. Jazz writer Will Friedwald recently summarized Strayhorn’s musical legacy well in the Wall Street Journal. He said, “Strayhorn’s music is also beyond time . . . In fact, Strayhorn has exerted such a profound effect on orchestrators that, far from seeming dated, his works still sound futuristic—ahead not only of their time, but also of ours.” Artists are still seeking to push the boundaries of jazz today, and many are recording Strayhorn because of this timelessness. Contemporary artists are recording his works in record numbers: everyone from the 11-year-old pianist Joey Alexander, who cites Strayhorn’s work as one of his influences, to pop star Lady Gaga.
What was Strayhorn’s perception of himself as a composer and performer?
Billy’s perception of himself as an artist was much broader than the way that many people have reductively understood him—as nothing other than an arranger and composer for Duke Ellington. He was distressed at not being credited for many of his compositions. When he died he left a box of original manuscripts that included things he wrote as early as his teen years. The Strayhorn repository contains roughly 8,000 pages of manuscripts that unlocked the door to understanding the magnitude of his contribution. They show that he valued his compositions greatly and that he had truly expansive interests and abilities. He used to say, “All music is beautiful.” He adapted his works to reflect his knowledge of classical music, for example. His music speaks for itself and it says a lot about Billy’s view of himself as a universal composer.
Considering his central position in the jazz community, why didn’t he fight for more recognition for his work?
What do you fight with? Even though he was a member of the Ellington organization, Duke Ellington was the Ellington organization. Billy did insist on getting credit in the ’50s, which resulted in his name appearing as co-composer on many major Ellington projects, for some of which he was the architect. In addition, Joe Morgen—Duke’s publicist—was homophobic and saw to it that his name wasn’t credited. Tempo Music also copyrighted many of Billy’s songs as Ellington composition in whole and in part.
This book notes that Strayhorn shared credit for many songs he alone composed. Why is it important that this be corrected now?
History is easy to write and hard to correct. History has recorded Billy as a footnote to the Ellington legacy. The organizers of Billy Strayhorn Songs, Inc. are his nieces and nephews and we knew him and Ellington personally. It is up to us to correct the record because those who come after us will never be as close to the story. The centennial may be the last chance that we as family can make a statement that corrects the record.
How do you think this book will affect Billy Strayhorn’s legacy?
In short, I think this book will increase the public’s appreciation for Billy’s courageously lived life and his extraordinary music. This book is timely, and I think it will attract a general readership to his story. Musicians will deepen their understanding of him. The book addresses his life as an openly gay black man in the ’40s in more detail than any other work has. It’s driven by powerful images showing his partners and his involvement in the civil rights movement. Readers can see the people Billy knew, the clothes he wore, and the places he inhabited—all of these details reveal telling parts of his character that we hope will flesh out his legacy. In addition to his family members, other people round out Billy’s legacy including Walter van de Leur, who provides a listening guide and recording recommendations alongside excerpts of hand-written manuscripts. David Hajdu and Rob Levi provide interviews by many famous artists commenting on their relationship to Strayhorn, including Clark Terry, Rosemary Clooney, Lena Horne, Marian McPartland, Nancy Wilson, Dianne Reeves, and Terell Stafford, among others.
What do you hope readers—jazz devotees and new fans alike—learn from this book?
The lesson from Strayhorn’s story is simply that all people have the capacity to overcome major obstacles and challenges that life presents if they remain true to themselves. Despite the difficulties that Strayhorn was born into, the societal challenges he faced as a gay, black man in a time when both were inestimable obstacles, and his complex relationship with a cultural icon, he chose to live his life in a way that provides a model for knowing our gifts and practicing them with integrity.
What else is your organization, Billy Strayhorn Songs, Inc., doing to strengthen Strayhorn’s legacy?
There are two entities: Billy Strayhorn Songs, Inc. (BSSI) and the Billy Strayhorn Foundation (BSF). The former is the corporate entity that is responsible for conducting the business of music. BSSI has retained the services of a co-publisher to license the music, collect royalties, and maintain the catalog and all aspects of its exploitation. Our current co-publisher is Reservoir Media. The grand rights for stage projects are fully retained by BSSI and are administered as such. BSSI also provides support for artists and performers by providing published scores through its relationship with Alfred Publishing. BSF is a not-forprofit organization that supports musical endeavors of upcoming musicians mainly through jazz education. The activities include support for scholarships and jazz education organizations. BSSI and BSF have participated annually in the Jazz Education Network (and its earlier iteration) since 1997.