JAZZ: Scott DeVeaux, W.W. Norton & Company


Billy Strayhorn came on the scene in 1938. He was a pianist and composer in Pittsburgh who actually encountered Ellington in what seems to be [a] kind of arbitrary setting. I mean, he really was – knew someone at a ballroom, and it's just that Ellington happened to come the particular week that he sort of had access to things. But Strayhorn went to Ellington and was able to sit down and say, "This is how you play ‘Sophisticated Lady,'" and then sat down and played the tune, and then he said, "Well this is how I do ‘Sophisticated Lady,'" and Ellington was a big enough guy to sit there and realize that this was an extremely talented person. And he said, "That's very interesting. If you come to New York to me with an arrangement, you know, we can talk about working you into the organization." The tune that Strayhorn brought [to] New York was "Take the A Train" because it literally was coming from the directions that Ellington gave as to how to get to his house. You take the A train instead of taking this other subway that would go east and into the Bronx. So you know "Take the A Train," of course, becomes, you know, Duke Ellington's . . . [Deveaux demonstrates on the piano] . . . and it's actually an unusual pace for Strayhorn because it's very straightforward, Swing Era kind of arranging. I think he wanted to prove that he could do that kind of thing.

But ultimately what he managed to bring to Ellington was a depth of orchestral knowledge. And a command of chromatic harmony that fit in beautifully with what Ellington was doing but also in some ways really deepened what he was doing. And his relationship with Ellington evolved over the years. He at first really was a substitute within that organization, but then eventually, as Ellington began to realize that this relationship that they had was really important to him, . . . Strayhorn was able to, in a sense, come out of the closet as it were, and a lot of the later pieces are understood – they're publicly said that this is by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Out of the closet, of course, is not really a random choice there because one of the reasons people didn't know much about Billy Strayhorn is that he was openly homosexual during a time when that was really not something you wanted to make public. So he got what he wanted, he was able to be backstage and to do the things that he wanted to do while being part of this organization. It's a very moving kind of relationship, and you can really hear it in the last album that Ellington did of Strayhorn's music called And His Mother Called Him Bill, because you could just hear how much the musicians – this is after Strayhorn has died of cancer of the esophagus – you can feel how much that they're putting into the music because Strayhorn meant so much to that band.