Lately I’ve been listening to the music written by Billy Strayhorn. For those who might not know Strayhorn was the principal composer and arranger for Duke Ellington from the 1940’s till his death in the 1960’s.  Many of the most famous and enduring songs from Ellington during that era were composed or co-composed by Strayhorn whether attributed to him or not.  Songs like “Take the A Train,” “Satin Doll,” “Lush Life,” “Chelsea Bridge,” and many others, capture the jauntiness, sensuousness, wit, and lusciousness of this man who was quite content to sit in Duke’s shadow.  More to the point he was an “out” gay black man during an era of segregation when homosexuality was frowned upon during the black community. Of course you still find homophobia, ridicule, taunting and bigotry against gays in the black community, but imagine a time when you could not get out of your black community because of segregation. Strayhorn found a wary niche within the jazz, artistic and specifically Ellington communities.

There is a good biography of Strayhorn (Lush Life by David Hadju) if anyone is interested but I want to talk about one cut from one album by Duke Ellington. The album is “…And his Mother Called Him Bill.” It is the first album Ellington recorded after Strayhorn’s premature death at 52 in 1967.  It is a musical tribute album made entirely of Strayhorn songs at a time when most of his band mates were still mourning his death. The selection I want to talk about is “Blood Count.” (Click on link to listen)  “Blood Count” is the last song he wrote  during his final illness (cancer).  Even as he lay ill he expressed himself musically by composing a song based on a medical procedure he was undergoing. In fact you can here the blood flowing through the tubes in the melody. It was not the only “classic” he composed based on his medical experiences.  He wrote “U.M.M.G (Upper Manhattan Medical Group)” based on the place where he went to get tests.  It is this incorporation of his life, both good and bad, into works that stand the test of time that marks the true artist.  It is making your experience into a universal one in which others can find themselves, can feel what you felt, can “relate”, that is found in great music, great art, great literature.

The Ellington band was unusual in that it lasted so long and musicians stayed in it so long. Ellington’s genius was in hearing the uniqueness of the “sound” of each band member so that he could write features that put each in the best position to sound as good as possible.  Johnny Hodges was for most of the time the band’s alto saxophone soloist.  If you have not heard him please do.  He had a tone on his horn that was so sensual, singing and expressive that no one else sounds like him. He was great on uptempo swingers like “The Jeep is Jumpin'” but it is on the slow ballads especially those written by Strayhorn that he is superb. All of Strayhorn’s ballads incorporate beauty, world weariness and a longing that takes your breath away. They transport you to a time of late nights, cigarette smoke and perhaps some alcohol.  On this album and on this cut all of those things come together. Hodges is the main “voice” stating Strayhorn’s theme with more than his usual balladic grace.  His sensuality and Strayhorn’s mesh perfectly so that you cannot tell where one begins and the other ends. His solo changes however as it reaches its climax into, at least to my ear, an angry cry maybe against having Strayhorn taken from them too soon.  At once you hear the raw grief behind the polish and professionalism of the Ellington band.  No longer is it just the well oiled machine.  It is a group of individuals who have gotten together to share their remembrances and loss together.  While the cut ends with a return to Strayhorn’s (and Hodges’) sweet sensuality it is now different with that quick glimpse of what is behind it. Its sensuousness,  elegance and yearning is taken to a new level.  All in all the cut is a both a catharsis and a heartfelt memorial to a great artist.

It is that catharsis we all search for when we must cope with the loss or serious illness of a loved one. If you are like me you have learned to hold it in so that you can get done all that needs to be done in such situations.  It always finds it way out however whether it is days, weeks, months or years later. We need to let it out and then move on as the Ellington Orchestra does here.

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply