Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhornby David Hajdu
Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967) was one of the most accomplished composers in American music, the creator of such standards as "Take the 'A' Train", yet all his life he was overshadowed by his friend and collaborator, Duke Ellington. Through scrutiny of Strayhorn's private papers and more than five hundred interviews, Hajdu revives Strayhorn as one of the most complex
Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967) was one of the most accomplished composers in American music, the creator of such standards as "Take the 'A' Train", yet all his life he was overshadowed by his friend and collaborator, Duke Ellington. Through scrutiny of Strayhorn's private papers and more than five hundred interviews, Hajdu revives Strayhorn as one of the most complex and tragic figures in jazz history.
Ellington hired Strayhorn on the spot, specifying neither the nature of the job nor the compensation. A couple of weeks later, wanting to impress his new boss, Strayhorn wrote "Take the A Train," based on Duke's subway directions to his Harlem home. "A Train" soon become the signature song of the Ellington band, and Strayhorn spent the remaining 30 years of his life working with Ellington and writing a gorgeous body of music as haunting and intimate as any in the 20th century. Yet, while revered as a genius by musicians, Strayhorn has remained largely unknown to the general public.
Hajdu's biography tries to discover the reasons for Strayhorn's cultural invisibility. How much of the music associated with the Ellington band was actually composed by Strayhorn and credited to Duke? How did Strayhorn's out-of-the-closet homosexuality affect his public standing? To Hajdu's credit, he doesn't deliver simple answers but revels in the contradictions. Strayhorn could not only play like Ellington, he could write like him. The close collaboration between the two composers, Hajdu shows us, makes it difficult to determine who wrote what. Strayhorn and Ellington may each have gotten what they needed, given their natures. The great bandleader, pianist, composer and showman won most of the glory, but he was out working 350 nights a year. Although a private man most comfortable in the society of close friends who accepted his homosexuality, Strayhorn was a bon vivant who spent more time drinking than composing. Happily, the exquisite music that he wrote in the age of Ellington is enjoying a renaissance that will certainly be fed by this fine biography. -- Bart Schneider
"Strays" (also known as "Swee' Pea"), born in 1915, grew up working-class in Pittsburgh and had high-society aspirations from the start: He wrote an entire Gershwin-like musical revue a year out of high school, full of sophisticated recitative and advanced harmony. He yearned for a career in concert music. But, as Hajdu points out, he was a "triple minority": black, gay, and unwilling to hide his homosexuality. His break came in 1938, when he met Duke Ellington; possessed of both a supernal cool and a tenacious business sense, Ellington knew Strayhorn was gifted and worked out a deal. Hajdu meticulously recreates this unusual agreement: Ellington gave Strayhorn free rein to let his Ellington- influenced composistional sense run wild, but he gave Strays no by-line (and, as Strayhorn would find out, no publishing royalties). At first, Strayhorn submitted to Ellington's benevolent dictatorship. Eventually, though, his compositions moved beyond Ellington's influence; as he grew increasingly depressed by his obscurity, he transcended the ghost-writing arrangement to achieve his own, dark style and a small measure of fame. As one of his friends told Hajdu, both Ellington's and Strayhorn's music was great, the difference was that Strayhorn's "was so full of feeling."
This is jazz history as it has seldom been written before, covering both Strayhorn's powerful music and difficult life as well as the hidden history of New York's black and gay artists from the 1930s until Strayhorn's death in 1967. Hajdu gets deeply felt and non-mythologizing input from important members of Strayhorn's protective circle, including ex-lovers and close friends (Lena Horne's reminiscences are extraordinarily moving). A good idea done right.
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From the first, he was nameless. Lillian Strayhorn, twenty-three years old, had already had three children by the time she delivered her third boy in the early hours of November 29, 1915, and she had buried two of them. Sadie, the firstborn, had been premature and never could build her strength; she was "a coo baby," Lillian said. James Jr., a hearty boy born in 1912, was still faring well. Leslie, a second son, had been fine until he started walking and fell a few times, then went into convulsions; Lillian and her husband were told their child had brain fever. (As his mother often pointed out later, Leslie would have made a handsome man, which anyone could tell from the portrait she had taken of him in his coffin.) The newborn, unfortunately, was also sickly, despite being the first of Lillian's babies to be delivered by a doctor and in a hospital, the Miami Valley facility in Dayton, Ohio; he had rickets, and his parents decided not to name him. On the birth certificate filed four days after his birth, the tiny child was referred to as Baby Boy Strayhorn.
To heal him, the Strayhorns rejected professional advice--a doctor recommended cracking, straightening, and resetting the boy's bones, a surgical procedure fairly common at the time--in favor of a less traumatic home cure. Lillian followed the instructions of a neighbor woman and, after washing the dishes each evening, saved the water, which tended to be swirling with fat from the family's typical diet of fried meats. Standing her baby up in the water, Lillian massaged the greasy, soapy mixture into his skin; in time, his legs did begin to straighten and strengthen, whatever the reasons.
The rest of the Strayhorn family's problems had no such simple remedy. Married in a Baptist church ceremony on March 10, 1910, eighteen-year-old Lillian Young and twenty-year-old James Nathaniel Strayhorn had set out to lead an easier life together than the fates--and white-dominated early-century society--seemed to allow a black couple. The only child of Alice Young, a single mother from a comfortable working family in wooded Mars Hill, North Carolina, Lillian was attentively raised and well educated. She graduated from a two-year program for women at Shaw University, a Baptist school whose curriculum stressed ladylike manners and social skills. Poised and soft-spoken, with an eye for modest, womanly clothes and an ear for elegiac language ("I see the rain is slackening"), she earned a lifelong reputation for formality. James, a descendant of the founder of the first whiskey distillery established in the South after the Civil War, was also raised in relative comfort and style, in his case with four siblings (sisters Julia and Georgia--both graduates of finishing school--and brothers Joseph and William) in a roomy Prairie Victorian house in the black section of Hillsborough, North Carolina. Though James quit school to work after completing the eighth grade, his parents, Lizzie (Elizabeth) and Jobe Strayhorn--particularly his mother, an amateur pianist and art buff--had taken pride in exposing their children to music and culture. A firecracker of a man, James seemed a perfect counterbalance to Lillian, as ebullient as she was sedate, as spontaneous as she was doctrinal, as adventurous as she was restrained. They made an exquisite-looking couple: willowy, elegant Lillian, with her curly, pulled-up hair, her clear, open eyes, and a soft smile that nudged two sets of double dimples on her cheeks; and thick-set, towering James, with his glistening liquid eyes and broad, sly, cocksure grin.
In their second year of marriage, they left North Carolina for Dayton--electricity was the business of the future, and the Ohio Valley had emerged as a manufacturing center for the electric-supply industry. James was hired at a plant as a wire-puller: a team of men using handgrips would pull a roll of nearly molten copper until it stretched to wire thinness. Little more than a Northern industrial version of Carolina fieldwork, wire,pulling was considered a good job for a young black man; James didn't last long, though he never said why. He tried his hand at shipping goods for another plant but was let go because he couldn't drive. By the time his nameless son was born, three years after the move to Dayton, James was working as a janitor. Life at home was a struggle: Lillian, James, three-year-old Jimmy, and the baby all lived in one room of a boardinghouse on Norwood Avenue, a labor-housing district unequipped with the electricity that its residents were employed to supply for others, including the white working families just a few blocks to the west. Frustrated, the Strayhorns abandoned their electric-age ambitions in early 1916 and sought comfort in familiar arms. They moved again, this time to live with James's older sister Julia in Montclair, New Jersey. Then fairly rural--Julia warned her family that ghosts lived in the herds near the multifamily house she shared on New Street--the area was low on big-company job opportunities for James. To worsen matters, word came from North Carolina that Lillian's mother had died of an intestinal obstruction in a hospital in New Haven, Connecticut, where she worked from time to time as a relatively well-paid domestic to help support her extended family in North Carolina. In 1920, faced with disappointment after disenchantment, the family moved yet again, this time south to Braddock, Pennsylvania, outside of Pittsburgh, where the mills virtually guaranteed work to men willing to lend their bodies to the production of steel.
By now, Baby Boy Strayhorn was a five-year-old; smallish, round, faced, and cheeky, having inherited his mother's double dimples, he looked a year or two younger than his age. His parents hadn't yet filed a legal name for him, though they were saying he was William, named for James's eldest brother. Most everybody called him Bill. Unlike his older brother, Jimmy, a tall, reedy rascal who relished playing roughhouse with his father, Bill gravitated toward quiet, creative play. He liked to read--or pretend to, before he learned how when guests came to the Strayhorns', Bill would pick out a book, trace the words with his eyes, and theatrically turn each page as he improvised a story. And he demonstrated an ear for music. The Strayhorns, first home in Braddock was a mixed-race boardinghouse on the misleadingly named Willow Way, where a middle-aged black woman named Mame Pyle ran a discreet brothel. Since she worked at home and was generally respected by the other women in the building (including Lillian, who told her children that Mame Pyle's independence was honorable), the madam would occasionally baby-sit for neighborhood children. Bill was among them, and when he was in Mame Pyle's parlor, which was equipped with a bar and an equally well-stocked Victrola, he would watch the records as they played. Evidently, he could retain songs so well by ear that he quickly developed the ability to find any record anyone requested, although he couldn't read the labels. Of course, most of the records Mame Pyle had on hand for her business were ones most young people rarely got to hear: "race records," including early jazz.
The Strayhorns bounced around the Pittsburgh area, always struggling. In 1925, after five years in the borough of Braddock, they moved to neighboring Rankin, sharing space in a big corner building on Fifth and Harriet Streets. Finally, in 1926, they set, tied in a single-family house in the Homewood district of Pittsburgh proper. This would be the first place Bill would know as a permanent home--a 1,600 acre patchwork of blocks housing some 42,000 working-class people, 15 percent of them black. In front of the Strayhorns, house lived a large Italian family with a son who had blond hair; he came back home from the navy and ran the numbers. Next to them were the Hickenbottoms, a black family with lots of kids. Laterally adjacent to the Strayhorns, across a vacant lot, lived Harry Collins, who had an enormous stomach and very short, thin legs; he was a bootlegger and operated a small-time speakeasy in his back room. Next to him, there was a tin-roof shed where two older black men lived together. They had a fondness, late in the evening after a few drinks, for doing the buck dance--indoors. The neighbors could tell they were dancing because of all their hooting and hollering, as well as bumping into things; once one of them kicked over their potbelly stove and burned down part of their shed. A few doors down. there was a Presbyterian church, all white, although the pastor would invite the black kids in when they climbed up the outside walls to watch the services through the tilted-open stained-glass windows. Behind the Strayhorns, at first, lived the Moskendrics, an Italian family with five children, who in time moved to Susquehanna Street, a nicer block in the neighborhood.
This fairly typical urban outgrowth of the industrial era was scarcely a melting pot, despite its diversity and intimacy. "Blacks and whites lived next door to each other, and if you didn't like what your mother made for dinner, you'd eat what you had to and go next door to the Italians, walk right in and sit down with them. But this only went so far," remembered James "Steve" Stevens, a lifelong resident of Homewood who lived near the Strayhorns. "The white people had a definite superior attitude, even though they lived next door to you. You knew to hold your tongue with the white people--even the kids your own age--and let them have their way, because they didn't treat you as an equal. Whenever there was a skirmish, the police would side with the whites without asking us a question." To prevent matters from reaching that point, one old black woman rocked on a Hermitage Street porch and watched the children play, keeping a special eye out for the safety of the white children and warning a wayward one with a cry: "Get out of the street before you kill yourself, you little white devil!" As thanks for this peacekeeping service, neighbors would bring her tins of Five Brothers pipe tobacco.
Housing in Homewood was racially configured to some degree. The whites generally occupied the residences on the main streets--good-sized and well-equipped two-story row houses--and the black families those in the alleys behind them--low-hanging, unpainted shelters with no electricity. The Strayhorns lived at 7212 Tioga Street Rear, a dirt-and-gravel road named for the bigger, tree-lined and paved street in front of it. Lillian tried to train her children to refer to their address as "Tioga Street, the zenith way." The location's shortcomings weren't entirely semantic, however. "The landlords who owned these properties didn't want to keep them up, although they still wanted to make money off them. So they would let a black person move into them, and that's how the neighborhood was integrated," recounted Robert Conaway, a boyhood friend of Billy Strayhorn's who worked with him musically in Pittsburgh (and eventually married one of his sisters). "Billy lived on a little side street where they had a little shack," said Conaway. "He lived in a four-room shack there--actually, that's what it was, a shack. They [later] tore it down. It was an eyesore, actually." At best, the house was spartan a box, flat-roofed and made of wood, with two rooms on each floor. Facing the front door, stairs led up to two bedrooms; the toilet was in the basement. The largest room in the house was the kitchen, at the rear of the main floor, and it had a wood-burning stove, a round table, and press-back chairs arranged on an apple, green painted floor. In the front room, two folding chairs faced the heater (wood-burning) that handled the whole house. There were plain pipe-and-globe gas light fixtures, unpainted walls, and no pictures hanging.
By now, James's ambitions, already pulled to wire thinness, were beginning to disintegrate. Drifting from the steel mills to lower-paying labor, he ended up working as a hod carrier. His job was to heap plaster onto a handled metal plate (the hod) and to carry it on his shoulder to masons working on construction sites. He didn't mix the plaster and he didn't apply it; he carried it and could prove he did by the hump on one shoulder that hod carriers wore as a badge of duty. After an especially grueling period, a hod carrier's hump would tend to crack open, abscessed. Unlike many others at this work, however, James didn't lose the hair on one side of his head from the exposure to lye, although he was hospitalized twice for chemical damage to his eyes. Much the same, Lillian found her own dreams of leading a society life degenerating to a routine of survival. The family kept growing: after Bill came the first girl who lived, Georgia, in 1921; another healthy boy, John, in 1924; another, Theodore, in 1926; then premature twins, Samuel and Harry, both of whom died shortly after their birth in 1928. Lillian carried the responsibility of rearing the five children with few labor-saving devices--she sewed their clothes by hand--and with progressively less help from James; after working long days, he was spending more and longer evenings at Harry Collins's place.
"He became a bitter person and a drinker," explained Lillian Strayhorn Dicks, Lillian and James's last child, born in 1930. "My father shouldn't have been born when he was born-that was his first mistake. I think the fact that he was born out of his time was the cause of a lot of his unhappiness, the frustration or whatever. He was bright and had a lot of personality, and he probably would have done very well years later. But back then, who needed a bright black man with personality? That goes a little against the grain when you have to put your head down and you have a family to raise. So, being blessed with a sharp tongue and a temper, he became a bitter person--a bitter person with a lot of responsibility and a lot of frustration." Volatile and envenomed by drink, James released his frustrations on his family. The least of his attacks were verbal: when his son John came down with a case of eczema, James razzed him with the nickname Johnny Blaze Face. Most were physical: he would routinely beat one of the boys for ostensible infractions he wouldn't explain. Bill seemed to trigger the worst in him, perhaps because the boy was so small and quiet, the easiest prey, so different from James--and so much like Lillian. With few exceptions, dames treated him dismissively, and the exceptions were often ugly. Bill started wearing eyeglasses and once laid them on the floor while he was reading; when James entered the room, he stomped on them and walked away laughing. "He traumatized his children, especially Billy, because of the kind of mistreatment that he would subject them to. He was very cruel to them," said Robert Conaway. "The children, when they were young, were frightened of him." As Lillian Strayhorn Dicks recalled, "Oh, he was abusive. He would say things that would hurt you. He would hit. You learned to be fast with the side step."
Like many parents who nurture sick babies to health, especially parents who have lost earlier offspring, Bill's mother always seemed uniquely connected to her "miracle baby." "They were extremely close--to the exclusion of everyone, I think," said Lillian Strayhorn Dicks. If that closeness provoked his father's wrath, his mother was quick to intercede in his defense. "She would deflect [James's] anger away from Billy and bear the burden of that," one member of the Strayhorn family said. "She would stand up there and challenge him. She would basically interpose herself and protect Billy from his rage. I think that's part of what shaped her and her relationship with Billy." Her own aspirations may have faded ("I know she wanted more in life," said Lillian Strayhorn Dicks, "and I think she felt, If only dim had done things differently . . .") but she clearly saw hope in Bill, still just a grade school boy without much direction or evident sense of himself. She took extreme measures to insulate him from his father as well as from his older brother, Jimmy, and indeed from all of Homewood, sending him on a series of long visits to his grandparents in North Carolina.
Bill had first spent time in Hillsborough with his mother at the age of five or so, and the two of them, sometimes with other family members, had visited occasionally since. But from age eight to eleven, he stayed in Hillsborough during school vacations for weeks at a time. Hillsborough was literally his second home--and spiritually, it seems, his first. "His sister Georgia used to say that he was different when he came back from Hillsborough, that something good happened to him down there," a Strayhorn family member confided. "It's almost as if that's where he found himself. I know he got a lot of attention down there and had the run of the place, pretty much, and that couldn't be further from the situation in Homewood, where he really didn't have the room to hear himself think." Space and leisure time were abundant in and around Lizzie and Jobe Strayhorn's house on the comer of Hillsborough Avenue and West Margaret Lane. It was an airy place, surrounded by a wide plank porch and, at its perimeter, greenery in the summer. Lizzie had a special affection for flowers, and she'd spend hours discussing them with Bill. The inside of her house was friendly: pictures decorated the walls, and the Victrola was well used, usually to play spirituals. The thoroughly furnished parlor was arranged around the piano, a symbol of cultured gentility rare on Tioga Street Rear. In the evenings, Lizzie, who served as pianist for her church, played often and prettily, as neighbors would recall years later. Apparently she also made an impression on her grandson, whom she guided and encouraged until the piano eventually became central to his life in Hillsborough. "My grandmother played the piano, and I used to kind of, you know, waddle over to the piano--toddle, shall I say?--" Strayhorn recalled, "and pick out little things that sounded good to me." Experimenting at the keyboard, he approximated a few tunes he had heard in church, among them "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder, I'll Be There," a favorite of his mother's. "In Hillsborough, he was able to live more like our mother wanted him to live in Homewood," Lillian Strayhorn Dicks said. Bill would disappear for hours and take long walks by himself, wandering through the old slave cemetery catty-comer from Lizzie and Jobe's house, following the squirrely bank of the Eno River, a few hundred yards to the south, or roaming the trails of the woods to the west, where people liked to pick Suppernong grapes.
Back on Tioga Street Rear, where the focal point of the living room generated heat rather than warmth, Bill's budding interest in music and flowers had few outlets. The family's weekly household budget of fifteen to twenty dollars left no extra money for music lessons, let alone an instrument: when he entered the fifth grade of Homewood Elementary School in his brother's hand-me-downs, his classmates teased him because the toes of his shoes were curled up like pixie boots. His parents had at last filed an amendment to his birth certificate, legally naming him William Thomas Strayhorn; establishing his own identity was another matter. As he would recall in later years, "During grade [school], I had no music, except what one ordinarily gets in grade school--you know, group singing and that's about all. One thing I wanted was to play the piano, and I wanted that badly. But my family didn't have a piano. You can't learn to play one if you haven't got one."
Bill set out to buy himself a piano. "I started selling papers. On the same comer as that on which I sold my papers was a drugstore, and occasionally I would do errands for the druggists--you know, deliver medicines and things like that," he told an interviewer. This drugstore was the Pennfield, a prosperous, busy shop on the comer of Washington and Penn Avenues, an upper-middle-class Jewish district. "Well, eventually, being the neighborhood paper-boy as it were, I got to know everyone in the district, so the druggist hired me because I was so familiar with all his potential customers. He took me as a sort of, well, a kind of soda fountain and delivery boy. But I worked things up until I was practically a clerk. Of course, during all this time I was going to grade school and selling papers as well. So I finally bought myself a piano and started to play it. I started to study, and the more I reamed, the more I wanted to learn. My family was kind of large and so couldn't indulge me in all my wishes, so I had to do this for myself. It wasn't all that easy, but I guess if you want something hard enough it just gets done. Directly I got that piano."
What he bought was an upright player piano with a broken roll mechanism, and it became the new centerpiece of the parlor on Tioga Street Rear, much to his mother's pleasure; his father was rarely home long enough to react one way or another. Lillian's only objection was to her son's repetition of piano exercises. As Lillian Strayhorn Dicks said, "There would be times when Mama would say, `Okay--I can't take another! Play a song through, won't you?", (Long after this, his mother would delight in recalling the first song she ever heard Bill play, the spiritual "Brighten the Corner Where You Are.") He paid for his own sheet music and lessons, which he took from Charlotte Catlin, a black teacher associated with Volkwein's, a music store that was a hub of musical activity in Pittsburgh. As Robert Conaway recalled, "All the money he could get a hold of, he bought music. He had so much music that the house was swamped with music--all kinds of music, novelty music and everything. He had music stacked up everywhere, in the comers and places. It was orderly but all stacked up. He had it stacked this high." (Conaway gestured to his chest, about four and a half feet from the floor.)
Most eleven-year-olds in Homewood gravitated toward the streets. In good weather, boys and girls together played One-Two-Three-Dropkick in the alleys or roller-skated back and forth on Penn Avenue till dark--on Saturdays, they might race all the way to Sharpsburg and back, a good five miles. Bill Strayhorn didn't join them. If his Hillsborough experiences represented a certain enlightenment in repose, he seemed to seek some kind of continuity at home: after school, he walked around the closest thing to the woods, Frick Park, a 340-acre patch of trees ( 135 varieties) and man-made ponds, and he found solidarity in one good friend, Harry Herforth, a kindred spirit from a white street in Homewood. The two had much in common: small and soft featured, Herforth was one of nine children raised by a single mother who worked as a three-dollar-a-day domestic, and both boys were developing an interest in music. (Though Herforth hadn't begun playing an instrument when he and Strayhorn became friends, he soon took up the trumpet; as an adult, he played assistant first chair with the Boston Symphony.) "We were scrabbling to keep body and soul together," Herforth recalled. "Billy and I were both in about the same straits, it seemed to me. But we had a bond that was memorable. We gravitated together because of our artistic sensibility. He was well-read. He was an egghead as a kid. He talked about books, and I talked about books that we had read--Treasure Island, short stories by Jack London--and we didn't talk about much else. Other kids were talking about girls and sports. Directly across from our grade school was the Homewood library, and it was a place of hallowed sanctity to each of us. We would go there, and as soon as you go into the door, to me it was like going into a temple, a cathedral, because of the books--the books were just full of wonderment. When I mentioned this [to Strayhorn], I discovered that Billy, too, felt that the library was a cathedral of learning. That was what brought us together."
Strayhorn introduced Herforth to his outdoor sanctuary. "When we had time, we would go to Frick Park, and we would walk and talk--we walked and talked and walked and talked. As I recall quite clearly, we never talked about kids, other people. We talked about composers, authors, playwrights--not esoteric ones, but ones that were esoteric to us at the time. He would ask me if I had heard of Cesar Franck. `Did you hear this?' `Have you heard that?' That was 90 percent of our conversation. Looking back on my whole life, that was one of the outstanding things: taking a walk with Billy Stray, horn. I went to his house frequently, but only to pick him up on our way somewhere. I would sit in the living room. I never talked to any member of his family aside from his mother, and that was just `Hello.' His father would pass by, but he wouldn't even look at me or Billy. There was no conversation whatsoever, not with me and not with his son."
For the next five years, Strayhorn and Herforth attended Westinghouse High, a public school endowed by George Westinghouse, the electrical industrialist whose local factory then employed some thirty-five thousand workers in the Pittsburgh area; the company logo hung over the auditorium stage. Within its two city blocks of austere white-granite walls, Westinghouse had an enrollment of four hundred, about 20 percent black, and was well known for its gym team, which from the late 1920s to the late 1930s won the city finals ten years straight. In 1927, Carl McVicker, a young Carnegie Tech graduate, joined the Westinghouse faculty as an instrumental-music teacher and instituted a music program considered so radical that two teachers left the school over it. (It helped McVicker's cause that his oldest friend was superintendent of schools.) He accepted and encouraged students of all backgrounds and races to play all instruments. "Mr. McVicker instilled self-respect in those of us who were his students, because he respected us regardless of our background," said pianist Ahmad Jamal (once Fritz Jones), a student of McVicker's who made his professional debut while still attending Westinghouse. In addition, McVicker started a school swing band as a (then-controversial) alternative to the concert orchestra and marching band. Under McVicker, music-hungry students like Strayhorn thrived. "We were a factory-town school, so we had a lot of kids like Billy, kids who needed an outlet of one kind or another but had a hard time because they were black," explained McVicker, a gangly six-foot-three man with open, deep-pooled eyes and a Chaplin mustache; he looked like the music teacher of a student's doodle. "I wanted any kid in my program who was serious, and Billy was about as serious as they get. Earnest, hardworking, wanted to get ahead in music. As a matter of fact, I would say he was much different from most high school musicians. He was an intellectual. He had a broad base of knowledge of academics, although he learned everything we could teach him about music--and more. You know, he didn't play in the swing band. He wasn't interested. He was a serious pianist and concentrated strictly on the concert repertoire."
For high school piano and harmony instruction, Strayhorn had Jane Patton Alexander, a middle-aged musical conservative who stressed rules and discipline. Strayhorn would remember her with begrudging gratitude. "She did a wonderful thing for me: she taught me a basic progression, and I did that for two years," he said in a 1962 interview. "Couldn't vary. Had to do it in all kinds of ways. Of course, I hated it. But it was invaluable training." Alexander must have held him in high regard: when she had to leave the classroom, she put Strayhorn in charge of teaching his own class. "He would get up from his little chair and go up in front of the class and proceed to teach the class--oh, for a good forty, forty-five minutes," says Frank Spangler, one of Strayhorn's music-theory classmates. "He was just a kid like the rest of us, but he was already like a professor."
Bit by bit, from classroom to auditorium and then to ballroom, Strayhorn began taking his musical ambitions public. In school he worked his way up the scale of academic orchestras, eventually assuming the role of first pianist for the forty-nine-piece Senior Orchestra, which performed concert scores of lenient pieces like Grieg's "Sigurd Jorsalfar" and Karl Goldmark's "Sakuntala Overture." Strayhorn joined the orchestra for an hour of rehearsal every day at noon, the fourth period, and performed with it at school assemblies and the annual commencement exercises. The culmination of his experience with the orchestra came on the evening of March 1, 1934, when he was featured in a performance of Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 16. "I never heard a student play that way before or after," said Carl McVicker more than fifty years later. "The orchestra may have been a group of students, but Billy Strayhorn was a professional artist."
Outside of school, meanwhile, Strayhorn started to test the local music waters. As Harry Herforth began to master the trumpet, he and Strayhorn worked up some duets, including W. Paris Chambers's "Commodore Polka"--pleasant and gently impressive diversions, exactly the sort of thing civic groups had clean-scrubbed students perform as entertainment interludes at meetings. The duo of Herforth and Strayhorn filled this bill at several high school assemblies, at a few PTA meetings, and once for the Pittsburgh Board of Education. "I don't know how many of the people who heard us were expecting a mixed-race duo, but we certainly were subjected to a lot of glares. We were nervous enough without that," said Her, forth. "I do think it softened the blow that Billy was perceived as my accompanist, though that's not at all how we wanted to be seen." Under McVicker's direction, Westinghouse High provided Pittsburgh organizations an alternative to the Herforth-Strayhorn duo: the Orchestra Club, a twenty-five-piece classical ensemble selected by audition from the top ranks of the larger school orchestra. Strayhorn, the pianist, was the only black member. The group performed frequently at social events around Pittsburgh, including banquets at both of the city's major hotels, the Schenley and the William Penn. The club's first trombonist, John Stitt, would remember Strayhorn as "pretty quiet--he kept to himself, since there weren't too many black fellows in classical music back then." Frank Raucci, the bass violinist, would recall something more unusual: "He had a book full of music, which he played when the club met. It was beautiful, I remember. We found out later that he had been playing his own compositions--he was writing all this time. But we could never tell. They sounded just like works by a classical composer."
From all evidence, one piece the Orchestra Club probably heard was a piano waltz titled "Valse" that Strayhorn composed while he was in his teens. A fully developed short composition (three pages), it derives expressive force from purling melodic lines and graceful modulations. Its mood is warmly impassioned, and it moves languidly (marked lento sostenuto for tempo). Harmonically, the piece owes something to Chopin, shifting among flat keys, primarily B-flat minor, and it remains something of a prodigy's exploration. But in its emotional lucidity and sheer loveliness, it bears the unmistakable mark of Billy Strayhorn.
He tackled a far more ambitious task in composing a hybrid of classical and vernacular music titled Concerto for Piano and Percussion. Like his piano waltz, the short piece is "through composed": it develops organically, with knowing use of music theory; it is no innocent's experiment. Unlike the waltz, however, Strayhorn's Concerto for Piano and Percussion was performed before an audience. Huddling inside against the record cold, more than six hundred family members and friends of the winter 1934 graduating class heard the piece at commencement exercises in the Westinghouse High auditorium. (There were two graduating classes each year, one in late January or February, and one in June.) The composer was one of seventeen black students in the class of 145. "Oh man, it was great," said the percussionist Michael (Mickey) Scrima, for whom the piece was composed. A high-energy kid with huge dark eyes and a sharp nose, Scrima became music buddies with Strayhorn in the band room. (In adulthood, he would become a respected swing-band drummer best known for a stint with Harry James in the 1940s.) "It was something that he worked up just for us--a classical piece, all written down, including all my parts. I had a xylophone and timpanis all tuned up to a certain note. I even had to go out and get a set of bells just to play one part. It was all just so, just perfect. The audience loved it--it was a lot of fun, a whole lot of fun. I don't know how much they understood it, mind you--if they realized how sophisticated this piece was, and how extraordinary it was that this kid in their school had written it."
Years later, some Westinghouse students would swear they had heard Billy Strayhorn play Rhapsody in Blue that day, and they weren't far wrong: there is quite a bit of Gershwin in this early Strayhorn effort. Rhythmically vibrant and catchy, it applies variations of jaunty popular music-style phrases over chromatic harmonies and syncopated rhythms in much the way that Gershwin had popularized, by way of black jazz, European concert music and Yiddish theater songs. Strayhorn's composition is the work of a musical sophisticate: his manuscript includes fastidious tempo markings and "enharmonic" note spellings (to distinguish between F-sharp and G-flat, technically different notes, but the same key on the piano). Moreover, for all its Gershwin influence, the piece has distinctive Strayhorn touches (the E-flat-minor chord with a major seventh early in the piece would appear recurrently in his later work) and is, as a whole, a work of stylish charm.
As a skilled musician, Strayhorn gained a certain kind of high school celebrity, which is not quite to say popularity. He was often invited to the big parties held in both white and black circles, but there always seemed to be a piano and he was inevitably asked to perform. Similarly, groups of classmates would sometimes drop by his house, prompt him to play for a while, then leave together as they had come. "Everybody was in awe of Billy, you know, because of his music," said Beatrice Wright Westbrooks, one of his schoolmates and a Homewood neighbor. "We all thought he was really something special--everybody talked about him." What his peers said, however, was often laced with unease. "Well, Strayhorn--he was just like, you'd say, a genius. He was very much to himself. Some might have called him like a little oddball or something, because he didn't socialize much. But he was too busy with his work and his creations and things like that," said his classmate Dorothy Ford Gardin. "Talent. Talent. Talent. That was Billy. But he didn't hang around much, because he was into his own musical creative type of thing, his own niche, so to speak," Fred Staton recalled. "He was like Einstein. He was an unusual guy, very unusual," agreed William Brown. Below his senior-class picture in the yearbook, the inscription reads: "It's hard to express our opinion of you . . ."
"I think my brother really dove with full force into everything my mother always wanted for him--music, books, art, the whole world of culture," explained Lillian Strayhorn Dicks. "I don't know if she wanted him to live the life she always wanted, or if he wanted to be like her, or if they both wanted Bill to be the opposite of his father. But he dedicated himself to all the finer things in life." Stray, horn, that is, embraced all the era's standard symbols of refinement. He studied French, joining the high school's Cercle Francais; when his brothers and sisters riled him at home, he would strike back with a casual "Taisez-vous." He kept his clothes impeccably clean and pressed; when practicing piano at home, he neatly hung up his pants first, then played in his shirt, socks, shoes, and underwear. President of the Westinghouse Pen Club, he took out a subscription to the New Yorker and acquired a grand vocabulary, which he employed with conscientious diction; his classmates nicknamed him Dictionary. "He had a hard time, man," said Mickey Scrima. "It's no wonder he was timid. He was in a shell. You got to remember, those Pittsburghers were tough. How can I say this? He had a hard time making friends. To tell you the truth, people used to call him a sissy. That's what everybody said. The thing is, he had bigger fish to fry. All he did day and night was concentrate on the only thing he cared about, the one thing he wanted--to go on doing what he did on the day of our graduation,: be a classical concert pianist."
Along with the announcement of a performance of William Strayhorn's Concerto for Piano and Percussion, the program for the commencement exercises for the class of winter 1934 included the class motto, "Let success by virtue be our goal."
Meet the Author
David Hajdu, who works as an editor with Entertainment Weekly in New York City, has written about music for The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Village Voice, among other publications.
David Hajdu is the music critic for The Nation and a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Nation in January 2015, he served for more than ten years as the music critic for The New Republic. He is the author of three books of narrative nonfiction and and one collection of essays: Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn (FSG, 1996), Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña (FSG, 2001), The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America (FSG, 2008), and Heroes and Villains: Essays on Music, Movies, Comics, and Culture (2009). Lush Life, Positively 4th Street, and Heroes and Villians were all finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award. The Ten-Cent Plague was a finalist for the Eisner award, and the editors of Amazon named it the #1 Best Book of the Year on the arts.
Hajdu is married to the singer and actor Karen Oberlin and is the father of three. He lives in Manhattan with his family.
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