16 feb. 2009

Reading the David Hajdu biography of Billy Strayhorn, Lush Life. I began to refine my perceptions of Strayhorn's music in relation to that of Ellington. First of, to the extent that it's possible to isolate a Strayhorn sound, separate from Duke, I think it's a particular poignancy you can hear in "Chelsea Bridge" and "Passion Flower." A second category would be music that wouldn't exist with Strayhorn but that doesn't necessarily have that Strayhorn coloration, like "Some Sweet Thunder." Stayhorn was in no way Duke's inferior as a composer, and the case could even be made in the opposite direction. Certainly the younger man was the more schooled musician, both as composer/arranger and as pianist. He could compose a score on paper, without a piano, while other music played in the background. Also a more educated and bookish person than Duke. Duke maybe taught him some things, but most of it Strayhorn already knew or figured out himself. Duke knew how to keep him close, deliberately preventing him from striking out on his own--to the point of telling others who wanted to hire them that Billy wasn't that great! There was no written contract between the two men. Ellington just paid for everything from rent to food and gave him a share of his publishing company.

Strayhorn liked to be in the shadow of the Duke to a certain extent, because then he could live the way he wanted with not much public scrutiny. He never hid the fact that he was gay from anyone. Ellington exploited this, though, and took full credit for things that the two had composed together--or even for things that Strayhorn had done with little or no input from Ellington at all. For the casual public Ellington was the great man, and Strayhorn just an arranger in his band, if they were conscious of him at all.

Even side projects by Ellington folk like Strayhorn, Hodges, etc... tended toward the Ellingtonian. If Hodges made a record on his own, he would just hire other Ellington side men and play songs by Tizol, Strayhorn, or Ellington himself. A few players who passed through had their own independent identities, but those tended to the ones who didn't stay quite as long, like Ben Webster or Oscar Pettiford.

4 comentarios:

John dijo...

The statement, "Stayhorn was in no way Duke's inferior as a composer," could only be true if you discount blues (at which Ellington was superior), free-jazz influenced stuff ("Money Jungle," made without Strayhorn's participation; "Afro-Eurasian Eclipse," made after Strayhorn died), and '20s-style jazz, which Ellington made before Strayhorn was a teenager and which was out of fashion by the time Strayhorn got going.

Even on the question of delicate poignancy, Ellington was in no way inferior -- "African Flower," "The Single Petal of a Rose." Strayhorn may have had a more sophisticated harmonic pallet than Ellington, and he was a beautiful composer and songwriter in his own right, and overshadowed in all the ways Hajdu describes (not Hadju -- I make that mistake all the time!). In the classic styles of the late '30s, '40s, and '50s, they were equals, and a case could be made that Strayhorn was superior (though I couldn't make it), but Ellington's range was greater, and not just because he lived a lot longer.

How many artists can you think of besides Ellington who made some of his most exploratory work in his 70s? Picasso? I can't think of anybody else.

Jonathan dijo...

I've corrected the spelling, so thanks for that. I didn't have the book in front of me so I was taking a stab at it and guessed wrong.

Your points are fair ones. I would say that some of the ways in which Ellington surpasses Strayhorn have to do with the fact that the latter's contributions are sometimes subsumed under the formers, in their numerous collaborations. I'm not fond of Money Jungle either so I wasn't taking that into account.

I hadn't thought of Ellington as superior to Strayhorn in the blues--a genre that Strayhorn was not particularly interested in as far as I can tell. Mostly, I don't think of blues as something that has to be composed, and I tend to undervalue even blues written by Monk, Mingus, or Charlie Parker, in comparison to other kinds of compositions. Maybe I'm wrong in this particular bias of mine. Since the blues form is the one harmonic structure I have some understanding of, I think of it as fairly simplistic. After all, even I understand it so it can't be that complicated!

John dijo...

The underlying point is that Strayhorn mastered Ellington's style in a way that nobody else did, but Ellington's style was fully developed and had gone through one or two major transformations already before Strayhorn joined him, and continued developing after Strayhorn died. They did go through the swing-to-bop transition together, which for most people is "classic jazz," but Ellington's career, while it's exemplary of that phase and that transition, is also exemplary of preceding and succeeding phases of jazz style & history.

Blues is foundational. Ellington is also way more interested in exotica and gospel than Strayhorn. Do you know the New Orleans Suite? Hodges's last recorded solo on "Blues for New Orleans" is so gorgeous, and it's the most gorgeous composition as a whole. Made after Strayhorn died; other pieces of the suite are fantastic too.

The other underlying point is, Hooray for Ellington! Hooray for Strayhorn!

Jonathan dijo...

Yes, hooray for them. And thanks to you I'm getting quite an education. I don't have the New Orleans Suite but it's still early in the year.