Mar. 20, 2003 – Vol. 22 No. 12

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    Historical richness, aesthetic power of Billy Strayhorn’s jazz coming to life at University

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    “It’s a wonderful thing, I mean, to bow after a Billy Strayhorn orchestration. This is one of the things I do best.” Thus joked Duke Ellington, often acknowledged as the greatest composer in jazz. But it is funny in both senses of the word to understand what he meant: that much of his greatest work, including signature tunes like Take the ‘A’ Train, is partly or mostly Strayhorn’s. Because if jazz is America’s most distinct contribution to the world’s music, then Strayhorn is one of America’s greatest, and least acknowledged, composers.

    But this is Strayhorn’s year at the University, as new performances, documents and academic appointments illuminate the music of Ellington’s “flower.” David Hajdu, who wrote an acclaimed biography of Strayhorn, titled Lush Life, is this year’s Robert Vare Visiting Writer in Residence. In the book, the result of pioneering research conducted over 11 years, Hajdu shows how Strayhorn allowed his identity and genius to be absorbed into that of Ellington.

    The biography is studded with references to Strayhorn compositions that were never recorded or published, from youthful oddities that sound “like a grade school valentine set to the music of an Eastern European dirge,” to truly important works by this witty and lush mind.

    Copies of these unheard compositions will be presented Saturday, March 29, to the University of Chicago Library’s Chicago Jazz Archives, to the sounds of the works themselves. Strayhorn’s niece Alyce Claerbaut and members of the Strayhorn family will present these newly discovered, never performed works, and the Chicago Jazz Orchestra will perform them at 8 p.m. in “Something to Live For: A Tribute to Billy Strayhorn,” at the Museum of Science and Industry. Guest soloists are trumpeter Orbert Davis, saxophonist Eddie Johnson and singer Frieda Lee.

    The discovery of the new Strayhorn material opens up new possibilities for both research and performance, explained Deborah Gillaspie, Curator of the Chicago Jazz Archive at the Regenstein Library. “The archive’s first set of Billy Strayhorn Manuscript Editions was a gift from the University of Chicago Library Society, made in honor of President Randel, a noted musicologist and jazz enthusiast.

    “While the scores were a logical acquisition for the archive, I also was thinking of the value of these works to the Department of Music. In hopes of future performances by departmental jazz ensembles, I requested the full versions of the charts–scores, parts and performance licenses. But what excited me the most were the new opportunities for research in jazz and composition that these scores made possible.

    “Examining Strayhorn and Ellington’s ideas before collaboration allows researchers to follow the independent thought processes of the two composers, then see how they interacted to produce the performance versions. Earlier and later versions of the same chart also provide interesting research opportunities.”

    The latest gift of musical scores provides additional research opportunities, said Gillaspie. “The new scores are for unheard works, music not performed during Strayhorn’s lifetime. While Strayhorn is popularly honored as Ellington’s muse and a brilliant collaborator, these scores will allow us to see and study Billy Strayhorn, the composer, in a way that has not been possible until now. It’s so marvelous for the Chicago Jazz Archive to be able to offer scholars the opportunity to work with this material, and I’m grateful to the Strayhorn family for this generous gift.”

    As Strayhorn’s works begin to show their full historical richness and aesthetic power, the Department of Music continues to develop resources to illuminate this musical style. Thanks to a major donation from University Trustee Parker Hall, a search is currently underway to fill a position in American Music, which promises to advance the department’s Jazz Studies program. The endowment also will support the jazz archive and a jazz performance series on campus.

    The Masters of Jazz Piano series, taking place this quarter, has brought solo keyboardist Fred Hersch to the stage. Hersch commented on how a work like Strayhorn’s signature piece, Lush Life, can set the upper limits for performance. “For vocalists, it’s kind of like a Mount Everest. It’s so poetic and the sentiments are so deep that they’re afraid to approach it. Ellington never recorded it, because he thought nobody did it as well as Strayhorn did.”

    Thomas Christensen, Chairman of Music and Professor in Music and the College, emphasized that these new concerts continue the University’s “historical connection to the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s jazz concert series in Mandel Hall, when major jazz bands came through town and played on campus, and great Chicago groups, such as the Art Ensemble, gave legendary performances. Jazz and blues places lined 55th Street and 47th Street from the 1920s through the 1950s. And with the new departmental appointment, we hope to begin a renaissance in jazz studies here.”

    But as jazz becomes canonized and the lives of its greatest composers turn into history, does that ossify the music, restricting it to a remote time and place? A closer look at the way jazz came about in the first place argues that, alongside its authentic, rooted qualities, it is powerful at reaching across time and space, conjuring up what is lost or has not yet been experienced.

    Hajdu pointed out that Strayhorn was a teen-ager when he started writing Lush Life–with its lyrics of places “where one relaxes on the axis/Of the wheel of life/To get the feel of life/From jazz and cocktails”–and finished it somewhere in between 1936 and 1937, when he was still working as a soda jerk in Pittsburgh.

    “He didn’t have any of the experiences he wrote about in the song. He was a kid walking home from the drugstore to a home that had no pictures on the walls, that not only had no pictures on the walls but no paint, no electricity. It’s not exactly the world of jazz and cocktails. The song is a prayer, even though it’s wistful and a little dark, it’s describing the life Strayhorn wanted to lead–it’s a dream,” Hajdu wrote.

    The Saturday, March 29 concert and presentation, presented by the Chicago Jazz Orchestra and the National Jazz Museum, begin at 8 p.m. at the Museum of Science and Industry, with a repeat performance at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 30, at the Harold Washington Library Center. For information call (312) 409-3947. Tickets are available at http://nationaljazzmuseum.org.

    Next month, the Masters of Jazz Piano series will bring legendary pianist Dick Hyman to the University at 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 15, in Fulton Recital Hall, 1010 E. 59th St. Information and tickets are available at (773) 702-8484.