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Don Hunstein’s iconic photograph of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn captured the longtime colleagues in front of the tour bus that had brought the Ellington Orchestra to the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956, likely going over details for the performance that would bring renewed interest in the legacy swing band. While Ellington and Strayhorn had collaborated on a new suite written specifically for the event, it was saxophonist Paul Gonsalves’ rousing 27-chorus solo on a chestnut from the Ellington songbook, “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” that had audience members shouting and dancing wildly, perhaps as their parents had done a generation earlier.
The Ellington-Strayhorn partnership dated back to 1938, resulting in some of the big band’s best-loved numbers, including “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Satin Doll” and “Something To Live For,” and Strayhorn compositions such as “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing” and “Lush Life” conveyed a wistfulness that likely stemmed from the composer’s experiences as a gay man in an unaccepting world. Although Ellington wasn’t always generous with acknowledging his co-writer in the song credits or royalty checks — Strayhorn actually left the band for a time over such slights — their partnership endured for nearly 30 years. Ellington was devastated over Strayhorn’s passing in 1967, after a long battle with cancer, going on to describe his alter ego as “my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.”
Featured photo courtesy of Sony.