By Matt Micucci
November 29 will mark the celebration of the 100 years since Billy Strayhorn’s birth. Strayhorn was an American jazz composer, pianist, lyricist and arranger, best known for his successful collaboration with bandleader and composer Duke Ellington, which lasted nearly three decades, for who, he composed the standard Take the ‘A’ Train – the band’s best known piece – and a number of other pieces that became part of the band’s repertoire, such as Lotus Blossom and Chelsea Bridge.
In his lifetime, Strayhorn was a very inspiring figure. Aside from him being celebrated for his artistry, he was also active in racial equality from his days at Westinghouse High School in Homewood to Manhattan get-together in the early sixties with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. On top of that, he lived an openly gay lifestyle when being gay was absolutely viewed as unacceptable by the vast majority of society.
Strange to believe that it wasn’t until years after his death from esophaegeal cancer in 1967 that his significance in the jazz world began to emerge.
This month, musical groups from around the world will mark Strayhorn’s 100th birthday.
Sean Jones and the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra will headline the 8th annual Suite Life benefit concert on Nov 28, with special quest Anqwenique Wingfield at East Liberty’s Kelly Strayhorn Theater – which was named for the composer and fellow Pittsburgh native Gene Kelly. The evening will include renditions of classic Strayhorn compositions and a tribute to the continued influence of his work on artists today.
On Nov 12, the Seattle Art Museum presents an event named Art of Jazz: Billy Strayhorn project in which vocalist Tyrone Brown haisl the music of Strayhorn along with Nte Omdal on bass and direction, Michael Dwcharuk on piano and Jacques Willis on drums.
There will also be a celebration of the music of Strayhorn at the Bologna Jazz Festival, which takes place from the Oct 26 to Nov 26, with performances by Big Band del Conservatorio G.B. Martini di Bologna, pianist Emiliano Pintori and a special conference held by Michele Corcella.
EFG London Jazz Festival presents Lush Life: A Tribute to Billy Strayhorn, Nov. 20. The Billy Strayhorn Festival, “Lush Life” concert concludes a three-month celebration at Roosevelt University in Chicago, Nov. 21. Strayhorn, The Giant Who Lived in the Shadows, with the Lovejoy Group, Nov. 27, Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C. And, an event named Take The ‘A’ Train: Billy Strayhorn’s 100th Birthday, Nov. 29, Symphony Space, New York City.
This year also sees the release of the book entitled Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life, edited by A. Alyce Claerbaut and filled with comments from singers like Nancy Wilson, Dianne Reeves and Lena Horne, along with photos of sheet music in Strayhorn’s hand and essays from Gregory A. Morris, Robert Levi and Walter van de Leur.
“The book is designed to tell the story of Strayhorn’s life in its many orbits,” says A. Alyce Claerbaut, editor of Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life and the composer’s niece. “What this book shows is how many orbits Strayhorn lived in and contributed to both in music and in the way he lived his life.”