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Donald Macleod looks at the life and work of American jazz musician Billy Strayhorn, beginning with his early days growing up in difficult circumstances in Homewood, Pittsburgh.

Donald Macleod looks at the life and work of American jazz musician Billy Strayhorn, beginning with his early days growing up in difficult circumstances in Homewood, Pittsburgh.

"The biggest human being who ever lived, a man with the most majestic artistic stature", so began Duke Ellington's eulogy on Billy Strayhorn.
A life cut short at just 51, Strayhorn's funeral on 5th June 1967 drew a line on a musical relationship that had continued for almost thirty years. During that time Duke Ellington had never produced a formal contract for Strayhorn's services, yet virtually every performance and every recording session done by the Duke and his Orchestra included original compositions and arrangements done by Strayhorn. The band's sig tune, Take the A Train is one of a number of works which were originally registered as being Duke Ellington's. While not an unheard of practice, this neither reflected Strayhorn's importance within the Ellington enterprise, nor could it be regarded as advantageous to his reputation as a composer. It's possible a significant factor from Strayhorn's perspective wasn't musical. Remaining out of the limelight enabled him to lead an openly homosexual life in an age of strong prejudice.

Taking five key environments that shaped Strayhorn's personal and musical trajectory, across the week Donald Macleod builds a picture of the contributory factors supporting Strayhorn's development as a composer and his extraordinary association with Ellington.

Born in 1915, Strayhorn's early life was over-shadowed by poverty and a violent father. Set on a career in classical music, it took him 6 years of toil as a “soda jerk and delivery boy” at a local drugstore to get the money together to study at music college. Then, an Art Tatum record showed him that everything he loved about classical music was there in one form or another in jazz.

Strayhorn: Take the “A” Train
Duke Ellington (piano) & his Orchestra

Strayhorn: Lush Life
Sarah Vaughan, vocals
Hal Mooney’s orchestra

Strayhorn: Valse
Bill Charlap, piano

Strayhorn: Something to Live For
Billy Strayhorn, piano
Ozzie Bailey, vocals

Strayhorn: Fantastic Rhythm
A Penthouse on Shady Avenue
Let nature take its course
feat. Marjorie Barnes, vocals
Rob van Bavel, piano
Frans van der Hoeven, bass
Eric Ineke, drums

Strayhorn: Suite for the Duo (1966)
Dwike Mitchell , piano
Willie Ruff, French horn and bass

Strayhorn: My little Brown Book
Michael Hashim, alto saxophone
Michael le Donne, piano
Dennis Irwin, bass
Kenny Washington, drums

Strayhorn, arr. Walter van der Leuw
The Hues
The Dutch Jazz Orchestra
Jerry van Rooijen, leader

59 minutes

Music Played

  • Billy Strayhorn

    Take the 'A' Train

    Performer: Duke Ellington. Ensemble: Duke Ellington Orchestra.
    • Naxos 8120743.
    • Naxos.
    • 1.
  • Billy Strayhorn

    Lush Life

    Singer: Sarah Vaughan. Ensemble: Hal Mooney Orchestra.
    • Verve 5299082.
    • Verve.
    • 1.
  • Billy Strayhorn

    My Little Brown Book

    Performer: Michael Le Donne. Performer: Kenny Washington. Singer: Dennis Irwin.
    • Stash STCD533.
    • Stash.
    • 9.

Broadcast

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