Kelly-Strayhorn Theater event celebrates life of a jazz legend
By Natalie Bencivenga / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Place: Kelly-Strayhorn Theater on Saturday, November 29th, 2014.
The Party: Roughly 200 guests gathered at the East Liberty venue to celebrate what would have been the 99th birthday of jazz legend and Kelly-Strayhorn Theatre namesake, Billy Strayhorn. The evening began with a cocktail reception and champagne toast, birthday cake (naturally!) before a tribute performance with famed jazz drummerRoger Humphries, vocalistSpanky Wilson and brass quintet C Street Brass. Deryck Tines energized the crowd with his soulful rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Partygoers who stayed late enjoyed an impromptu dance party in the theater lobby with DJ SMI.
The Man Behind the Music: “Strayhorn is not only a monumental musician for Pittsburgh, but for the world,” said Janera Solomon, executive director for the Kelly-Strayhron Theatre. “As an openly gay black man, he transcended social stigmas and achieved worldwide recognition.” Pictured above, Strayhorn nephew Gregory Morris, his wife Thelma and Strayhorn nephew Darryl Strayhorn were among the crowd celebrating the legacy of their uncle Bill's life.
Cherish the Legacy of Billy Strayhorn
By Gregory A. Morris, Ph.D.
This JEN conference has great significance for the heirs of William Thomas Strayhorn, also known as, Billy Strayhorn. 2015 is the Centennial year for this jazz composer, arranger, pianist, collaborator, friend, employee, and musical partner of Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington.
A group of Billy Strayhorn Heirs will join the Jazz Education Network meeting to share some of their highlights and insights from working with the music of Billy Strayhorn over the years. The Heirs have selected for their presentation “Heirs to a Legacy: Challenges and Opportunities.”
Think about your music legacy or that of someone in your family in any field or endeavor. What would you do to promote, preserve or establish their legacy?
I am Gregory A. Morris, Ph.D., Executor of the Billy Strayhorn Estate and founding President of Billy Strayhorn Songs, Inc. The purpose of this article is to share some of our history with Billy Strayhorn, his family, music and his heirs.
As a youngster, I spent the first eight years of my life in one of the homes that Billy lived in before he moved to New York. My grandmother, Billy's mother Lillian and my mother Georgia, the older of his two sisters, revealed to me about how I would crawl under Billy's upright piano to play with the pedals and then try to stand up, always managing to bump my head on the piano's under carriage. Mama Strayhorn and my Mother used to tell me that Billy often worried about me hurting myself even though it seemed that I had a hard head. Uncle Bill would hug me and rub my head and whisper to me his special name for me.
As the years passed, Billy did not return home very much as his schedule became increasingly busy with his work with the Ellington Orchestra. When he did come home it was a great time for celebrating with the family. On one of Uncle’s trips to Pittsburgh, we talked about my high school experience and discovered that my current English Teacher at Taylor Allderdice High School had been the same teacher he had as a high school student at Westinghouse High School. From that time he always asked about her and I usually had a message from her to share with him whenever he would call.
He was such a giving person. He helped me pay my first tuition payment to the University of Pittsburgh and proudly sent me money to pay my initiation fee in a national leadership honor society (Omicron Delta Kappa). 1955 was very special for my cousin Carole and me. We were the most recent Strayhorn family high school graduates and Uncle Bill wanted to do something for us. He planned an all expense week-long visit with him in New York City!
We saw the sights, met his friends and celebrities like the Dodgers baseball stars Roy Campanella and Jackie Robinson, championship boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, popular vocalists Lena Horne, Billy Eckstine and Nat King Cole; attended a Broadway play, spent a day at Coney Island Amusement Park, Checked out a performance at the Apollo Theater and explored the heights of the Empire State Building. The best was yet to come, however because Uncle Bill had work to do. The Duke Ellington Orchestra was scheduled to perform at the Aquacade Auditorium. We went backstage to meet Mr. Ellington and then enjoyed the performance from front row seats. At intermission we had to say goodbye to Mr. Ellington who had another engagement. We were saddened for a moment until we returned to our seats for the second half of the show. Much to our delight, Billy Strayhorn walked out on the stage, bowed to the audience and preceded to conduct the Ellington Orchestra for the remainder of the show. This was truly a WOW experience for me because I had never seen nor heard the Ellington Orchestra play with Uncle Bill as their conductor and pianist!
Finally, I understood what and why so many performers and jazz aficionados were talking about the skill, depth and talent of Pittsburgh’s young Billy Strayhorn! Before meeting Duke Ellington and leaving Pittsburgh, Billy was an accomplished musician. In 1934 he was featured in a performance of Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 16. He wrote a production entitled “Fantastic Rhythm” which included “My Little Brown Book.” He wrote the famous song, “Lush Life” as a teenager. Kay Davis, Queen Latifah, Linda Ronstadt, Johnny Hartman, Kevin Mahogany, Lady Gaga and others have sung “Lush Life”. Think for a moment. Is there any doubt that this young man will leave behind an incredible legacy or at least a legacy worth learning about, preserving or sharing?
From reading “Lush Life,” Strayhorn’s biography, written by David Hajdu, it seems that in the late 50‘s and early 60‘s, Duke was becoming more involved with theatrical/musical productions such as Saturday Laughter and Jump for Joy. These shows which were not well received by many audiences perhaps because they were beyond what many had come to expect of Ellington music. The film version of the outstanding novel, Anatomy of a Murder was thought to be an even greater stretch. Ellington took on these immense projects, but soon turned over the responsibility for arranging and production of the final versions to Strayhorn. This division of effort consumed a major part of Billy’s time. After the filming and recording of the Paris Blues soundtrack, Alan Douglas who was very involved with the Paris Blues project spoke with Strayhorn about a special recording session. The outcome of this session was entitled “The Peaceful Side.” Strayhorn devotees owe it to themselves to give this recording a listening! Many scholars, friends and longtime Strayhorn followers viewed this effort as Strayhorn finally playing his music as he intended it to be played.
The early 60’s had another dimension that weighed on Strayhorn. Billy sensed that his health was becoming an issue. Tobacco and alcohol were not his allies. In 1964, Uncle Bill asked me if I would be the executor of his estate. I answered “yes” but also inquired what he wanted me to do in that position. His answer was strong and specific. This response was, “Take care of my stuff!” as he pointed to the numerous books, multiple folders of music materials, etc. in his small apartment. That was to be my task. Billy’s father James, Sr. died in May 1965 and Billy had his own will drawn up on July 30, 1965, naming me as his executor. Billy’s beloved mother died in October 1966, and Billy followed her May 31, 1967.
The ball was now in my court. I met with my Uncle Bill’s attorney to determine what my next moves would be. What does the executor have to do to take charge? What do I need to identify and safe guard as any of his possessions could have great meaning to his family and perhaps the future generation of musicians? What belongings might comprise Billy’s legacy?
My first task as Executor was to collect and inventory all the materials in Strayhorn’s apartment. I decided to have professional movers list and pack all of Strayhorn’s furniture, books, papers, art objects, etc., and move them to a warehouse. The materials filled almost 2/3 of a moving van. I prepared the inventory of everything that needed to be distributed and finally sent copies of the Inventory to all of Billy’s immediate heirs, and any other parties who presented a claim for review and consideration.
My next task was to determine the value of his financial holdings including royalty income for his music and his outstanding debts and liabilities. Working through this phase of determination was going to take considerable time, talents, and resources that were not immediately available to me.You see where this is going? Many years later, the financial aspects of the Billy Strayhorn Estate were settled, but much remained to be completed. In 1996, David Hajdu completed his biography of Billy Strayhorn, “Lush Life” providing information, insights and knowledge about a close partner to Duke Ellington during their almost thirty year relationship.
The Billy Strayhorn story still had more to be revealed. Walter van de Leur, a visiting musicologist from The Netherlands, met David Hajdu and inquired about the name Billy Strayhorn that he found linked with the music of Duke Ellington whose music he was studying at the Smithsonian Institution. Walter contacted me to examine some of the Strayhorn music that I had acquired. Several visits to Pittsburgh and a close examination of the materials in the Strayhorn Collection led Walter to return to Pittsburgh to study, play, and eventually record previously unknown works. Walters’ study evolved into a dissertation and the recording of newly discovered Strayhorn works. Many interested scholars, and musicians made visits to Pittsburgh to examine the Strayhorn collection, but Walter was the only one who came back repeatedly. He published a treatise on Billy Strayhorn’s music, “Something to Live For, The Music of Billy Strayhorn.” As a result of Walter’s work, we copyrighted over 70 songs. He worked with the Dutch Jazz Orchestra to play and record “Portrait of A Silk Thread: Newly Discovered Works of Billy Strayhorn” which premiered in 1995 during The Duke Ellington Society International Conference in Pittsburgh, PA.
As Billy’ s musical works were becoming more widely known, some of the heirs were being deluged with requests to make this music available to younger and broader audiences. We became a formal organization in 1997 to be known as Billy Strayhorn Songs, Inc. (BSSI) so that we could meet the requests of scholars, musicians, and others who were interested in Strayhorn’s work. We had to deal with legal challenges as to the ownership of the rights to his music. We prevailed against those challenges.
To make Billy Strayhorn’s music available, BSSI has worked with a number of major publishers throughout the world.
We became active participants at meetings of the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) and now the Jazz Education Network (JEN).
We trust that you’ll be able to think more about what you are doing to spread the word and grow your own legacy.
*This article was published in the Jazz Education Network (JEN) Newsletter for December 2014. Become a member by visiting jazzednet.org*
Announcing the Billy Strayhorn 2015 Centennial Honorary Committee!
Bringing together luminaries from entertainment, education and performing arts, the Billy Strayhorn 2015 Centennial Honorary Committee brings together an impressive list of individuals with a wide array of accomplishments expanding beyond jazz.
Led by Honorary Chair for the committee, jazz legend Clark Terry, the centennial honorary committee members all share a vision to contribute to 2015 being a year of celebrating the life and music of the man affectionately known as 'Swee Pea'.
To all Honorary Committee Members, THANK YOU for your time and talent to perpetuate the continuing growing legacy of Billy Strayhorn.
The 2015 centennial vision is being spearheaded by the Billy Strayhorn Foundation. The mission of the Foundation is to celebrate the music and life of composer, arranger, pianist Billy Strayhorn and to develop an appreciation of his music among all people. The Billy Strayhorn Foundation supports this purpose through live music performance, lectures, and symposia.
The Strayhorn Centennial Honorary Committee, a project of the Billy Strayhorn Foundation, is working with community groups, artists, and performing arts organizations interested in creating events throughout the centennial year of 2015 which explore and expand the musical legacy of Billy Strayhorn.
Our Honorary Committee members to date (12/2014). This listing is 'in formation' and will be adding new members.
Clark Terry, Chair, National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, educator and highly acclaimed trumpet player and member the great bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington
Ann Hampton Callaway, Grammy nominated jazz vocalist
Tammy McCann, jazz vocalist, recording artist, music teacher/coach
Mark George, President/CEO Music Institute of Chicago
David Hajdu, award winning Strayhorn biographer
Walter van de Leur, Pd.D., award winning Strayhorn biographer/musicologist
Rob Levi, Emmy/Peabody winning Strayhorn filmmaker/documentarian
John Clayton, Grammy winning co-founder of the Clayton/Hamilton Big Band
Donald Harrison, award winning jazz saxophone player and composer
Ramsey Lewis, Grammy winning jazz pianist and recording artist
Terell Stafford, acclaimed trumpet player and Chair of Jazz Studies- Temple University
Kevin Mahogany, acclaimed jazz vocalist and recording artist
R. Susan Motely, music promoter
Carol Adams, President/CEO DuSable Museum of African American History
Herb Jordan, music publisher/writer
Charles McPherson, acclaimed jazz alto saxophone player, recording artist and composer
The Duke Ellington Society of Washington D. C.
Allan Harris, acclaimed jazz vocalist and composer
Alex Webb, MA, Music Department Buckinghamshire New University, United Kingdom
The Duke Ellington Society of Toronto, Canada (TDES 40)
The Duke Ellington Society of the United Kingdom (DESUK)
Vernard Gray, producer, Be Mo Jazz/East River Jazz Project, Washington D.C-Baltimore
Filarmonica Laudamo Messina. Messina, Sicily
DOWNBEAT MAGAZINE EXAMINES BILLY STRAYHORN LEGACY
September saw the release of "Cheek to Cheek", a Tony Bennett-Lady Gaga collaborative album featuring a powerful cover of the Strayhorn standard, "Lush Life." Now, Gaga and Bennett cover the November edition of Downbeat Magazine, a leading jazz music media outlet in the States and U.K..
Pages before the magazine delves into the passion project that was Cheek to Cheek, Downbeat sits down with Strayhorn heir Alyce Claerbaut. As both Strayhorn's niece and the president of Billy Strayhorn Songs, Inc., Claerbaut provided a unique personal-meets-professional perspective about the legacy of her late uncle:
"Strayhorn lived in great sorrow that he was not credited as he should have been," she says at one point, referencing Duke Ellington's frequent overshadowing of Strayhorn. "Duke had such a hold on him because he had all the publishing rights to his songs."
The November 2014 issue of Downbeat is on stands now.
Storyville releases 7 CD Strayhorn compilation!
This superb box set celebrating the work of William Thomas Strayhorn echoes the basic paradox of this extraordinary jazz musician’s life and career.
The richness and diversity of the music it contains will delight the most obsessive Strayhorn aficionado; at the same time it offers a thrilling introduction to the man many know only as someone who once played in Duke Ellington’s band and wrote “Take The “A” Train.
The 7 CDs contain material presenting 62 of Strayhorn’s compositions, not only focusing on his work outside of the Ellington orchestra, but also presenting him in Duke’s company.
Billy Strayhorn, the man whose musical abilities could have made him a star in his own right, labored in the shadow of a world-famous benefactor. This collection of his recordings puts him firmly in the spotlight for once, revealing beyond doubt the true scale of his musical contribution to jazz.
Take a look at this promo presented by Storyville Records....
Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett's number one album, "Cheek to Cheek" is officially nominated for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album at the 57th GRAMMY Awards.
Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett have crooned their way to a GRAMMY nomination in the traditional pop vocal album category with "Cheek to Cheek". It is considered a favorite to win. Tune in February 8th for the results.
The GRAMMYS are bestowed by the Recording Academy, which is made up of 22,000 members of the music industry including musicians, producers, engineers, record company and radio industry personnel and others. The awards are determined by the academy's voting membership of about 13,000.
Gaga is receiving rave reviews for her cover of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” as a solo effort on the CD.
Strayhorn family members Leslie Demus and Alyce Claerbaut with WNYU radio host for 'The Phoenix' Brandon Peckman
THE STRAYHORN ESTATE ON WNYU'S 'THE PHOENIX'
With the centennial birth year of Billy Strayhorn approaching in 2015, the legendary composer's estate is well into making its rounds to promote the artist's musical and civil accomplishments. In fact, wiith outreach and events including a birthday celebration at Pittsburgh's Kelley-Strayhorn Theater, a booth at the upcoming Jazz Education Network Conference and several tribute performances and media pieces already in the works, it is accurate to say that team Strayhorn is approaching the centennial with a running start.
In addition to working with co-publisher Reservoir Media Management to maintain and expand the impact of Strayhorn's catalog through performances, new recordings, and usages in visual media, one of the goals of the estate is to educate new generations of jazz fans, conveying the origins and impact of songs like "Take The 'A' Train", "Lush Life", and "Chelsea Bridge", whose sound young listeners might recognize even as they remain unaware of Strayhorn himself.
To that end, Billy Strayhorn Songs, Inc. (BSSI) President Alyce Claerbaut and Billy Strayhorn Foundaton (BSF) President Leslie Demus--both nieces of Strayhorn--stopped by New York University's WNYU jazz radio show "The Phoenix" December 2nd to regale the liberal arts school's audience with historical insight and personal anecdotes about their revered and accomplished uncle.
Terell Stafford leads the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia
Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia kicks off holidays with Philly jazz legends
The Harlem Nutcracker hails from New York, where the full version was first performed in 1996. Incorporating the Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn arrangement of Tchaikovsky's “Nutcracker Suite” first recorded in 1960, it’s a piece of music not often heard live in performance.
Renowned trumpeter Terell Stafford explained: “It's not done too often because it is such a challenging piece. The group that mainly does it is Lincoln Center, and they do it all the way in New York so why not bring it to Philadelphia.”
On Wednesday December 3rd, Stafford leads the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia with a special holiday performance of “Harlem Nutcracker.” “Thank goodness I have performed it quite enough, so once we have the piece with the orchestra it's just a matter of interpretation," noted Stafford.
"A lot of people have heard the recording, but a lot of people don't play it that often. And, it is only really played once a year. It is such a beautiful effort — I mean Tchaikovsky is my favorite — so to have the genius of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn put their minds together to kind of redo Tchaikovsky's ‘Nutcracker’ is exciting. Through the preparation of just most people playing it and through the recordings we will get it ready and have a great time.”
The concert will feature The Three Tenors: Bootsie Barnes, Larry McKenna and Jimmy Heath, in a unique holiday concert bringing together Philly jazz legends for a festive holiday celebration.
“The second half [of the show] is what I'm really excited about,” said Stafford. “We have two pieces that were arranged for us, and one of them will be a debut of a Christmas song Jimmy he wrote called, ‘Our Little Town.’ It's always played each holiday season and was recorded a while ago. As a matter fact it was recorded so long ago that when I asked Mr. Heath for the music he wasn't even sure if he had it, and he had never performed it in a big band setting. So, we are going to premiere his piece, ‘Our Little Town,’ in a Big band setting. I asked him what was one of his favorite tunes to play and it's a Charlie Parker to called steeplechase, so we are going to premiere that as well and feature all of our saxophone players. It will be an exciting, exciting night.”
The Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia is "Bringin’ In the Season" at the Kimmel Center — kicking off a series of free and ticketed holiday events — with a special holiday performance of The Harlem Nutcracker on Wednesday, Dec. 3rd at 8 p.m. at The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts’ Perelman Theater, Broad and Spruce streets, Philadelphia, Pa.
(article by Bobbie Booker, Philadelphia Tribune)
Spotlight On: Strayhorn advocate Dr. Bruce Mayhall Rastrelli
Since 2006 Dr. Bruce Mayhall Rastrelli has pursued a vigorous interest in the works of the great American composer Billy Strayhorn. In 2007 he prepared and conducted a televised performance of Strayhorn's works featuring arrangements by multiple Grammy-award winner Alan Broadbent, and performances by Tony Award-winner Billy Porter, Tierney Sutton, an Ellington-sized big band comprised of outstanding Los Angeles session players and the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles. The concert was repeated in Atlanta by its gay chorus and conductor Kevin Robison with the Jazz Orchestra Atlanta in 2009 as part of the National Black Arts Festival.
Under Dr. Mayhall Rastrelli's leadership, the biography and music of Strayhorn was utilized to create an innovative school outreach by the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles in the LA Unified School District. That program flourished during his tenure, and has grown to national scope since his departure, becoming one of the most significant activities of the gay chorus in Los Angeles.
Dr. Mayhall Rastrelli has been engaged by the Strayhorn heirs to repeat the LA performance in Chicago at the Auditorium Theatre as the climax of the celebrations of the centennial of Strayhorn's birth in 2015. Apollo Chorus of Chicago, Windy City Gay Chorus, Joel Hall Dancers and Jeff Lindberg's Chicago Jazz Orchestra will participate in the performance.
In the spring of 2014 Dr. Mayhall Rastrelli joined the board of the Billy Strayhorn Foundation, where he will utilize his enthusiasm and knowledge of Strayhorn's music to promote the preservation and performance of his works and will support efforts to use Strayhorn's music to reach students who will benefit from the inspirational example of his life and compositions.
A visit to Dr. Mayhall Rastrelli's website includes a treasure of musical interpretation of Strayhorn works done by the Gay Men's Chorus of LA and a blog series that is well worth reading to gain insight on Billy Strayhorn that Dr. MR has extensively researched.