What are the most significant elements in the music of Billy Strayhorn? How can I incorporate his melodic and harmonic approach in my own composing?
Billy Strayhorn (1915–1976) was a jazz pianist, composer, arranger, orchestrator and lyricist whose works have influenced the genre of jazz music until today.
Having started out his professional career as a writer of music theatre productions, he become most successful and renowned through his collaboration with Duke Ellington and his orchestra.
The research contains two phases. First: investigation about a certain selection of Strayhorn's oeuvre.
Second: the attempt to compose originals using the detected stylistic, harmonic, melodic, rhythmical and conceptual tools.
I do not intend to write a portrait of Billy Strayhorn, neither a detailed musicological analysis of his oeuvre – my list of sources shows that this has been done in multiple ways by very competent researchers.
My motivation derives from a personal fondness of the music of Billy Strayhorn. In my opinion, Strayhorn has a clearly recognizable sound and stylistic language. For me, it is interesting to find out how a sound like this can be developed.
I have discovered and developed this liking mostly while playing Strayhorn-tunes, many if which have become jazz standards, as well as through hearing recordings that caught my attention. In order to fully understand the music, one must listen to it and perform it. I believe that this is also one of the aspects of artistic research.
Ergo, my final intention is not only to compose using Strayhorn-typical elements and tools, but also to write music for myself as a performer and for my group to play it.
On longer terms, I hope that I can abstract this method further on and profit from it beyond the results of this research.
In the appendix you will find a list of references. Apart from recordings and sheet music, the most important source to mention is the book Something to Live For – The Music of Billy Strayhorn by Walter van de Leur1, which I would describe as a portrait of Strayhorn from an artistic point of view, focusing on his musical achievements. Van de Leur often references on David Hajdu’s Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn2, and he had access to various original autograph musical manuscripts.
My most important audio-source were the 4 CDs entitled The Dutch Jazz Orchestra Plays the Music of Billy Strayhorn3: A series of recordings based on original hand-written scores, some of which were performed for the very first time. Van de Leur took part in this production through research, providing authentic material and his expertise in performance.
Considering the enormous oeuvre that Strayhorn produced, it is inevitable to make a selection of songs to analyze. My criteria for this selection are the following:
Which songs have become part of the standard repertoire in jazz, performed by various artists throughout the 20th (and 21st) century?
Where can I find aural trademarks, which I recognize both as a listener and as a player and which contribute to my personal perception of the “Strayhorn sound”?
Can the compositions be reduced to a lead sheet and performed by a small jazz combo without losing their essence?
The last question is an important aspect of this research. Although in his early years, Strayhorn wrote actual songs that he performed singing and playing the piano, one of which was his famous Lush Life, most of his later works were orchestral pieces.
Walter van de Leur describes an interview that Strayhorn gave to the magazine Music and Rhythm: “Strayhorn told Music and Rhythm that for him the distinction between composing and arranging was marginal. Both drew on (…) a thorough understanding of harmony. (…) Indeed, often Strayhorn’s themes are so thoroughly woven into the musical background that the integrated thematic material virtually cannot be separated from its context.”4
Nevertheless, countless pieces are known until today as tunes, notated on a jazz-typical lead sheet of melody and chord symbols. His music has been adapted in various ways by many artists, who interpreted and sometimes rearranged it.
The trumpeter Art Farmer recorded a tribute to Strayhorn under the title Something to Live For: The Music of Blly Strayhorn5, presenting seven of his most popular pieces in a jazz quartet.
Joe Henderson’s album Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn6 contains ten Strayhorn-tunes, performed by five instrumentalists (J. Henderson - tenor sax, W. Marsalis - trumpet, C. McBride - bass, S. Scott - piano, G. Hutchinson - drums). However, the five players are combined in different set-ups for each piece, ranging from a solo-performance to the full quintet. The album was very successful and positively received by critics. This proves to me that the essential elements of Strayhorn’s compositions speak for themselves and can come to life in any chosen context.
The six pieces that I have chosen for my analysis are the following, in chronological order of their release:
A Flower is a Lovesome Thing
Upper Manhattan Medical Group
First, I will give a detailed description of each piece separately; then, I will extract the important stylistic elements I found and summarize them in a list.
1Walter van de Leur, 2002. Something to Live For – The Music of Billy Strayhorn. New York: Oxford University Press
2David Hajdu, 1996. Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
3The Dutch Jazz Orchestra, 1996 (Challenge Records), see also: Sources
5Art Farmer, 1987. Something to Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn
(Contemporary Records # CCD-14029-2)
6Joe Henderson, 1992. Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn (Verve 511-779-2)