Published in 1967, Blood Count is one of Strayhorn’s last compositions. He suffered from terminal cancer, and his hopeless prospects reflect themselves in his music. Not only is the title conclusive, but also the piece in itself has an emotional air somewhere between melancholia and fatal desperation. Once again, the ballad is written for Johnny Hodges on lead alto.
Blood Count is written in D minor. The form could be described as AABAC, with slight differences between the “A” sections. “A” consists of two essential parts: first, 4 bars of altered dominants underlining a 2-bar phrase that is imprecisely sequenced. Starting out with two 16th-notes tied to a following long note, the phrase is unsteady, rhythmically almost free.
The second half of “A” is a D minor pedal with a chromatically moving 5th degree: Dm-Dm7(#5)-Dm6-D7. In jazz theory, this occurrence is commonly known as CESH: Contrapuntal Elaboration of Static Harmony, meaning that one voice of a chord is moving, while the rest is static. It can be found variously in jazz music, e.g. in Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood.
In the melody, one 16th-note motive is repeated three times: F-E-Eb-D, slurred to a dotted half-note F.
The minor CESH motion creates a certain dramatic, while the repetition of the 16th motive gives unease. The last chord, D7, does not resolve; instead, there is an abrupt cut back to the first chord F7#11 and “A” is repeated. This time, the D pedal has major chords on top, again with a moving 6th; the 16th motive is diatonically adapted.
In the B section, a 2-bar phrase is played first on G6, then on Gm6, and then on Fmaj7. Again, the repetition, the stagnation and the tension of the chromatic motion have an impact to the listener. To modulate back to “A”, Strayhorn used one of his regular devices, in this case: half-note chromatically ascending dominant chords, each one with a 13 as melody note.
“A” comes back, followed by the “B” section, in which the alto plays some ad-libs over the chords instead of the melody. “A” is repeated once more before the piece reaches the final coda-like “C” section. From here on, it seems to literally die out. The melody loosens up until it disappears. In the background, triads move down chromatically on top of an A pedal: E/A-Eb/A-Dm/A-F/A, repeated, ending on Dm.
Strayhorn, on his deathbed, was not afraid to give Blood Count the full emotional range of terminal illness. The orchestra recorded the piece only once, on Ellington’s tribute and farewell to his companion entitled And His Mother Called Him Bill.