Regarding the general evolution of Strayhorn’s music throughout his career, we can see certain developments. Over the years, he went more and more astray from conventions in terms of form, orchestration, structure, harmony and rhythm.
Starting out in the swing and Broadway era, certain functions were attributed to the music: it was either meant to accompany and illustrate a plot, or to make people dance. Later on, jazz music emancipated itself and became an independent form of art, and so did Strayhorn’s work. For example, his big band orchestration emphasized backgrounds as polyphonic voices with counterpoint functions, putting the spotlight on other sections next to the melody. This creates tonality through a horizontal approach, as opposed to conventional vertically constructed, monophonic big band arrangements1. This way, he grew freer in the use of his tonal material.
The appearance of new styles like bebop, cool jazz and modal jazz influenced Strayhorn’s writing, and vice versa. All of the here introduced pieces show his trend towards modernism and his ability to set standards.
Walter van de Leur articulates some of Strayhorn’s most defining qualities in his book Something to Live For (p.147): “His ballads share certain musical characteristics, such as intricate harmonic progressions and strong expressive melodies that center around distinctive intervals (…), around melodic gestures (…), or around specific chords (…)”. Virtually all of the analyzed pieces show these features: We find an emphasis on certain chords in A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing and Chelsea Bridge, strong melodic gestures in Isfahan and Blood Count, intricate harmony in UMMG and Lush Life, to mention only the most outstanding cases.
In order to understand the origin of an individual style and to adapt this style in a personal way, it is necessary to look at a writer’s personality and life circumstances. Billy Strayhorn was known as very creative, but also very sensitive. His character was much more one of a person who acts behind the scenes, apart from the show business and he was far from exhibiting himself on a big stage. Some say that he did not step out of the shadow of his famous and popular companion Duke Ellington, but my impression is that the two of them had a perfectly working symbiosis which they both (and many others) profited from. Once again, Walter van de Leur puts it in a nutshell in his comment on the Billy Strayhorn-project of the Dutch Jazz Orchestra, to which he was assigned: “Strayhorn sought to express a complex emotional life through his music, and many of his works mirrored his still-waters-run-deep-personality”2.
Strayhorn was a bohemian who found his place in the flamboyant New York music scene, struggling with common obstacles as a homosexual black man in the early 20th century.
The intention of my research is to create my own music – that is why I need to specify the form in which this music should be played. Strayhorn’s pieces often had a function: it could transport the plot of a screenplay, or be the voice of one character out of a play, giving a musical shape to written words. It could serve as an overture or interlude, functioning as a guide, a marker. Outside the theater context, his music was performed on stages of all sizes and qualities. Also set-up varied immensely: from orchestra to big band, small combo or solo performances. Strayhorn always knew exactly whom he was writing for, and most of all, who would perform. His parts were sometimes accustomed to specific members of the band. Most prominently, Johnny Hodges was highlighted, but also other players like tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, baritone saxophonist Harry Carney or trombone player Juan Tizol were carefully considered in the arrangements.
My own musical form of presentation is most of the time a jazz quartet, occasionally enlarged by additional horns or another harmony instrument. The set-up is usually only instrumental. This is why I chose to concentrate on pieces that are being treated as jazz standards – because they can be played in small ensembles without losing any of their expression. Other compositions would only work with the original orchestration; otherwise they could not come across in their full splendor.
1See also: Van de Leur, p. 152