Interview: Walter van de Leur
Dr. Walter van de Leur is a musicologist and professor for Jazz and Improvised Music at the University of Amsterdam and the Conservatory of Amsterdam. He is the author of the book Something to Live For – The Music of Billy Strayhorn, which I quote and refer to many times within this research paper: a portrait of Strayhorn’s artistic legacy and musical achievements. Furthermore, van de Leur was assigned as researcher to the project The Dutch Jazz Orchestra Plays the Music of Billy Strayhorn: A series of recordings based on original hand-written scores. He had access to original autograph musical manuscripts. Walter van de Leur can certainly be considered one of the most important experts on the music of Billy Strayhorn.
The interview was taken in the Conservatory of Amsterdam on 28 January 2015.
Walter van de Leur, in your opinion, what is the most important attribute that distinguishes Strayhorn’s music?
That is a really difficult question to answer. You usually end up with “individual”, “authentic”, “honest”, those kinds of vague terms that seem suitable when you are looking at music.
What I definitely see is that all these works seem to be somehow connected in terms of how he approached them, how he created them. That is the individuality of it: There seems to be a Strayhorn “touch” in the pieces that he writes.
On a technical level, you can point at many things like particular treatments of harmony, a lot of static harmony (…), certain techniques, certain ways of building melodies. But all that, in the end, never really answers the question: what makes you hear the individual – as I call them in my book - musical fingerprints, that are all over these pieces?
It still happens to me that I am listening to some Ellington, and all of a sudden I realize that this is a Strayhorn arrangement, and I have not heard that before. There is always new stuff. You wonder: what is it? You listen again, and you see certain rhythmical solutions, certain voicings.
But in the end, you are always lost for words in pinpointing that – especially since he also developed himself; so it’s not the same all the time.
What I found, and I think that was one of the most meaningful moments during my research: I was working on his music before I really knew much about his life. Then I met his biographer, David Hajdu, and everything he told me seemed to somehow make sense from the perspective of the music. I had already discovered that Chelsea Bridge is not just a beautiful piece, but it has this sort of darker, troubled undertone to it. That is exactly what comes across when you read about him as a person, which makes the music autobiographical – which is a tall order! But I do feel this connection somehow. Maybe that is something that comes across to people when they listen.
Do you think it is possible to take his work as an example, the way I do, and learn from him as a composer - to have this approach to composing through another composer?
Yes, I definitely think so. I would see it as a jumping board, as a point of departure. It’s always good to try on the clothes of another musician or composer and then move on to something else.
So it is comparable to transcribing?
Well, the “proof of the pudding” is to write a piece that sounds like he might have written it, which would be impressive, right? And then leave it at that, and go on and do something that is more you than him. But I don’t think it hurts at all to do that.
And maybe, from an educational point of view, it’s somewhat old-fashioned: Go to the academy and paint like the great painters; that gives you a lot of technique and understanding. But don’t become an imitator, because that was certainly something that he was not.
But if you are developing your skills, that seems to me a valid route. There are also people who say: artistic development is really not about imitating, but finding who you are. Therefor, as I said, maybe it’s an old-fashioned position. My favorite examples are people like Debussy or Vincent van Gogh, who started out in the academy and learned the craft rather than just being artistic.
My answer would be: if that works for you, it’s a useful route; maybe it doesn’t work for everybody. It also depends on what you want to achieve in composing.
Do you think this way of writing, this style is still relevant nowadays? Or is old-fashioned, historic?
Good question; I don’t know when something is old-fashioned or just historically relevant. It is clear that the world in which this music existed is gone. Actually, the Duke Ellington Orchestra itself was to a certain point anachronistic, because who was playing big band in the 1950s and 60s? That was past its heyday, and they were on their own road, their own track, which was not necessarily where the rest of the cultural world was moving.
To a certain extend I would say: Prove the people wrong who say that it’s irrelevant by making something that is relevant. But big band is a dated type of ensemble – jazz is dated!
Do you think Strayhorn’s work can be looked at outside the context of orchestration? Does it make sense to extract a lead sheet, which only contains chords and melody?
Yes, you can, but you will lose something. But that’s not a problem. I think that some of the durability of the music shows because people have taken it and done something with it. There are a lot of quartets and quintets that play Strayhorn’s music, and to me it sounds good.
So you can definitely do that: See it as melodies and see it as compositions away from the orchestral sound. Not all of his stuff was for orchestra by the way. On the other hand you can say that some of these pieces don’t make sense without an orchestral environment because they are really not about harmonic or melodic movement, but about sound.
Do you have an example for that?
I think of pieces like Blues In Orbit or from the Newport Jazz Festival Suite. That seems to be non-thematic material. You could even say, a piece like Rain Check has orchestral passages that typically are skipped by people who play it as a lead sheet piece. Because it’s hard to say what you do with that, hard to see them as part of the composition - which to me they are, but maybe that’s my view. At least I make a big deal out of that in my book: pieces like Rain Check have an orchestral movement going on, which seems to be part of the logic.
But that doesn’t mean you cannot lift out some of those rich melodies and use them – as has been done in classical music, where some of the great themes have been singled out and used.
As far as I am concerned, anything goes. Do what you want to do, and then we can figure out afterwards whether it was useful. To me there are no restrictions when it comes to creating music.
Can a composer like me, who does not have the background of Strayhorn, the classical training in counterpoint, voice leading etc., imitate him? Of course my way of writing is very different from his – I don’t write for an orchestra, I usually just sit at the piano and work with chords and melody.
I am not sure if he was trained in all these things. I think he had great awareness of that. But if you just look at Lush Life, which he wrote when he was relatively young, I don’t think he ever had extensive counterpoint training, which is also different in different schools and with different teachers.
So I think that in the end he was pretty much following his inner ear; technique is only a tool. If you run into limitations because of limited technique, then that’s a moment to develop your technique.
Will you be able to imitate? I don’t know, it depends on how well you understand what he did, but in the end that should not be the goal, that’s a step towards something else. Again, I would be pleased and impressed if you could write something in that manner.
So would you say it comes down to the same, whether you just sit at the piano and have some chords in your head or whether you try to write for a whole orchestra?
Yes, they are different mediums and you do different things for them. Clearly, he had a sound that he understood that his orchestra could produce, and at times he would work with that. In many cases I think he did not first write a lead sheet and then orchestrate it, he just heard the thing as it were. That’s a very relevant way for a composer of dealing with it.
In the end, the lesson you can learn is: he was writing music that really coincided with who he was. Therefor you should figure out: what is it that I want to do musically? Take that as a point of departure, and then you will never be an imitator.
Are there other writers contemporary to Strayhorn that are comparable, or relevant to the context of his time – in terms of sound?
It’s difficult to say what is comparable. There are a lot of interesting writers, people who create fantastic music. I think, in the end, the ones that stand out most are the ones that do exactly that: they try to express something that is not too far a move from who they are or what they hear or where they come from.
And that is of course the big challenge, because that’s the one secret ingredient that you cannot simply unpack from what you hear. A lot of composers have a very clear signature; that’s something to strive for.
But I don’t think there are many people that do something comparable in terms of: “That sounds almost like Strayhorn”!
Could you name some clear influences on him? I am thinking of an article that you wrote about Chelsea Bridge which was influenced by impressionism.1
It is always dangerous to talk about influences, because don’t really know how that works. Maybe you are more influenced by things you don’t know than by things you do know. Maybe you listen to Strayhorn all the time and what comes out is something that you never thought of, until someone points it out to you.
And then sometimes we see connections where there are none. I think my example would be Chelsea Bridge, which resembles Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales. He claimed he didn’t know that piece. If that is true, they apparently individually came up with similar solutions, and that is very well possible.
Thank you very much for this conversation, Walter van de Leur.
1Walter van de Leur, 2001. The ‘American Impressionists’ and the ‘Birth of the Cool’. Tijdschrift voor Muziektheorie (2001), jaargang 6 nummer 1, pp. 18-26