Duke Ellington’s aide-de-camp Billy Strayhorn, who wrote some mighty beautiful tunes and whose elegance and refinement surpassed even the master’s, has been the subject of a revisionist campaign in recent years. Because Ellington sometimes succumbed to the odious yet common jazz bandleader’s practice of taking sole composer’s credit for works his colleague coauthored or wrote outright, Strayhorn biographer David Hajdu in Lush Life portrays him as shoving Strays out of the limelight. By this logic, Ellington did Strayhorn a disservice by shielding the shy, closeted gay composer from public scrutiny in the 1940s and ’50s–never mind that Duke stressed Strayhorn’s essential role in interviews and his own writings, featured him on various recordings, and used his “Take the ‘A’ Train” as the orchestra’s theme for 30 years. Or that Strayhorn’s signature torch ballads for saxophonist Johnny Hodges were modeled on the boss’s “Warm Valley.” The upside to the outrage is that many of Strayhorn’s unheard or forgotten compositions and arrangements of standards have come to light of late, many thanks to indefatigable Dutch researcher Walter van de Leur. (The Dutch Jazz Orchestra has mined those finds for four CDs on the Challenge label.) The Chicago Jazz Orchestra will present a selection of the rediscovered material at its Strayhorn tribute concert, “Something to Live For,” including some music for the Copasetics dance troupe, two charts Strayhorn wrote in the 1930s before joining Ellington, and his first arrangement of his classic “Lush Life,” then called “Lonely Again.” “Jo,” “Matinee,” and Charles Harrison’s arrangements of two obscure ballads are listed as world premieres, and there will be various U.S. premieres (though Ellington may well have played some of them on the road). Guesting with the CJO regulars under Jeff Lindberg’s direction are singer Frieda Lee, Orbert Davis, who can credibly impersonate several Ducal trumpet stars, and tenor saxophonist Eddie Johnson, an Ellingtonian-for-a-day in 1964, when he subbed for Paul Gonsalves–his sumptuous tone and too-low local profile make him worth hearing under any circumstances. Saturday, March 29, 8 PM, Museum of Science and Industry, 57th and Lake Shore Dr.; Sunday, March 30, 3 PM, auditorium, Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State; 312-409-3947.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Michael Jackson.