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Billy Strayhorn: An American in Paris

by admin on April 23, 2017

Best known as ‘Duke’ Ellington’s composition partner, Billy Strayhorn, (1915-1967) contributed over three hundred songs to the Ellington songbook, including the band’s theme song, “Take The ‘A’ Train.” He was also an accomplished classical pianist, an openly gay man, a civil rights activist, and a part-time Francophile.

Nicknamed ‘Sweet Pea’ for his joyous disposition, Strayhorn’s rough childhood stood in dark contrast to his bright future. He grew up in an impoverished black Pittsburgh neighborhood, raised by a loving mother, but an abusive, alcoholic father. To escape the wrath of his father, the young Strayhorn spent the summers with his grandmother, who taught him to play piano. From an early age, Strayhorn was drawn to French impressionistic composers such as Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.

Strayhorn’s love of French Impressionism can be heard in many of his early compositions, such as “Valse” and “Chelsea Bridge.” The iconic composition “Lush Life,” written by the aspiring composer at an impressively young age of sixteen, speaks to his love of French music and culture in multiple ways. The lyrics capture the young composer’s yearning to experience France, as the second verse opens with the line, “A week in Paris will ease the bite of it.” The ballad also incorporates rubato, chromaticism, and dense non-diatonic harmonies, techniques commonly used by French composers. His solo recording, later released on the Red Baron label, captures his skill as an accompanist and overall sensitivity as a performing artist. While Strayhorn’s voice may not carry the virtuosity of Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition, his delivery is tender and unassuming, a perfect match for the melancholic lyrics and impressionistic harmonies.

Outside of piano lessons, the young musician studied French culture and language at Westbrook High. As one of the only African-American students in French Club, Strayhorn took his extracurricular activity and French coursework very seriously, becoming fluent in French as a young adult. Upon high school graduation, Strayhorn was primarily focused on pursuing a career as a classical pianist and composer. Unfortunately, there were few opportunities for African-Americans in classical music, so Strayhorn turned to jazz composition in his early twenties, and was ultimately hired as co-composer and arranger by Ellington in 1938.

While he struggled to find his place as a Black classical musician and openly gay man in America, he found much of the acceptance and freedom he was looking for during his frequent trips to Paris. Strayhorn especially enjoyed traveling to Europe with his long-term boyfriend and fellow musician, Aaron Bridgers. According to Bridgers, the two men initially bonded over their love of French culture and music.

Nine years into their relationship, Bridgers left for France to pursue a fulltime career as a jazz pianist, and became the house pianist at The Living Room. This decision was made in part because of Bridgers’s fascination with French culture, but also because there was a higher demand for jazz musicians in Europe; Black male jazz musicians, in particular, found the atmosphere more congenial than in America. The two men remained both friends and lovers, with Strayhorn making frequent trips for Paris for both business and pleasure. One of their must fruitful musical partnerships was the movie Paris Blues, in which Bridgers makes appearances as a jazz pianist, while Strayhorn co-wrote the score (with Duke Ellington).

Released to American audiences in 1961, and shot in location in France, Paris Blues stars Sidney Portier and Paul Newman, as two American jazz musicians enjoying the freedom, success, and celebrity of living and performing in Paris. The opening scene captures many elements that attracted so many Americans to Paris in the 1950s- large appreciative audiences, racially integrated clubs, and a more sexually open society. Writer and director Sam Shaw recalls that Strayhorn was drawn to the script on a personal level, as he related to the romantic appeal of French travels, the dynamics of interracial relationships, and the struggles of a composer to get his work produced. Shaw recalls, “The film appealed to Billy, too, metaphorically for a gay relationship. Billy was also interested in the artistic struggle. One of the guys wanted to compose concert music but wasn’t accepted by the classical establishment. This issue was of great importance to Billy.”

As a gay man and an African-American musician, Strayhorn was drawn to French culture on many levels. But perhaps Aaron Bridgers best expressed ‘Sweet Pea’s’ lifelong attraction of French culture when he said, “Nobody cared who you were or what you were. There was no judgment. That’s one of the reasons Billy and I loved it here.”

by Gabrielle Tee

Sources:

Hajdu, David. Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn. North Point Press. 1996.

Henriques, Kevin. “Aaron Bridgers.” The Guardian. December 2003. Accessed March 19, 2017.

https://www.theguardian.com/news/2003/dec/22/guardianobituaries.artsobituaries

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sid Banks April 28, 2017 at 4:20 pm

Something that stood out to me was the fact he turned to jazz due to the challenges of making it as an African American classical composer. It makes me wonder the intentionality of France and far their “acceptance” goes. Despite being incredibly welcome as a jazz performer, would he have gotten the same treatment as a classical performer? Exotifying black musicians was obvious in France, but I can’t help thinking about how many performers recognized they were being pigeonholed.

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Annie Jo Buchanan April 28, 2017 at 4:20 pm

This is a great article! You included just the right amount of background information on Strayhorn (childhood life, his role in jazz history, his experience in Europe). Anyone browsing the internet could read this article and understand the content, yet it assumes an appropriate amount of knowledge in the reader (isn’t written in an elementary style). I appreciate that you chose to write about someone with many intersecting identities; so much of jazz’s publicized narrative centers on heterosexual men, creating hyper-masculinized stereotypes that don’t reflect the diversity of jazz musicians, and this was a refreshing snapshot of a prominent musician that defied those tropes and created his own niche within the jazz culture of his era. Loved it!

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