Cherish the Legacy of Billy Strayhorn

Educator resources

Cherish the Legacy of Billy Strayhorn

by Gregory A. Morris, Ph.D.

This JEN conference has great significance for the heirs of William Thomas Strayhorn, also known as, Billy Strayhorn. 2015 is the Centennial year for this jazz composer, arranger, pianist, collaborator, friend, employee, and musical partner of Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington.

A group of Billy Strayhorn Heirs will join the Jazz Education Network meeting to share some of their highlights and insights from working with the music of Billy Strayhorn over the years.
The Heirs have selected for their presentation “Heirs to a Legacy: Challenges and Opportunities.”

Think about your music legacy or that of someone in your family in any field or endeavor. What would you do to promote, preserve or establish their legacy?

I am Gregory A. Morris, Ph.D., Executor of the Billy Strayhorn Estate and founding President of Billy Strayhorn Songs, Inc. The purpose of this article is to share some of our history with Billy Strayhorn, his family, music and his heirs.

As a youngster, I spent the first eight years of my life in one of the homes that Billy lived in before he moved to New York. My grandmother, Billy’s mother Lillian and my mother Georgia, the older of his two sisters, revealed to me about how I would crawl under Billy’s upright piano to play with the pedals and then try to stand up, always managing to bump my head on the piano’s under carriage. Mama Strayhorn and my Mother used to tell me that Billy often worried about me hurting myself even though it seemed that I had a hard head. Uncle Bill would hug me and rub my head and whisper to me his special name for me.

As the years passed, Billy did not return home very much as his schedule became increasingly busy with his work with the Ellington Orchestra. When he did come home it was a great time for celebrating with the family. On one of Uncle’s trips to Pittsburgh, we talked about my high school experience and discovered that my current English Teacher at Taylor Allderdice High School had been the same teacher he had as a high school student at Westinghouse High School. From that time he always asked about her and I usually had a message from her to share with him whenever he would call.

He was such a giving person. He helped me pay my first tuition payment to the University of Pittsburgh and proudly sent me money to pay my initiation fee in a national leadership honor society (Omicron Delta Kappa). 1955 was very special for my cousin Carole and me. We were the most recent Strayhorn family high school graduates and Uncle Bill wanted to do something for us. He planned an all expense week-long visit with him in New York City!

We saw the sights, met his friends and celebrities like the Dodgers baseball stars Roy Campanella and Jackie Robinson, championship boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, popular vocalists Lena Horne, Billy Eckstine and Nat King Cole; attended a Broadway play, spent a day at Coney Island Amusement Park, Checked out a performance at the Apollo Theater and explored the heights of the Empire State Building. The best was yet to come, however because Uncle Bill had work to do. The Duke Ellington Orchestra was scheduled to perform at the Aquacade Auditorium. We went backstage to meet Mr. Ellington and then enjoyed the performance from front row seats. At intermission we had to say goodbye to Mr. Ellington who had another engagement. We were saddened for a moment until we returned to our seats for the second half of the show. Much to our delight, Billy Strayhorn walked out on the stage, bowed to the audience and preceded to conduct the Ellington Orchestra for the remainder of the show. This was truly a WOW experience for me because I had never seen nor heard the Ellington Orchestra play with Uncle Bill as their conductor and pianist!

Finally, I understood what and why so many performers and jazz aficionados were talking about the skill, depth and talent of Pittsburgh’s young Billy Strayhorn! Before meeting Duke Ellington and leaving Pittsburgh, Billy was an accomplished musician. In 1934 he was featured in a performance of Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 16. He wrote a production entitled “Fantastic Rhythm” which included “My Little Brown Book.” He wrote the famous song, “Lush Life” as a teenager. Kay Davis, Queen Latifah, Linda Ronstadt, Johnny Hartman, Kevin Mahogany, Lady Gaga and others have sung “Lush Life”. Think for a moment. Is there any doubt that this young man will leave behind an incredible legacy or at least a legacy worth learning about, preserving or sharing?

From reading “Lush Life,” Strayhorn’s biography, written by David Hajdu, it seems that in the late 50‘s and early 60‘s, Duke was becoming more involved with theatrical/musical productions such as Saturday Laughter and Jump for Joy. These shows which were not well received by many audiences perhaps because they were beyond what many had come to expect of Ellington music. The film version of the outstanding novel, Anatomy of a Murder was thought to be an even greater stretch. Ellington took on these immense projects, but soon turned over the responsibility for arranging and production of the final versions to Strayhorn. This division of effort consumed a major part of Billy’s time. After the filming and recording of the Paris Blues soundtrack, Alan Douglas who was very involved with the Paris Blues project spoke with Strayhorn about a special recording session. The outcome of this session was entitled “The Peaceful Side.” Strayhorn devotees owe it to themselves to give this recording a listening! Many scholars, friends and longtime Strayhorn followers viewed this effort as Strayhorn finally playing his music as he intended it to be played.

The early 60’s had another dimension that weighed on Strayhorn. Billy sensed that his health was becoming an issue. Tobacco and alcohol were not his allies. In 1964, Uncle Bill asked me if I would be the executor of his estate. I answered “yes” but also inquired what he wanted me to do in that position. His answer was strong and specific. This response was, “Take care of my stuff!” as he pointed to the numerous books, multiple folders of music materials, etc. in his small apartment. That was to be my task. Billy’s father James, Sr. died in May 1965 and Billy had his own will drawn up on July 30, 1965, naming me as his executor. Billy’s beloved mother died in October 1966, and Billy followed her May 31, 1967.

The ball was now in my court. I met with my Uncle Bill’s attorney to determine what my next moves would be. What does the executor have to do to take charge? What do I need to identify and safe guard as any of his possessions could have great meaning to his family and perhaps the future generation of musicians? What belongings might comprise Billy’s legacy?

My first task as Executor was to collect and inventory all the materials in Strayhorn’s apartment. I decided to have professional movers list and pack all of Strayhorn’s furniture, books, papers, art objects, etc., and move them to a warehouse. The materials filled almost 2/3 of a moving van. I prepared the inventory of everything that needed to be distributed and finally sent copies of the Inventory to all of Billy’s immediate heirs, and any other parties who presented a claim for review and consideration.

My next task was to determine the value of his financial holdings including royalty income for his music and his outstanding debts and liabilities. Working through this phase of determination was going to take considerable time, talents, and resources that were not immediately available to me.You see where this is going? Many years later, the financial aspects of the Billy Strayhorn Estate were settled, but much remained to be completed. In 1996, David Hajdu completed his biography
of Billy Strayhorn, “Lush Life” providing information, insights and knowledge about a close partner to Duke Ellington during their almost thirty year relationship.

The Billy Strayhorn story still had more to be revealed. Walter van de Leur, a visiting musicologist from The Netherlands, met David Hajdu and inquired about the name Billy Strayhorn that he found linked with the music of Duke Ellington whose music he was studying at the Smithsonian Institution. Walter contacted me to examine some of the Strayhorn music that I had acquired. Several visits to Pittsburgh and a close examination of the materials in the Strayhorn Collection led Walter to return to Pittsburgh to study, play, and eventually record previously unknown works. Walters’ study evolved into a dissertation and the recording of newly discovered Strayhorn works. Many interested scholars, and musicians made visits to Pittsburgh to examine the Strayhorn collection, but Walter was the only one who came back repeatedly. He published a treatise on Billy Strayhorn’s music, “Something to Live For, The Music of Billy Strayhorn.” As a result of Walter’s work, we copyrighted over 70 songs. He worked with the Dutch Jazz Orchestra to play and record “Portrait of A Silk Thread: Newly Discovered Works of Billy Strayhorn” which premiered in 1995 during The Duke Ellington Society International Conference in Pittsburgh, PA.

As Billy’ s musical works were becoming more widely known, some of the heirs were being deluged with requests to make this music available to younger and broader audiences. We became a formal organization in 1997 to be known as Billy Strayhorn Songs, Inc. (BSSI) so that we could meet the requests of scholars, musicians, and others who were interested in Strayhorn’s work. We had to deal with legal challenges as to the ownership of the rights to his music. We prevailed against those challenges.

To make Billy Strayhorn’s music available, BSSI has worked with a number of major publishers throughout the world.

We became active participants at meetings of the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) and now the Jazz Education Network (JEN).

We trust that you’ll be able to think more about what you are doing to spread the word and grow your own legacy.

Current BSSI Board of Directors: A. Alyce Claerbaut, President; William E. Strayhorn, Vice-President; Leslie M. Demus, Esq., Secretary; John Strayhorn, Treasurer; Galen F. Demus, Director at Large; and Gregory A. Morris, Ph.D., Director at Large and Executor of the Billy Strayhorn Estate.

Keep up with what Billy Strayhorn Songs, Inc. is doing by checking our web site at billystrayhorn.com.