A motherlode of material from a beloved composer, pianist, lyricist, arranger and Duke Ellington collaborator now has a permanent home in D.C.
The Billy Strayhorn Collection, consisting of 18,000 holograph scores, manuscripts, photographs, business papers, personal notes and correspondences, is now available to lovers of 20th century American music.
A year ago, the Library of Congress acquired the collection from Strayhorn’s nephew and estate executor Gregory Morris and his family. Before Strayhorn’s death at age 51 from esophageal cancer in 1967, he asked Morris to take care of his things. Boxes of cataloged materials in acid-free folders reveal how meticulous and thoughtful Strayhorn was in his approach to arranging his compositions.
“This particular collection was well-organized when we got it,” said James Wintle, the library’s music reference specialist. “It had been well taken care of.”
Wintle opened a folder containing the original manuscript for “Sentimental Journey,” titled in French as “Voyage Sentimental.” According to Wintle, because Strayhorn was classically trained, he was deeply influenced by French composers such as Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy.
The depth to which Strayhorn worked out musical arrangements is seen through his notes on handwritten manuscripts. The names of specific musicians or instruments were written on those sheets showing who Strayhorn wanted to play a specific part in a composition.
“You’ve heard “Take the ‘A’ Train” zillions of times, but you look at this and say, ‘well, this is how his first thoughts were really going down,’” Wintle said as he pointed out notations on the original score of the classic composition. “You see an outline not in terms of notes, but in terms of how he worked it out on the piano.”
The collaboration between Ellington and Strayhorn produced many memorable songs, but their relationship was complicated. Strayhorn felt his contributions were not properly acknowledged by Ellington and strove to get full recognition for his compositions and arrangements. The collection has many Strayhorn compositions that were never used by the Ellington Orchestra, as well as unrecorded pieces that may have been used only for live performances.
“What Strayhorn was doing as a composer fit in very well with the Ellington Orchestra,” Wintle said. “The way he was able to collaborate with Ellington was monumental. He was always composing, even during last few years of his life when he was in the hospital.”
Because their styles were so similar, Wintle believes the collection better distinguishes what Strayhorn wrote than what Ellington wrote.
“You didn’t know where one began and where one ended.” Wintle said of how Ellington and Strayhorn collaborated. “Seeing Strayhorn’s hand, especially these working copies, you see where he had a germ of an idea and how that was used in a full piece in interesting ways. His arrangements were very dense, complicated and very personal.”
Looking at black-and-white photos in the collection, Strayhorn is seen at work and relaxing. One photo shows Ellington laying on the sofa talking on the phone. Strayhorn in the foreground when the viewer realizes a photographer must have always been close by capturing movements of the two collaborators.
Strayhorn’s personal papers in the collection includes letters to friends and colleagues about his travels. There also is an essay Strayhorn wrote about harmony.
“He’s talking about Duke Ellington’s approach to harmony and how that is different from traditional jazz,” said Wintle. “This is what made Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington so special,” Wintle said. “They were walking this line between complexity and accessibility all the time.”
The Strayhorn collection is in the Performing Arts Reading Room of the library’s James Madison Building. The Strayhorn collection joins other existing collections of Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Billy Taylor, Gerry Mulligan, Alvin Ailey, Dexter Gordon and Shelly Manne.