Billy Strayhorn (Courtesy of
Billy Strayhorn (Courtesy of

Editors A. Alyce Claerbaut and David Schlesinger have collaborated on a new book that celebrates the life of late jazz legend Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967), best known for the almost 30 years he spent as the “writing and arranging companion” for Duke Ellington.

But “Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life” moves beyond the jazz icon’s years with “The Duke,” pointing to the many significant contributions he made to the American jazz canon years while suggesting that those contributions have for years been underrated.

The book, divided into two major sections, Musical Orbits and Moral Freedoms, begins with Strayhorn’s childhood musical education and ends with his post-Ellington work, then moves to his life outside of music, including his activism during the civil rights movement and his open homosexuality.

The collection includes essays, photographs and rare memorabilia, including handwritten scores that chronicle every stage of Strayhorn’s life.

Contributors include: Ramsey Lewis, award-winning jazz composer and musician; David Hajdu, Strayhorn’s award-winning biographer; Walter van de Leur, jazz musicologist and author of the definitive book about Strayhorn’s music; Robert Levi, director of the “Bill Strayhorn: Lush Life” documentary; and additional commentary from Lena Horne, Dianne Reeves, Nancy Wilson and more.

Claerbaut, co-editor of the book, shared her views about Strayhorn and why she and her colleague remained committed to the project.

“History is easy to write and hard to correct. History has recorded Billy as a footnote to the Ellington legacy. It is up to us to correct the record because those who come after us will never be as close to the story. The centennial may be the last chance that we as family can make a statement that corrects the record,” said Claerbaut who serves as the president of the Billy Strayhorn Songs Inc. in Chicago.

“I hope readers, both jazz devotees and new fans alike, will read this book and learn from Billy’s story, realizing that like him, we all have the capacity to overcome major obstacles and challenges that life presents if we remain true to ourselves. Despite the difficulties into which he was born, the societal challenges he faced as a gay, black man in a time when both were inestimable obstacles, and his complex relationship with a cultural icon [Ellington], he chose to live his life in a way that provides a model for knowing our gifts and practicing them with integrity.”

In his own words, Ellington said this about Strayhorn: “Billy Strayhorn was always the most unselfish, the most patient and the most imperturbably, no matter how dark the day. I am indebted to him for so much of my courage since 1939. He was my listener, my most dependable appraiser and as a critic he would be the most clinical, but his background – both classical and modern – was an accessory to his own good taste and understanding.”

Strayhorn’s songs, including his torch ballad “Lush Life,” have been performed by hundreds of great artists including: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Natalie Cole, Donna Summer, Dizzy Gillespie, Nat King Cole, classical orchestra, wind and brass ensembles and theatrical settings. One hundred years after his birth, a new generation of artists continue to perform his works in recordings, on television, in film and on the stage.

If you want to learn more about Strayhorn and hear his music performed, check out the program “Rhythm Café: The Life and Music of Billy Strayhorn,” on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2 to 4 p.m., at the Anacostia Community Museum, presented as part of the East of the River DC Jazz Festival events.

The museum will recognize Strayhorn in the tribute program and will feature Herman Burney and band The Ministerial Alliance.

To register, call 202-633-4844.

D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Dominic Kevin McNeir is an award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of service for the Black Press (NNPA). Prior to moving East to assist his aging parents in their struggles with Alzheimer’s,...

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