LUMBERTON — His name may not mean much to casual jazz fans, but connoisseurs consider Billy Strayhorn among the genre’s greatest composers.
Duke Ellington’s soft-spoken sidekick for nearly three decades, Strayhorn is perhaps best known for writing the 1939 standard “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Other songs he penned for the Ellington Orchestra include “Chelsea Bridge” and “Lush Life” — a ballad that would become his posthumous calling card.
Strayhorn, who would have turned 100 years old this year, is remembered for more than his prodigious musical talents. He was openly gay during a time when homosexual entertainers were unheard of.
The University of North Carolina at Pembroke Jazz Ensemble will perform selections from Strayhorn’s songbook today at the Carolina Civic Center. The tribute concert is being directed by Aaron Vandermeer, a jazz professor and Strayhorn scholar.
“He was kind of the man behind the curtain with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, but the jazz community is now trying to correct what is perceived by some as an injustice and give Billy the attention he deserved,” Vandermeer said
Strayhorn, who was 51 years old when he died of esophageal cancer in 1963, received little recognition during his lifetime. His collaborations with Ellington were often credited solely to the famous bandleader, as were several songs that Strayhorn composed entirely by himself.
“He wrote so many tunes that are thought of as part of the Ellington repertory that they are invariably included in an Ellington concert,” John C. Wilson wrote in a 1991 story for The New York Times. Indeed, The Times has since published at least three separate corrections to articles that credit Ellington for songs written by Strayhorn.
“Strayhorn’s openness about his sexuality meant that more than half a century ago, in a very different America, he could not bask in the spotlight and wide acclaim lavished upon his boss,” wrote Chicago Tribune columnist Howard Reich earlier this year. “So Ellington, obviously a genius in his own right, benefited from the wizardry of music Strayhorn wrote for the Ellington organization, with Strayhorn enjoying few of the accolades.”
Still, Ellington showed reverence for his late friend and collaborator in the months following Strayhorn’s death. “Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine,” he said.
Strayhorn is part of a long line of influential jazz artists with ties to North Carolina. The child prodigy taught himself how to play piano during summers at his grandparents’ house in Hillsborough.
Compared with other musicians who spent their formative years in the Tar Heel state — John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Nina Simone and Dizzy Gillespie, to name a few — Strayhorn has gone largely unheralded. But the composer is just as worthy of a place in the pantheon, according to Vandermeer.
“Billy had his own compositional style; he studied the classical musicians and was very sophisticated in his style and structure,” he said. “He had exceptional harmonic and structural creativity, much more than any jazz composer of that time.”
The UNC Pembroke Jazz Ensemble will present “The Music of Billy Strayhorn” at 7 p.m. tonight. The concert is free for all college students with current, university-issued ID. Admission for non-students is $10..
The Carolina Civic Center is located at 315 N. Chestnut St. in downtown Lumberton. For information, visit carolinaciviccenter.com or call 910-738-4339.
Jaymie Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5771 or by email at [email protected]