The Strayhorn Connection

My association with the music of Billy Strayhorn began one day in 1977 with a telephone call from Ran Blake, who at that time was directing the Third Stream Department at the New England Conservatory, under Gunther Schuller. My pianist, Manny Williams and I had answered a call from Ran Blake when he was producing with his students at NEC the music of Billie Holiday. Ran’s requests were always challenging, and he suggested that Manny and I do one of the lesser known songs done by Billie at that time, No More.

When he called again for the Billy Strayhorn program his suggestion was yet for another song not part of the mainstream jazz repertoire, Day Dream. Day Dream had been done by only a few, Ella Fitzgerald in the Ellington Songbook, and Carmen McCrae were two that I was familiar with, and while familiar with the song, I had not learned it.

This time I was asked to work with several of his Third Stream students. I met with the students one afternoon to learn what they had prepared in their interpretation of the song instrumentally. They had prepared a beautiful introduction to the song, and what was even more interesting were the instruments chosen to perform the song; Janet Grice, on bassoon, Carol Emmanuel on harp, an unamed student on trombone, and Eric Charry on guitar. We agreed on our interpretation and went forward to present the song in concert.

The concert took place in 1977 at The New England Conservatory in Jordan Hall to a packed house. Admission was free. I arranged with the students how the song would be presented on stage. I requested that a spot light would be center on the dark stage, and the musicians would sit in a semi-circle within the spotlight. When the introduction was completed I walked on stage and stood in it’s center.

The introduction and the dramatic entrance worked beautifully and at the completion of the song, I was astounded by the sound of the appreciative audience and the applause. So much so that the first thought I had was…who is Billy Strayhorn? From that night I was on a mission to find out.

My journey took virtually twenty years of research. I talked to anyone who had any knowledge of the composer, searching record libraries available to me, record bins, whatever I could find. But, what I was unable to find were the songs Billy had composed away from Ellington. Songs he had composed for his private collection and cabarets he performed for in New York. Then, it happened. Just by chance around 1989-1970 I came across a singer by the name of Jay O Leno, who recorded an obscure LP of Strayhorn songs.

That recording became the bulk of Strayhorn songs I was looking for. Songs that no one seemed to have an interest in recording. I began to seriously put together the Strayhorn repertoire I was interested in performing. Meanwhile I had learned from Boston friend and writer Bob Blumenthal that a fella in New York was writing Stray’s biography. I put that information in my memory bank and proceeded planning ahead. That person was David Hajdu.

In 1995 I hoped to start planning a set of arrangements of the songs, but that was delayed and it wasn’t until 1997 that everything seemed to fall into place. I had contacted Tamsen George, a Director of the Education Department at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Tamsen agreed with my wish to present the works in concert there. Also, David Hajdu’s book was published and was presented on the market. It was time. At the same period there seemed to be interest in Strayhorn’s music as an individual composer, away from Ellington. Pianist, Fred Hersch released a marvelous collection of Strayhorn songs, with Andy Bey singing as well.

Yes, it was time. There was much to be done. I had not been singing for a few years and at that time I had re-entered the music scene in Boston with Boston musicians. For this project I contacted my pianist and close ali, Manny Williams who also had taken a hiatus. I convinced him that this was a worthy project and he came on board. I called Ron Mahdi my bassist and my long time drummer Reid Jorgensen and we were ready to start planning. I added saxophonist, Bill Thompson and guitarist, John Stein to the band. From that 1996 summer with Tamsen in the courtyard, we had six months to plan until March 19, 1997 and as the months went by it was exciting as I planned the arrangements, the songs, the program and how it would look anf feel. I gathered up all my energy as a performer, producer, art director and all that was needed to make the presentation one that would be remembered.

I called David Hajdu and told him of my plans. Through him I met and was blessed by the Strayhorn family, especially Billy’s uncle, Gregg Morris. Doors opened with the connection. Music sheets I could not find were suddenly available to me through the contacts I was given. Next, I asked David if he would read excerpts from his book on stage to the audience. He agreed. Everything was ready. It was showtime.

The night of the performance there was electricity in the air. We were ready and by five o’clock the concert was sold out. And, before a full house, with Gregg Morris, his daughter and guest in the front row, with Ran Blake, who was responsible for the concert being able to happen at all, and family, fans and friends, we proceeded to introduce to the Boston audience, for the first time, the music and songs of Billy Strayhorn.

Two weeks after the concert, even though radio station, WGBH, had recorded the concert, I got a call to inform me that they would be interested in recording the songs in the WGBH studios and marketing the CD. This made my dream come true of doing and recording The Songs Of Billy Strayhorn.

Who could ask for anything more?

©2007 RG Productions

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