by David Berger

Here's my 2 cents:

I believe that Strayhorn's early compositions and arrangements are quite original and apart from Ellington, i.e.Chelsea Bridge, Raincheck, et al.

As the years went on, his work sounded more and more like his boss. Or maybe a bit of vice versa. Listen to Blues To Be There and parts of A Drum Is A Woman--more like Duke than Duke.

Of course there were the odd pieces like Up And Down, Up And Down which bore the Strayhorn stamp, but in general I see a shift to Ellington's point of view. Let's face it, Duke was a powerful influence to writers outside the band. What could it be like for an insider?

I am not denigrating Strayhorn in any way. Just an observation after transcribing 500 of these charts and coming off a 2-week tour performing Ellington and Strayhorn.

So what are the differences?

Ellington's basic nature contains more blues influence. Strayhorn's melodies are more chromatic, Ellington's more diatonic.

More importantly, BS arrives at solutions through more conventional European techniques, Ellington invents his own. Oddly enough, they arrive at similar solutions.

The reason for this is that they both had the sound of the same band and their individual players in their heads when they were writing. And BS loved Duke and his band and had the extreme talent and desire to please Duke. Maybe Duke was a father figure to BS. I can't say, but my guess is that this would be a component.

Which leads me to Hajdu's book. Although I never even met BS (I have heard many things from those who knew him well, however), I come away with the impression that for all of BS's success and great opportunity for self-expression with Duke, he suffered from the frustration that many strong creative people have when they work for their fathers. There is the desire to please and emulate the same-sex parent, but also the thwarted ability to rebel and strike out on one's own.

Strayhorn was too damaged in childhood to be a major success on his own. His underdeveloped personality traits were compensated for by Duke, so he never was able to stand on his own 2 feet.

Also remember that Duke was the ultimate manipulator. He convinced people to succumb to his will by getting them to believe in his dream. The great majority (maybe even all to some degree) said that working with Duke was the greatest experience of their lives. Most had reasons to leave.

Strayhorn had the desire to leave at different points, but like the child who can't bear to go away to college, BS stayed--I believe for 2 basic reasons:

1. He had a great musical situation. Perhaps he had a personal musical dream. His own band? Something apart from DE. I doubt it. The albums he recorded away from DE sound very much like Duke. Perhaps because they used Ellington sidemen. One exception is the album with voices. An odd record. He never followed up on it. I don't think it is very well-conceived.

2. He had a fear of being independent and having to create his own work, manage people, etc. He never showed much talent or desire to manage money or people, so having DE take care of that worked for him.

Although my talent is miniscule compared to BS', I have to make the comparison between his career and my own.

I have always wanted my own band and have had one on and off since I was 22. I have worked for other leaders and enjoyed that security, but always in the back of my mind was that these jobs were stepping stones to my real contribution which could only be realized if I held the creative reigns. I have made many sacrifices in order to accomplish this. My choice of musicians, compositional style and ensemble manipulation differed from all my employers, as great as they were. So I had no choice but to strike out on my own. BS had no strong sense of musical self. He became so involved in Duke's world at an early age, that he never developed his own separate identity. Kind of like the child who lives with a parent and never marries. They often have resentment, and the parent is usually very manipulative.

Jimmy Hamilton told me that he was warned not to stay with DE too long or he would not have a career outside DE. He confided in me that indeed he stayed too long. I'm not sure that any of Duke's sidemen had enough of an ensemble vision to become great leaders in their own right. Certainly there were great players (Clark Terry, Ben Webster, Hodges, Gonsalves, et al), but none ever became great leaders. We think BS should have since he was such a compositional genius, but he too lacked an ensemble sound of his own.

I'm not convinced by the Dutch band's recordings of unedited BS scores that these show the BS sound as apart from the DE band sound. Remember that a large part of the Ellington and Strayhorn compositional style was editing the scores to fit the ensemble at hand. That is to say that the scores were not complete until they were rehearsed and played for a while by the band. Some needed no editing, some needed complete re-writes, and the rest fall somewhere in between. To say that the first draft represents BS' real sound and the editing was all DE's idea overlooks the compositional process. As good as any of us are, when it comes to real jazz composition, we need to give up some creativity to the players. We need to welcome their styles and sounds into the whole tapestry. Sometimes this requires changes from the score you write in your head. No shame in that. It's just how it is.

Clark Terry told me that after they would rehearse a new BS chart, Billy would ask the individual players if they like their parts. "Do you like your part?" I wonder if he ever asked DE if he liked his chart.

As for Walter's book, by now you can guess that I disagree with his premise. My premise would be that DE and BS arrived at very similar conclusions using different approaches due to their very dissimilar backgrounds and natures. I found Walter's analysis to be from a European (not surprising) perspective rather than from an American jazz musician's point of view.

One should always keep in mind that DE was in show biz and was always looking for a hit. His relationship with his audience was reflected his show biz background as opposed to that of a European Classical model of the artiste. Oh, sure DE had some of those aspirations, but he never lost sight of who his audience was and where he came from.

BS was spared much of this as he shied away from audiences. He looked to please DE and DE had the responsibility to the audience.

DE had to figure out the big picture and assign BS the details. It was DE's world--he was solely responsible to the audience and the creator of the landscape, and for this reason I have to set DE apart from BS in level of genius.

I expect there will be some disagreement from some of our members, but this is how I see it. I welcome your comments.

David Berger

(This essay was posted to the Duke-LYM discussion
group on Feb 3, 2007, as part of a discussion of the
forthcoming documentary about Billy Strayhorn. It is
published here with the kind permission of Mr. Berger)

Lush Life:A Biography of Billy Strayhorn, by David Hajdu  Back

Something to Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn,by Walter van de Leur.  Back

Jimmy Hamilton, clarinet and tenor sax, with Ellington 1943-1968  Back

The Dutch Jazz Orchestra  Back

Clark Terry, trumpet and fluegelhorn, in the band 1951-1959  Back