Sammy’s Blues – Part I

Thursday Morning, Fifth Week, Sammy’s Store

Bitches Brew played over the stereo, Miles’ subversive masterpiece that Sammy embraced instantly when it dropped and caused an explosion and scandal in the jazz world. Why, then, could he not embrace his old buddy’s subversive plan for announcing her candidacy? He asked himself that question while not stating the answer. Instead he dithered on side issues. This Sunday? Tamera doesn’t think that’s too soon? Berry’s had three weeks to plan his event, how can we do one in three days? And if it ain’t being billed as your event, why would people come?

Tamera said she’d make it work, Charlotte explained. And folks will come out thinking something big will happen. We’re working the rumor mill, she said.

Sammy sipped his coffee. He heard her, but still couldn’t quite make himself get with the groove, as much as he wanted to.

She stood in front of him, arms folded. Her nearly filled mug sat idle. “Sammy,” she said, “either I do it or I don’t do it. Last time you said I was too passive. You were right. I was too passive. I’m not making that mistake again.”

“You own this neighborhood, Charlotte, in a way that Ford Berry never can. He don’t know the people here. You do. People are expecting you to run. It won’t be a surprise.”

“Yes, I get that. But I still need to bring attention to myself in the media.”

“Look, I’m not saying it’s a bad idea. I’m just saying that it might have unintended consequences.”

Harry entered from the storeroom before she could respond.

“I think it’s pure genius,” he said.

“Oh Great Dizzy, here we go.”

“Sammy,” Harry continued, “we have to hit him and hit him hard, out the gate. Period. End of discussion.”

Bingo came in the front door. He stayed quiet while the others continued.

“One of the first things you said was that I needed to get attention,” Charlotte said. “Stealing his thunder is the best way to do that.”

“That was before…,” Sammy said.

“Before what?” Charlotte said.

“Before Alfonso got involved with things, that’s all.”

“Alfonso Berry?” Harry said. “That’s what you’re going on about?”

“That’s not fair, Sammy,” Charlotte said. “You know how I feel about Alfonso.”

She looked hurt as he feared she would, but at least he spoke his mind.

“Yeah,” Harry said, “Come on, Sammy! If that kid had any sense, he’d up and leave home now. Instead, you see where he’s at. Sometimes I wonder…”

“Wonder what, Harry?” Bingo said. “You’re not gonna start that bullshit about him being a spy for his father again, are you?”

“I’m just saying, that’s all.”

“No,” Charlotte said. “That’s not where he’s coming from at all.”

“He’s in grief over Carlton, Harry,” Bingo said. “Fuck! How hard is that to understand?”

“There’s a lot more to Alfonso than you know, Harry,” Sammy said.

“Yeah, OK. Maybe I don’t necessarily think he is, but you know,” Harry said.

“Then why the hell do you keep bringing it up?” Bingo said.

“Girl, please,” Harry said, returning to the storeroom. “Stop your tripping.”

“No, listen!” Bingo said. “That kid has more guts than all of us put together, OK? He ain’t no goddamn spy for his fucking father!”

“Blah, blah, blah,” Harry said, his left hand moving like a mouth opening and closing.

“Asshole,” Bingo said. “You got my usual, Sammy?”

Sammy took out a pack of cigarettes and put it on the counter. Bingo slapped down a twenty then went for the door. He didn’t bother waiting for his change.

“How long has he been hanging at the clinic?” Charlotte said.

“About three weeks now,” Sammy said. “He’s writing a paper about it for his class up at State.”

“Good. That’s good.”

Sammy sighed. He closed the till.

“He’ll be alright,” Charlotte said.

“I sure in the hell hope so. You sure you wanna do this?”

“Tamera’s already getting the wheels in motion. I have to do this, Sammy. You know, with Carlton…”

“With Carlton it was different. He was already estranged. And he didn’t live under the man’s roof.”

“What am I gonna do, Sammy? Not run? I’m going against an eight-year incumbent. I need the momentum. Anytime I declare will be the wrong time as far as Ford Berry is concerned. We can’t control how he’ll react.”

“I know.” He sat down. “I know. I don’t have any answers.”

“I need you behind me, Sammy.”

A loyalty test? Now he felt hurt, and didn’t care if it showed.

“Of course I’m behind you,” he finally said, refusing to make eye contact.

“Will you be there Sunday?” she pressed.

He remained silent.

“Does his father even know what he’s doing?” Charlotte said.


“So what’s the problem?”

She walked away abruptly, out the door, her nearly filled mug left on the counter. Miles and crew continued over the stereo, filling the store with turbulence.

Sammy stood, picked up Charlotte’s mug. He took it to the storeroom, emptied it, and washed it in the sink. Harry stood nearby doing inventory. They ignored each other. On the trip back to the counter, he turned off Miles. Silence. As he sat, the photo of Charlotte and Carlton on the wall behind the counter jumped out at him. He realized that it had been staring Charlotte in the face during their argument.

“You handled that well, Samuel Turner,” he muttered to himself.

(To be continued…)

A Strayhorn Lagniappe: More Music & A Picture Book

First, I have to correct a glaring omission. In my post recommending Strayhorn recordings to pick up, I left off something that I myself own: Marian McPartland plays the music of Billy Strayhorn. Why did I clumsily leave it off the list? Because when I went to my collection to pull out stuff to recommend, I neglected to find this CD until after I did the post. I couldn’t find it because my CD collection was in a state of disarray. Many recent additions — recent, as in the past 2-3 years — had not been alphabetized into the main collection. This included poor Ms. McPartland, hence why this CD was overlooked. But no excuses!

The late, great host of NPR’s “Piano Jazz,” who passed away in 2013 at the age of 95, recorded a CD of Strayhorn tunes in 1987 for Concord Records. Her quartet includes Jerry Dodgion on alto sax, Steve La Spina on bass, and Joey Baron on drums. The great master piano player deftly handles a collection of Strayhorn favorites, including “Take the A Train,” “Isfahan,” “Day Dream,” “Lush Life,” and slightly lesser known tunes like “Intimacy of the Blues” and “UMMG” (Upper Manhattan Medical Group). “Lotus Blossom” she plays as Duke Ellington often played it, sans accompaniment. The results are beautiful.

One does not have to look far to discover why she would feel so at home with this music. Ms. McPartland counted both Billy and Duke as friends and both are said to have visited after-hour clubs to hear her play. How sad that neither gentlemen lived long enough to have been guests on “Piano Jazz,” which began its broadcast life in 1979. Just imagining her playing duets with Duke or Billy gives me goosebumps. But fortunately it is not hard to find recordings of her playing the music of her long-time friends, and this is one definitely worth getting.

*  *  *


A. Alyce Claerbaut, president of Billy Strayhorn Songs Incorporated, and writer David Schlesinger put together Strayhorn – An Illustrated Life, a coffee table-style book of photographs, essays, interviews, and remembrances of Billy’s life. Bolden, in imprint of Agate Publishing, published the book last fall, to coincide with the centennial celebrations. And my husband bought a copy for me for Christmas. Thanks, Husband!

I haven’t had a chance to read the whole book yet, but just skimming it has revealed a wealth of interesting information on the background to the hitherto unsung master musician.

Here’s just a sampling of pictures from the book.

From left, sister Lillian Strayhorn Dicks, mother Lillian Strayhorn, and sister Georgia Strayhorn Morris Conaway.

From left, sister Lillian Strayhorn Dicks, mother Lillian Strayhorn, and sister Georgia Strayhorn Morris Conaway.

The Maestro at work, jazz and cocktails.

The Maestro at work, jazz and cocktails.

Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn.

Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn.

Billy Strayhorn

Billy Strayhorn

One aspect about pictures of Billy that always captures me is that he always looks so modern, as if the photo had been taken yesterday and not decades ago. My sister pointed out to me that his dress sense reflected style, which is immortal, and not trends, often ephemeral. Very true. And in  the many photos of Billy Strayhorn in the book, even those dating back to his youth before he had began earning a living in the Ellington organization, he dressed most stylishly.

The book is broken into two major sections: “Part One: Musical Orbits” and “Part Two: Moral Freedoms.” His life and music receive equal examination, including his never-hidden homosexuality. It’s comforting that the book follows Strayhorn biographer David Hajdu’s example of not excluding any aspect of Billy’s complicated, if tragically short, life.

I have no doubt that this book will provide endless hours of fascination and I look forward to delving into it more deeply. Even unread in its entirety, I can recommend it highly to Strayhorn fanatics everywhere.

A Patti Smith New Year


A Christmas gift from a friend. Tickets to a rock concert. I had only been to one other, a stadium affair. U2. This felt different. Perhaps more authentic.

New Year’s Eve. Folks wore party hats and spirits, sparkles and glitter on their black and silver clothing. The line snaked down the block. It led to a brick building, used, weatherworn. After a brief frisk by security, you went up some stairs to get inside. They scanned your ticket. The lighting was dim. I saw my husband at the top of the stairs, waiting for me. I had raced back to the car to get a forgotten item. He went inside, but waited just inside the door for me. We went into the Fillmore auditorium together.

Old chandeliers hung over us. Pink horses shone against the red curtains on the right. No general seating, only a few tables under the horses, reserved for others. We looked at each other, my husband and me, girding ourselves for several hours of standing. I had the beginnings of a cold. But that’s alright. I had to go.

The band came out shortly after 9 and started playing tracks from 1967, the Summer of Love. They knew their crowd. Folks lapped it up. Then came two by Jefferson Airplane, “Somebody To Love,” and “White Rabbit.” On the second song, she slinked out, seductively, playfully, sashing her hips, her head covered in a cap and hoodie. We roared. Off came the cap, off came the hood. Her long hair greyed with life and experience flowed over her shoulders. She took the mic and sang. We cheered. We roared. We danced. I forgot that my arthritic ankles were starting to ache after only 45 minutes of standing. My husband took me from behind, put his head on my shoulder. I could feel his smile as we swayed and rocked. After she finished singing, she yelled “GRACE SLICK!”, paying homage. But it was Patti Smith who entered the space and our hearts. And then, she was gone. She slinked back as quickly as she had come out. The band played a couple of more numbers, before also leaving the stage. End the first set.

Way back in the day, we sat in another auditorium. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Ustad Zakir Hussain had the stage. I looked at him, he would become my mate, nervously. A welcoming to my world. Would he like it? He said he did.

Now the roles had reserved. I entered his world, though after many years of prepping. Patti Smith had become a part of my world as much as Ravi Shankar, Alla Rakha, Nikhil Banerjee, et al, had become a part of his. In his youth, he saw Iggy Pop and the Stooges. He listened to Patti Smith. In time, I learned to listen, too.

Around 10:30, they came back on the stage. They played Horses, the entire album, in order, track by track, song by song. A 40th anniversary celebration. Some songs I knew, and I shouted with the masses on the choruses. Others I listened to pensively, while still getting my grove on. Sore ankles and hamstrings went away when the music played. And my husband smiled and danced. He looked so happy. That gave me energy. We energized each other under Patti’s spell.

During the second song, someone passed out. She called for a medic, urged folks not to crowd around the one who had fallen. “What drugs are you guys taking?” she asked, teasingly. Pot filled the air. Who knows what else accompanied it. But the crowd was cool. Patti and her band picked up where they left off and kept on going.

She held the album cover a few times during the show. At one point, she took the album out of its sleeve. “This is when we take the record, flip it over, and put the needle in the groove. Side 2.” We cheered. Even the young folks got it.

They finished the album before midnight, and kept playing. We lost track of how many encores they performed. At midnight, when the new year began on the West Coast, we were showered with balloons. We kissed. We hugged. We tossed the balloons around. And they kept playing. The crowd thinned somewhat, but we stayed.

Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!

Oh no! She began reciting Ginsberg’s Footnote to Howl. I lit up. In my wildest dreams I didn’t think she would perform this, but she did. How many times have I heard this around the house? Holy Peter! Holy Allen! Holy Solomon! A live performance from Portland. They rocked Ginsberg hard. But this time, she recited it alone, with minimal music. My husband held me close and tight. A bonding moment.

Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!

She performed and gave herself to us, even as her voice began to crack, because the night, because the fans, because the music, because the poetry, because the art. What a way to end one year and start another.

Happy New Year.

Societal Affluenza

From the Oompa Loompas, we learned the following:

Who do you blame when your kid is a brat,
pampered and spoiled like a Siamese cat?
Blaming the kids is a lie and a shame.
You know exactly who’s to blame:
The mother and the father!

At age 16, Ethan Couch killed four people while driving drunk. He came from money and his attorneys stated in his defense that he suffered from “affluenza,” an ailment which impaired his good judgement on account of his parents pampering him too much. Shades of the infamous “Twinkie Defense.” Instead of being high on sugar, the reason why Dan White killed George Moscone and Harvey Milk, Ethan was high on the good life, making him indifferent to the suffering or pain he causes in others. The defense worked. Ethan received a 10 year probation and no jail time.

Ethan couldn’t stay out of trouble forever, though, and screwed up the terms of his probation. In keeping with the Oompa Loompas’ lesson on bratty behavior, it figures, then, that his mother, Tonya Couch, helped her son to hightail it to Mexico. Both have since been found and we’ll see what sort of treatment they receive. Ethan, now 18 and thus an adult, might have to spend some time in jail or something. Who knows.

On the flip side, we have the tragedy of Tamir Rice. Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann shot and killed Tamir because he mistook the 12 year-old’s BB gun for the real thing after an encounter of a few seconds. The patrol car Loehmann rode in hadn’t even come to a full stop yet. The same week that Ethan pulled a Snagglepuss and exited, stage left, a grand jury decided not to indict Loehmann or Officer Frank Garmback, who drove the patrol car. Prosecutor Tim McGinty said that the officers responded reasonably, presumably meaning that they rightly feared for their lives. Tamir, at 12, got smeared as a Big Scary Black Man, a looming menace despite his youth and lack of a real weapon.

What we have here is a classic example of societal affluenza. Society proclaims that if you come from a certain background or hail from a certain race, religion, gender or gender identity, or sexual orientation — in other words, if you are a straight white Christian cis-male — then you get a pass. If you fall outside of that group, then you get no pass. We have to expand, then, the Oompa Loompas’ theory as to who is to blame for bratty behavior. It’s not just the parents who coddle their bratty child. It’s all of society who declares time and again, in case after case, that it’s OK if you’re a straight, white Christian cis-male. All of society suffers from affluenza.

Need further proof? Freddie Gray was placed insecurely in the back of a police van during his arrest for carrying an illegal switchblade and sustained injuries that killed him. Dylann Roof was taken to Burger King by the arresting officers after he killed 9 people at Mother Emanuel Church, in cold blood.

Oompa Loompa Doompadee Doo indeed.

An Ode to Achilles


I got my first motorcycle in December 1987. Before then, I had owned two scooters, a Honda Aero 50 followed by a Honda Passport. Neither were freeway legal, but that didn’t matter. I navigated the surface streets of LA like a boss. Commuting to UCLA from South-Central had its challenges, but I had various backroad routes that did the job, typically in 30 minutes. Angelenos know how to avoid traffic like that. I took particular pride in my innovative way of driving all the way to Occidental College in Eagle Rock, to go to Indian music recitals.

But by 1987, I felt the strong urge to up my game and get a full-on, freeway legal motorcycle. So I answered an ad in the Recycler, the paper equivalent of Craigslist at that time, for a Kawasaki Spectre 550. The seller took me on a ride to show me how the bike worked. That scared the shit out of me. Not the bike or his driving, but riding as a passenger. I had never done that before, nor would I ever again, but it’s a very different experience than controlling the bike yourself. Anyway, the bike was fine, though one of the exhaust pipes had a leak. It made more noise than it should have, but that didn’t bother me. I bought it.

The seller lived in Hollywood and I lived in West LA at that time. I had to ride it home. I had a license, of course, but I lacked the skill, having never driven anything with a clutch. The Honda Passport had clutch-less gear shifting, not the same thing. I stalled on the Kawasaki. At every intersection. In the drizzling rain. Fun times.

I named my Aero 50 Andromeda and my Passport Perseus, the hero who rescued Andromeda from a monster, likely me. For some reason, I always knew I would name my first motorcycle Achilles, so that was the name the Kawasaki got. I spent most of the winter break learning how not to stall out of first gear. I lived on a quiet street off Santa Monica Blvd., so that part was easy. It took a bit, but my triumph came New Year’s Eve. I had developed enough confidence that I rode all the way to a friend’s place for a New Year’s Eve party. Can’t remember where my friend lived. Mar Vista or Venice or someplace like that, not too far. But I felt majorly triumphant.

I rode Achilles everywhere. My first trip to the Bay Area came in the spring of 1988. On that trip I learned of the biker custom to wave at each other as we passed on the big highway. Kinda cool. I belonged to a tribe now. We dared to expose ourselves to the elements with nothing around us, and only this big motor on wheels underneath our butts. It felt awesome. On occasion, I would meet another rider at a rest area or gas station and we agreed to ride together, staggered side by side on I-5. That was kinda neat. I had always wished that one of my co-riders would turn into an “encounter,” but I never had such luck, even with the guy in all leather. I loved his leather outfit. Eventually, I would get one of my own.

In 1989 I moved to Oakland. It took two trips, the first with the moving van and all my stuff, and the second to ride Achilles up. I then made repeat trips to LA on a regular basis. Over the years, we encountered strong winds, dust storms, and on one trip, in 1993, rain. In June. I stopped at a hotel for a few hours, anxiously waiting for the storm to pass. I thought how cool it would be if someone were in the room with me, maybe the guy in leather. Eventually, though, I got underway again, the storm largely passed. Or so I thought. I ran into sleet in the Grapevine. Sleet, in June. What were the odds?

Mechanics always told me that the Kawasaki I owned had an excellent engine. The engine block could stop bullets, two different mechanics told me. But wear and tear took its toll. It was five years old when I bought it, and had 11,000 miles. I added quite a few more than that. So, by Fall of 1993, I was ready for a new bike. Goodbye Spectre 550, hello Vulcan 1500. That thing was a beast, with two very large cylinders. It had torque to spare. I got it pimped out with leather saddlebags, riding pegs, and a windshield.

The name stayed the same. I couldn’t bring myself to give up on the name Achilles, so I reasoned that my motorcycle was a time lord like the Doctor from Doctor Who. And like that fictional character, it could regenerate. Each Doctor has a different personality. So it was with the second Achilles. She had power and pick up that the Spectre never had. I rode often in the backroads of Marin, Sonoma, and Mendocino Counties. This bike made short work of all the twists and turns. Sometimes, I strapped my manual typewriter to the back seat, went out, found a quiet spot in the middle of nowhere, and hoped to write something.

The sleet trip in June of 1993 was the last trip to LA I made on the Spectre Achilles. In May 1996, I made my last trip ever to LA a bike during Memorial Day weekend. My mother was ill, dying. It would be the last time I saw her alive. I remember pulling up into the front year on the Vulcan and seeing her sitting in her wheelchair in the front door, waiting for me. That was the only time that ever happened, the beginning of the farewell visit. It was a beautiful trip, though sadness hovered over every moment. We knew my mom didn’t have much longer. When I left, I went around the long way to prolong seeing my mom waving at me from the porch. She died less than a month later. I flew to LA after she died, wanting to get down quickly. I kissed the pillar on porch next to where she waved at me each time I visited the house, until my father’s death ten years later.

As I said, I never made any trips to LA on Achilles after my mother died. By that point, my now-husband and I had been together for a few years. I didn’t want to travel so far with him on back. We took trips in his various four-wheel vehicles. Most of my riding became commuting to work and short trips to Marin or Napa. I still loved the open road, but in smaller doses.

Achilles III

Achilles III

In April 2000, I bought the Honda Valkyrie, the third Achilles. It also had a 1500cc engine, but over six cylinders, not two. A bike meant for the open road, but I rarely took long trips. I didn’t want to admit it at the time, but my love of biking was on the wane. In August of that same year, I finally got my car license. See, at the time I got my first motorcycle license in 1984, for the Aero 50, you could get a motorcycle-only license in California. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. So for years I had this oddball, motorcycle-only license, rather than a standard license with a motorcycle endorsement on it. I don’t know why I never got a car license earlier. Just one of those things. I’m a freak, a vegetarian who loved leather and riding bikes.

Had the first Mini Cooper come out a few months earlier in 2000, I could have seen myself getting one. As I said, my love of riding was flagging. I never had any accidents, no broken bones, nothing like that. It was just hard work being an all-the-time biker. I even commuted in the rain, with a full wetsuit and everything. But I remember the moment it all changed. I had my car license and I borrowed my husband’s Ford Explorer to go clothes shopping. There I was riding down Highway 13 in Oakland in the rain, the heat on, KCSM playing jazz over the stereo, and I was bone dry with the windshield wipers going. Yeah, I liked it a lot. I had some good times on the Valkyrie, but nothing like my adventures on the Spectre or the Vulcan.

So after 7 years on the Valkyrie, I called it the day and bought my first car, a Honda Civic Hybrid. At least if I was going to “conform” and get four wheels, I could do it as greenly as possible. Actually, the Civic Hybrid got better gas mileage than the Valkyrie or the Vulcan. It certainly had a smaller engine, only 1300 cc. Anyway, after one last ride on Achilles, she sat in the garage. And sat, and sat. Along the way, she stopped running. It’s not a fate she deserved, but my interest in riding had vanished completely. If it had been an occasional thing, where I rode just a few times a week, such might have not been the case. But I rode everyday for 23 years, logging in over 100,000 miles over five bikes. Not a shabby record.

Last weekend, I said goodbye to the Valkyrie. I donated it to KCSM Jazz 91 for them to sell and make some money for the station. I thought of trying to fix it up myself and sell it. For a while, back in the day, I could rock the motorcycle mechanics. On the Valkyrie, I even calibrated the carburetors myself. But now I’m badly out of practice and again, not interested. My biking life belongs to the past. Though I still felt a twinge when the hauler took the Valkyrie away. It truly was the end of an era. I hope someone with enthusiasm and zeal buys the Valkyrie, gives it a good name, and takes it on the rides I never did. I always wanted to ride cross-country. Sadly, that adventure never happened.

I kept the license plate frame, pictured above. I had it made when I owned the Vulcan. It’s a reminder of the good times, when I rode with strangers on I-5, or out to the lighthouse at Point Reyes in my Doctor Who scarf (safely strapped to the backseat, to avoid Isadora Duncan calamities), or to some quiet spot to write. I had good times on Achilles, all three of them.

Our Gun Obsession Is Insane

As a reaction to the horrible mass shooting in San Bernardino, the New York Times published its first front page editorial in 95 years. Titled “End the Gun Epidemic in America,” it is yet another plea for common sense to prevail and for politicians, particularly the US Congress, to pass common sense laws to curb the access to guns that quite frankly the civilian population does not need to own. I particularly noted this:

It is a moral outrage and a national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed specifically to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency. These are weapons of war, barely modified and deliberately marketed as tools of macho vigilantism and even insurrection.

Tanks are pretty macho-looking, too, but I certainly wouldn’t want to see them on the streets. Similarly, there is no reason for anyone to own Uzi knock-offs. You don’t need an Uzi to defend yourself or hunt game or for target practice. That’s insane.

I was going to repost my original essay about guns from a couple of years ago, but instead I’ll do a Cliff’s notes version. In that piece, I make the argument that many have made, that guns should be regulated in a similar way as cars. Guns should require registration that has to be renewed annually. Gun ownership should require a license, to prove that the owner (a) isn’t insane and (b) can operate and maintain (e.g., lock away) a gun safely and properly. And gun owners should also need to purchase insurance to operate their guns.

Cars can kill, but that’s not what they are designed for. Guns have no other function but to kill and maim. Why would we not regulate a devise designed to kill and maim in at least as strict a manner as we do a device not designed specifically for that purpose?

The NRA and the gun lobby are a bunch of ghouls that profit from fear and death. We need politicians with the moral courage to go against them and enact the type of common sense laws required to help curb the violence. Tens of thousands of Americans die annual from gun violence, and we do next to nothing about it. That’s insane. If we continue to let this happen, then we are insane.

Music to Live For – The Strayhorn Centenary Project

New York City will host several events to mark the 100th anniversary of Billy Strayhorn’s birth. Details can be found at a special centennial website. Ah, to be in New York this autumn.

Fortunately, we all have access to his incredible body of music. Here’s just a short selection of recommendations and some of my favorite recordings of Billy Strayhorn music.

Never No Lament – The Blanton-Webster Band: Billy joined the Ellington band in 1939. This album covers the years 1939-1942. Included are some of Billy’s earliest masterpieces, including “Chelsea Bridge,” “Raincheck,” and the band’s theme “Take the A Train.” Additionally, some of Ellington’s strongest works are here. This album belongs in any music lover’s collection.

Great Times! Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn Piano Duets: These are recordings made around 1950 for the short-lived Mercer record label. Riverside reissued it in 1984. Unfortunately, the master tapes were lost, so they had to use the original LPs as source material. Thus, the sound quality can be a bit uneven. Nonetheless, it is fascinating to hear the two long-time collaborators playing together. My favorite piece is the track “Tonk.”

Cue for Saxophone – Billy Strayhorn’s Septet: This recording had a lot of politics behind it. Long time Ellington associate Stanley Dance wanted to produce an album with Johnny Hodges and asked Strayhorn to write the arrangements and play piano on it. This, despite the fact that Dance was one of the reviewers who derided Billy’s music in the 1940s as too mawkish. According to Strayhorn’s friends, he did the gig mostly for Hodges, whom he adored and loved to work with. The resulting music is actually very nice. My late brother Robert found a copy of this album for me about a year before he died, so it has a sentimental quality for me.

The Peaceful Side: This is probably the only album under Strayhorn’s name that he supervised away from the Ellington Orchestra that was released in his lifetime. It was recorded in Paris, 1961, just after working with Ellington on the soundtrack for the movie Paris Blues. (Side note: Not a great film, but fascinating because of its soundtrack AND it features a short cameo by Billy’s former partner, and lifelong friend, Aaron Bridgers.) Billy plays piano and presents understated interpretations of some of his works, including “Passion Flower,” “A Train,” “Multi-Colored Blue,” and “Just A Sittin’ And A Rockin’,” a piece from the Blanton-Webster years. Most find the album has an inner tension, despite the title.

Billy Strayhorn – Lush Life (The Big Band, The Small Band, Piano Solos): This is one of the best showcases of Billy Strayhorn playing his own work. It opens with Billy himself singing his signature tune “Lush Life” to his own piano accompaniment. His singing is somewhat tongue and cheek, but sincere and rather moving. The next track is the only one Billy does not appear on. The Ellington Orchestra plays a gorgeous version of “Passion Flower,” with Johnny Hodges front and center, soloing. The rest of the album features Billy with musicians that accompanied him in a concert he gave to an Ellington appreciation group in 1964. Ozzie Bailey, another black gay man, sings on a few tracks, including on my favorite version of “Something To Live For” to Billy’s piano, a recording of great significance to me.

…And His Mother Called Him Bill: I wrote about this album in a post a few years ago. It is Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra’s tribute to their longtime friend and colleague after he died of cancer in 1967. Read my earlier post for a fuller description of this essential album.

Other artists have over the years recorded Strayhorn’s music. A good place to start includes Lush Life: The Billy Strayhorn Songbook. This was issued as an accompaniment to David Hajdu’s award-winning biography referenced throughout my posts. It features Sarah Vaughan in probably my favorite version of “Lush Life,” Art Farmer, Louie Bellson, Ben Webster, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald with the Ellington Orchestra (their only appearance on this disc), Frank Morgan, Cecil Taylor, Johnny Hodges with Billy, Billy Eckstine, Joe Henderson, Stan Getz, and the Jazz at the Philharmonic All-Stars.

Joe Henderson recorded an album of Strayhorn covers, also called Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn.

Billy was very possessive of “Lush Life” and lost it when Nat King Cole recorded a version, without permission, in the 1940s. One version that stands out, apart from The Divine One’s mentioned above, is the John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman rendition from the John Coltrane – Johnny Hartman album. Coltrane also recorded an album of mostly Strayhorn music called Lush Life.

My absolute favorite recoding of the Strayhorn standard “Chelsea Bridge” appears as the opener on Gerry Mulligan’s album Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster. Like. Butter. Run, don’t walk, to get this excellent album, not just for the Strayhorn track but for everything that follows.

Another fine recording of “Chelsea Bridge” appears on sax master Anton Schwartz’s album The Slow Lane. It has a relaxed feel and the air of a musician playing the tune meditatively on a warm summer evening on the sidewalk for his own benefit.

The Final Years – The Strayhorn Centenary Project

The homophobia that Joe Morgen, Duke Ellington’s publicist, possessed only reflected the homophobia of the society at large in the late 1950s. Around the time the New York Times ignored Strayhorn in its review of Such Sweet Thunder, a move undoubtedly engineered by Morgen, the Amsterdam News, Harlem’s daily, published a series of articles and letters to the editor about homosexuality. Homophobia ran amok. “Degenerate homosexuals know nothing of men of history,” etc., quotes David Hajdu in Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn.

These sorts of tirades were routine. James Baldwin had to contend with direct attacks because of his homosexuality, particularly from Eldridge Clever. Similarly, Bayard Rustin received frequent calls to step down from his leadership positions with the Civil Rights Movement. Both Baldwin and Rustin were very public figures, thus exposing themselves to the solar winds of homophobia that blew virulently at that time.

Even Duke Ellington was not immune from homophobic beliefs, according to his son Mercer Ellington. He notes in his book Duke Ellington In Person, An Intimate Memoir (coauthored with long-time Ellington associate Stanley Dance) that his father once expressed concern about a “Faggot Mafia” that would freeze out heterosexuals from work opportunities. Mercer raised the subject within the larger context of his father’s tendency, beginning in the 1950s, towards conspiracy theories. The “Faggot Mafia” was one of several. Mercer Ellington notes that his father had many close associates who were gay, and that he felt comfortable working with them, while also noting that his father was not himself gay. It’s interesting to note that Mercer does not mention Billy Strayhorn at all in this section of the book.

I admit to having a knee-jerk, defensive attitude when I first read this many years ago, because of my adulation of Duke Ellington and my understanding of how deeply he loved Billy Strayhorn. Furthermore, I had read Hajdu’s book before reading Mercer’s. Thus, I read that Ellington spent much more time discussing music with Strayhorn than with Mercer, that Mercer and Strayhorn did not enjoy a close relationship, and that Mercer even once said that Strayhorn’s piano playing was not “good enough” to join a band that Mercer put together in the mid-1940s. Therefore, I first concluded that deep-seated jealously probably drove Mercer to write about the “Faggot Mafia” in his memoir, to show that even though his father loved Strayhorn, he still held prejudices against people like Strayhorn.

And such might well be the case, but now I think a more nuanced explanation is appropriate. Ellington could well have harbored such thoughts against an amorphous, anonymous “Faggot Mafia,” but likely never associated any of his close colleagues with it. Thus Billy Strayhorn, and folks like Ellington Orchestra singer Ozzie Bailey, received a pass. But did any latent homophobia prevent Ellington from protecting Strayhorn from being erased from the band’s history by Joe Morgen? Maybe, but then again not necessarily. Ellington never bothered with managerial details, preferring to stay above the fray, as it were. Mercer told Hajdu that his father ran the band much like he ran his family, let each fight for themselves.

Strayhorn’s relatively unknown status likely shielded him from the direct, public attacks that Baldwin and Rustin suffered. Nonetheless, blatant and condoned homophobia, like blatant and condoned racism, would have taken its toll on him, as it does on black lesbians and gays today. Truth be told, Strayhorn had to contend with jazz’s machismo from early on in his career. As noted previously, jazz musicians almost universally loved his work, including jazz masters like Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans, and Dizzy Gillespie, to name a few. However, Walter van de Leur, author of Something to Live For — The Music of Billy Strayhorn, notes that some music critics took exception to Strayhorn’s writing style, calling it “effete” or “overripe.” He rightly notes that such comments reflect more the homophobia of the critic rather than the quality of Strayhorn’s work.

Stuff like that in jazz drives me nuts. Too often in liner notes I’ve read similar comments. Some complain that Strayhorn’s pieces are mawkish or sentimental. Gorgeous works, like “Chelsea Bridge,” get derided because they lack punch or vigor. I get really incensed by critics who straight-jacket jazz into a “wham-bam-boom” type music, where the horns blow hard, the rhythm kicks hard, the band jumps, jitters, and jives none stop. How confining is that? Writers of such rubbish will concede that while Johnny Hodges plays beautifully on ballads, that it’s a shame that he’s mostly known for such work, rather than hard-hitting, foot-stomping, macho blues. Are you kidding me? So naturally, Strayhorn’s “Daydream,” “Isfahan,” and “Passion Flower,” all showpieces written for Hodges, fall under this ridiculous category of “pretty, but not real jazz.” Give me a break. Music is the closest thing to a religion for me. It expresses all aspects of the human experience, from strident to sublime. To deny part of this expression solely to fulfill the narrow requirements of a part of society insecure in their own sexual identity is ludicrous.

But sadly, such was the type of thing that Billy Strayhorn had to deal with during his too short a life. As noted in the previous post, he often found refuge in cocktails. In 1964, he discovered that he drank and smoked more than was good for him.

In the early 1960s, he became good friends with Dr. Arthur Logan, Ellington’s personal doctor, and his wife Marian Logan. Part of the black aristocracy of the time, they counted Martin Luther King, Jr. as a friend, and it was through the Logans that Strayhorn formed a friendship himself with the famed Civil Rights icon. Strayhorn often went to the Logans to cook and socialize. Marian Logan’s descriptions of this period make for some of the most interesting reading in Hajdu’s book.

It was on a day early in 1964 that Dr. Logan noticed labored breathing from his friend after he arrived at their Harlem flat. He said to Strayhorn that he should see a doctor, and Billy agreed. A few days later, tests confirmed that Strayhorn had cancer of the esophagus. Typical of this form of cancer, doctors discovered it in an already advanced stage. Such late diagnoses inevitably make this type of cancer fatal. Excessive drinking and smoking are the usual suspects.

Hajdu notes that one of Strayhorn’s close friends at the time, Bill Coleman, found Billy surprisingly calm and resigned about the diagnosis. He further speculated that, “he was resigned and obviously had been resigned about important matters before and knew how to handle it.” Did he? This is actually a terrifying statement, when one reflects on it. “Resigned” to being a second class citizen for being black? “Resigned” to being a second-second class citizen for being black and gay? “Resigned” to not achieving the stardom or at least recognition he could have had if not for his black and gay identity? To me, “resigned” does not necessarily mean “at peace with.”

Billy Strayhorn worked on several projects during the last three years of his life, though his work pace slowed down considerably. He focussed on projects close to him, and did less and less of the day-to-day work he had done for Ellington over the decades. He had worked closely, for example, with Ella Fitzgerald’s first recording with the Orchestra in the mid-1950s, but missed the recording sessions entirely for her second visit, one of the first times he missed a date with a feature vocalist.

An Ellington appreciation society produced, with Billy’s permission, a concert for him where he played with a group of musicians of his choosing. The concert was a great success, so much so that Ellington took Strayhorn and his group into the studio to record them. The result, one of the best showcases of Strayhorn’s work (Billy Strayhorn — Lush Life on the Red Baron label), was not released until 1992.

The greatest of all the Ellington-Strayhorn suites came out in 1966, the Far East Suite. It was inspired by the Orchestra’s trip to the Middle East and South Asia as part of the State Department’s jazz ambassador program.

Billy had one last partner at this time, Bill Grove, a graphic designer who had been in Strayhorn’s extended circle for years, but who became a strong comfort and supporter in the final years of his life. A pianist named Dwike Mitchell, a friend of Grove’s, told Hajdu that Grove “is the only person — and I say person, not white person — who I’ve ever met in my life who didn’t have an ounce of prejudice in him.” They never moved in together, but to the end they were nearly always together.

It was Bill Grove, and not Lena Horne as some sources reported (presumably another attempt at hiding Strayhorn’s sexuality), who was at Billy’s side in the early morning hours of May 31, 1967 when he died.

Billy Strayhorn survived his father by four years and his mother by just under one. He left behind siblings and a large collection of friends. Duke Ellington would live another seven years. The man who started life without a name and lived his life largely in Ellington’s shadow, if not always by choice, left his mark in the world of music. To this day, many artists continue to explore and reinterpret his vast work of masterpieces.

16 Shots Equals Sadism

I fear that I have to interrupt my Billy Strayhorn tribute posts to make an important announcement.

16 shots equals sadism.

Over a year after Laquan McDonald, a 17-year old black kid, was shot and killed by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, a white cop, under very suspicious circumstances, video of this shooting has been released and first degree murder charges have been filed against Van Dyke. Here is a (graphic) description of the video, as I heard narrated by Chris Hayes on MSNBC’s “All In with Chris Hayes” program. I cannot bear to watch the video myself. (Nor will I link to it; you can google it and find it yourself.)

The video shows Van Dyke shooting Mr. McDonald once as he was walking away from the police, causing him to spin around and fall to the ground. It then shows Van Dyke shooting Mr. McDonald an additional 15 times while he was on the ground. The New York Daily News reports that Van Dyke emptied a clip then reloaded. Then another officer kicks away the knife Mr. McDonald had on his person as he lay motionless on the ground. Mr. McDonald died later on the way to the hospital.

Here’s the thing. 16 shots fired into someone walking away from you is not self-defense. It is sadism. Any claims that it is less than sadism is bullshit. Van Dyke’s attorney has so far made bellicose statements about his client’s innocence. No doubt he’ll impugn the late Mr. McDonald’s character as part of his client’s defense in due course. That Mr. McDonald was walking away from the police when he was initially shot, as reported by witnesses, the defense will not discuss. That the body was allowed to lie in the street for an extended period, the defense will not discuss. That Mr. McDonald was not moving as Van Dyke shot him 15 additional times, the defense will not discuss. That officers on the scene shooed away and intimidated witnesses of this crime, the defense will not discuss.

Van Dyke’s defense won’t discuss any of these details despite their relevance to the case because they want to use the Big Scary Black Man defense to justify the taking of yet another life.

But here’s the thing. 16 shots fired into someone walking away from you is not self-defense. It is sadism. Cold, cruel, ugly, base sadism. And it needs stop.

The blue wall of police closing ranks to protect one of their own for performing known criminal acts must fall. It must either fall or be taken down by firing people unfit for police service. Van Dyke had many other complaints against him. He clearly had no business being a police officer. I’ve been in the HR business for a long time. If you have a bad performer, you fire them. This is all the more crucial when the job has a license to kill. You don’t want unfit people given a license to kill. No one is above the law, least of all those sworn to protect and uphold it. Had Van Dyke been taken off the street ages ago, then Mr. McDonald would still be alive.

Do not protect someone who has committed sadistic murder. Because then you become the sadist.

Our Love Has Faded – The Strayhorn Centenary Project

Bebop hit the scene in the early 1940s and grew as the decade progressed. Rhythm and blues got more attention as the 40s rolled to a conclusion. Thus, by 1950, club owners began booking smaller R & B combos and jazz joints booked bebop combos. It was cheaper to pay 4-6 musicians than a large jazz orchestra of 12 musicians or more. Folks started buying more R & B, and eventually its offshoot rock and roll, both supplanting jazz as popular music. Big bands started to fade. Many folded, including, for a while, Count Basie’s — though ultimately he would start his “new testament” orchestra by 1954.

Duke Ellington weathered the storm. He maintained his organization by paying his musicians from his royalty income as gigs began to dry up. And he gained some important new voices like drummer Louis Belson and in particular tenor sax player Paul Gonsalves. He also lost some older voices, most notably alto sax star Johnny Hodges. Hodges had been itching to strike out on his own for a while, and finally made his break in 1951. Perhaps he saw an opportunity to cash in on the new small combo craze. He even had a hit record early on, “Castle Rock.” By 1955, however, Hodges returned to Ellington and stayed until his death in 1970.

Billy Strayhorn also wanted to make an exit from the world of Duke Ellington by the early 1950s. But doing so for him was a more daunting task.

It was easy for any of the musicians of the band to go off on their own. The Ellington Orchestra was really made up of high caliber soloists. All had name recognition. The public knew their work. Billy Strayhorn had none of this. Despite his prodigious work for the Orchestra, hardly anyone outside of music knew him, thus making it difficult for him to strike out on his own.   Also, unlike any of his colleagues, he had to contend with the tyranny imposed by society’s virulent homophobia. In this regard, he had a choice. He could work for Duke Ellington and live comfortably out of the limelight, but not receive the type of recognition any artist would want to receive for his or her work. Or he could strike out on his own and receive his due, but then contend with “who is your wife” or “who are you dating” type questions. Since Strayhorn lived very honestly with himself, lying to the press about his sexuality was likely a nonstarter. Thus he found himself in a very difficult position. But still, he tried to go out and test the waters.

Like many LGBT folks, particularly from that era, Strayhorn had a community of friends who provided emotional support and encouragement, as well as sometimes practical advice. One of his most important friendships was with Lena Horne, whom he met in the early 1940s. She often stated that Billy was the love of her life, and they remained close to the end of his days. He, in turn, gave her strength and encouraged her to live her life on her own terms. For instance, he went to Europe to support Horne when she married Lennie Hayton, of Russian Jewish heritage. They had to go to Europe because of California’s miscegenation laws. Both Lena and Lennie encouraged him to strike out on his own. Hayton, in particular, urged him to take better control of his business relationship with Ellington.

Another important group of friends were a dance group known as The Copasetics. Named in honor of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and his favorite catchword — some credit him with coining it — they welcomed Strayhorn into their group, even though he wasn’t a dancer. They loved him and his music and many felt he provided a calming influence. Strayhorn particularly grew attached to Honi Coles, “Father,” as he often called him. The group gave Strayhorn another avenue for his creative work. He composed music for several of their reviews. They eventually elected him their president.

Strayhorn also made some inroads into more traditional theater. In 1953, he took on a summer-stock job with director Herbert Machiz, with whom he had worked on an Ellington theater project in Paris. Strayhorn brought along Luther Henderson, an arranger, composer, orchestrator, and pianist, who worked with him on Ellington’s Beggar’s Holiday. They played two pianos off-stage for the productions.

Machiz was a gay man. His partner was art dealer John Bernard Myers. With Myers’ help, Machiz created the Artists Theatre, a place for experimental works and collaborations across several artistic disciplines. The Artists Theatre ultimately became a precursor to Off Broadway theatre. It presented works by Tennessee Williams and Frank O’Hara with sets designed by artists like Elaine de Kooning. While brainstorming ideas for future projects, Strayhorn expressed the desire to have an all black cast present a play that dealt in some way with homosexuality. In 1953, he wanted to do this. Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room came out three years later. Imagine if a stage version of that book had been created. Imagine if Strayhorn had written incidental music for it. That would indeed have been something to live for. However, the closest the group came to Strayhorn’s idea was a production of The Love of Don Perlimplín for Belisa in Their Garden by gay Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca. Lorca, like Oscar Wilde before him, was pilloried for his homosexuality and ultimately murdered by Franco loyalist at the start of the Spanish Civil War. The Artists Theatre production featured an all black cast. Strayhorn wrote incidental music for it. It was considered highly unusual for its time. Think about it. Today, we have a new Star Wars movie about to premiere featuring a black male heroic lead, and even now, in 2015, some folks got bent out of shape about it.

Ultimately, though, Strayhorn never extricated himself fully from Duke Ellington. The Maestro experienced a rebirth at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. Paul Gonsalves sealed his place in jazz history by performing a 27-chorus solo in the bridge between “Divertimento in Blue” and “Crescendo in Blue” that nearly caused a riot and put Ellington on the map. The Maestro’s picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine, the second jazz artist to be so honored. (The first was Dave Brubeck, and he always felt embarrassed that he was first and not one of his black colleagues, particularly Ellington). Reenergized, Ellington wanted Strayhorn back in the fold, fully present to meet the demands placed upon him and the Orchestra thanks to the renewed fame. To be sure, Strayhorn had never strayed far. But this time, a very savvy Ellington promised his long-time partner full credit for his work and the opportunity to contribute his own music to their projects. This would be the first time since the ASCAP strike in 1941 that Strayhorn was afforded this opportunity.

Such Sweet Thunder was the first of several major projects from this period. A musical tone-poem based on the works of William Shakespeare, it had Strayhorn written all over it. He contributed the movements “The Star-Crossed Lovers,” a luscious Johnny Hodges showpiece, “Half the Fun,” a piece steeped in mystery, evoking its subject Cleopatra, and “Up and Down, Up and Down,” a take on the mischievous Puck from A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream. Other projects from this period include A Drum is a Woman, composed for a TV special, and Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook. By definition, the Songbook project was largely in Duke’s name. But Strayhorn received full credit on Drum and in particular Thunder. The original album cover for the latter states in the byline “Composed and Orchestrated by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.”

When it came to the publicity of these works, however, life turned awful again. Ellington had hired around this time a new publicist, Joe Morgen. Morgen was good at his job. He worked hard to get his boss’s name all over the media and succeeded. He was also, by all accounts, a huge homophobe. Morgen made sure that Strayhorn’s name appeared as infrequently as possible. So even though he was listed on the album cover as a co-composer and co-orchestrator, Billy Strayhorn’s name failed to appear in the New York Time’s review of Thunder or any other publicity about the work. He became invisible in a project tailor made for him. Publicly, Strayhorn responded with nonchalance.

Privately, he was devastated. Honi Coles told Hajdu that he confronted Strayhorn about his lack of acknowledgement in the press. He was concerned that his “son” wasn’t doing well, noting how much more he drank, even by Strayhorn’s standards. Coles was right. While Strayhorn stated that he was better off without the publicity — and Coles accepted this, knowing that increased publicity meant potentially dealing with his sexuality — inside he was hurting. Coles asked him pointedly “Are you happy?” and that’s when Strayhorn broke down and cried. He faced the dilemma again: stay closeted and secure, but unacknowledged. Or get acknowledged and face a potential backlash from a homophobic society.

It’s clear from some of his work during this period that Strayhorn actually wanted to take a chance and expose himself more, for the sake of his art. But it was also clear that taking such a step would have been costly. He would have potentially lost his position within the Ellington organization, because he wasn’t around doing the work, and there was no guarantee that he would have generated enough income to live on, much less live in the posh style he had grown accustomed to.

Ironically, Billy Strayhorn had a similarity with his estranged biological father, James Strayhorn. Both men, it would seem, had aspirations incompatible with the time periods they were born into, and both drank to excess as a coping mechanism. Billy was able to lead a highly productive, if at times frustrated, life despite his obstacles and drinking, though the latter, sadly, was about to catch up with him in the early 1960s.