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.