1939 was a good year for a composer/arranger to join the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Several important musicians joined its ranks around this time, adding to the band’s considerable aural palette.
Jimmy Blanton freed the bass from its simple time-keeping role and made it a fluid, melodic instrument. This is best heard on the track “Jack the Bear.” Ben Webster was called Duke’s first major tenor sax star — Count Basie already had Lester Young and Herschel Evans. He provided the iconic solo on the track “Cotton Tail.” So influential were these two players, that years later the Orchestra from this era, 1939-42, has often been called the Blanton-Webster band.
Another important player to arrive at this time was trumpeter Ray Nance, hired to replace “jungle style” muted trumpeter Cootie Williams. Nance learned to play the growling trumpet of his predecessor, but he also brought his violin and vocal skills to the group, making him a triple-threat on the bandstand.
To this new palette of colors for the Ellington Orchestra came Billy Strayhorn. After nominally living at a YMCA for a couple of days, he moved in with Ellington’s family, sister Ruth, who was his age, son Mercer, four years his junior, Ellington’s lover Mildred Dixon, and the Maestro himself, when he wasn’t on the road. Hajdu writes that Ruth treated Billy like a brother, but “temperamental differences kept Strayhorn and Mercer Ellington a few degrees apart.” They united largely around their shared interest and work in Duke’s music.
Strayhorn’s first duties with the orchestra were mainly to write out the arrangements for the small band sessions and work with the vocalists. Ellington’s confidence in Strayhorn grew quickly, however, so he also called upon his younger colleague to write out arrangements for the whole orchestra. The aforementioned “Jack the Bear,” for instance, began life as a discarded Ellington chart, which Strayhorn revived and arranged as a showpiece for bassist Jimmy Blanton. In his early months with the band, Strayhorn had a lot of free time to study Ellington’s charts to learn his technique, and to write some of his own music. These skills would soon be put to the test on a scale he could not have imagined.
In late 1940, negotiations between the radio industry and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) came to a head, the former refusing to accept the fee increase demands of the latter. The radio industry, in fact, launched their own performing rights organization to compete with ASCAP, Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI). Further, the radio industry ordained that come January 1, 1941, they would no longer broadcast any music composed by ASCAP members. This would include Duke Ellington, who had joined ASCAP in 1935. One of the reasons for the early success of the Duke Ellington Orchestra was its ability to reach a wider audience via radio. Thanks to the connections of his then-manager Irving Mills, Ellington had a regular radio presence dating back to his time in the Cotton Club in the mid-1920s. Thus, the biggest losers to the boycott were Ellington and other artists who belonged ASCAP. He could play his tunes in concert, but not on the radio. Fortunately, Duke had a secret weapon. Neither Strayhorn or his son Mercer were members of ASCAP.
“Strayhorn and I got this big break at the same time,” Mercer Ellington told Strayhorn biographer David Hajdu. “Overnight, literally, we got a write a whole new book for the band. It could have taken us twenty years to get the old man to make room for that much of our music, but all of a sudden there was this freak opportunity.”
Mercer and Billy had been with the orchestra in Chicago during a gig. The orchestra moved on to Los Angeles, but they remained behind. Ellington ordered them to come out west immediately and to bring new compositions and charts with them. It took a couple of days to get a train to LA, so they stayed in a South Side hotel for blacks and wrote nonstop, fortified by cigarettes and booze. Mercer tunes like “Jumpin’ Punkins,” a personal favorite, and “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” came from this period. Some of Billy’s best known tunes originated during this marathon writing session, including “After All,” “Chelsea Bridge,” “Rain Check,” “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” and “Passion Flower.”
Then there was “Take the A Train.” As noted previously, Strayhorn first wrote this song, based on the directions he received to get to Harlem, to impress Ellington. This time he wrote it up as an uptempo, big band number in the style of noted composer and arranger Fletcher Henderson, the man who made the Benny Goodman Orchestra swing. Billy thought it sounded too much like Henderson, however, and threw it away. The world of music is eternally grateful to Mercer Ellington, who had the good sense to pull “A Train” from the trash, flatten it out, and take it with him when they went out west to join his father and the band.
The Ellington Orchestra actually had three theme songs during its nearly 50-year history. The first was Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.” Dark, atmospheric, foreboding, it served as the bands theme on the radio from around 1926 to 1940. By mid-1940, though, Ellington likely wanted to update the band’s sound so he composed “Sepia Panorama,” a swanky swing number fitting the time period. It also featured Jimmy Blanton’s bass work. Hajdu notes that Strayhorn helped with the arranging of this piece. Since both “Tootle-Oo” and “Sepia” were penned by Ellington, however, they could not be used as radio theme songs for the band. Enter “Take the A Train.” Upon hearing it, Ellington was convinced that the cheery, upbeat, hummable piece would make the perfect theme for the band. They first recorded it in the studio on February 7, 1941 in Los Angeles. Ray Nance’s trumpet solo was so integral to the piece, that he was obliged to repeat it during subsequent performances. Indeed, when Cootie Williams rejoined the Ellington Orchestra in 1961, ultimately replacing the man who replaced him, he also had to play the trumpet solo in Nance’s style. The song became a huge hit. It remained the Orchestra’s theme to the end of its days in the mid-1970s, several years after the death of its composer.
1939 was also a good year for Billy Strayhorn in terms of his personal life. Via Mercer Ellington, he met his first love, pianist Aaron Bridgers. Mercer states that he did not know much about Bridgers, a friend of a friend, but thought that Strayhorn needed more friends in New York, since he didn’t know anyone, and that they would get along. Strayhorn and Bridgers hit it off instantly. Both were Francophiles and spoke to each other in French when riding together on the subways, along side curious onlookers. Both had similar tastes in music, wine, and food. Within a year, they moved in together, sharing a basement apartment in Harlem. Their upstairs neighbor was Basie vocalist Jimmy Rushing and his wife Connie. Bridgers, who died in 2003, told Hajdu that the Rushings fought regularly, but made more noise afterwards when they made up.
Gay life in 1940s New York was very much in the closet. No gay bars, to speak of. A couple of places the new couple frequented were Cafe Society Uptown on the Upper East Side, and Club Society Downtown in the Village. They weren’t gay establishments, but welcomed mixed-race couples, something totally alien at that time, so the young black gay couple felt comfortable. They also got to hear some of the latest music, including up-and-coming artists like Sarah Vaughan. Gay New York mostly partied quietly at private residences. Billy did not generally visit those very gay places, however. He and Aaron mostly hosted parties of their own with close friends. Both loved to cook, in particular Billy.
Ruth Ellington Boatwright says that the family accepted Aaron as one of their own, because they loved Billy. Similarly, Billy received acceptance from his colleagues in the Orchestra, with only a hint of shade around the edges. (Juan Tizol, the valve trombone master, reportedly had issues, but then he also had issues with various band members, including Charles Mingus during his brief stint in the Orchestra in the 1950s.) Billy was held in high regard in New York’s black gay circles, because of his talent, his position within the Ellington organization, and his openness about his relationship. They realized that he could afford his openness because of his association with Duke Ellington. The Maestro allowed him the freedom to be himself.
The only catch was that Billy remained in the background and thus avoided the prying glare associated with fame. He received solo credit for “Take the A Train.” Other compositions saw Ellington’s name added as co-composer, even tunes Strayhorn wrote before joining the Orchestra, like “Something To Live For.” And on larger works, like Ellington’s Beggar’s Holiday, a work meant for Broadway, Strayhorn received no compositional credit at all, only arranging credit. And so it was during much of the 1940s.
Aaron Bridgers worked in jobs outside of music while in New York. An opportunity arose for him to earn a living as a musician in Paris. Thus, he decided to move to the city of his dreams in 1947. Billy stayed in New York. He threw Aaron a huge bon voyage party.
The 1950s would prove a turning point for Billy personally and for the Orchestra he worked for.
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