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.

© 2015, gar. All rights reserved.


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