Great Encounters #9: The first meeting of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn

September 29th, 2004

Great Encounters

Book excerpts that chronicle famous encounters among twentieth-century cultural icons

 

The first meeting of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn

 _____

Excerpted from

Lush Life : A Biography of Billy Strayhorn

by

David Hajdu

______________________

     Shortly after midnight on December 1, 1938, George Greenlee nodded and back-patted his way through the ground-floor Rumpus Room of Crawford Grill One (running from Townsend Street to Fullerton Avenue on Wylie Avenue, the place was nearly a block long) and headed up the stairs at the center of the club. He passed the second floor, which was the main floor, where bands played on a revolving stage facing an elongated glass-topped bar and Ray Wood, now a hustling photographer, offered to take pictures of the patrons for fifty cents. Greenlee hit the third floor, the Club Crawford (insiders only), and spotted his uncle with Duke Ellington, who was engaged to begin a week-long run at the Stanley Theatre the following day. “As soon as my uncle introduced us,” said Greenlee, “I turned to Duke and I said, ‘Duke, a good friend of mine has written some songs, and we’d like for you to hear them.’ I lied, but I trusted David. I knew Duke couldn’t say no with my uncle standing there. So, Duke said, ‘Well, why don’t you come backstage tomorrow, after the first show?’ It was all set.”

The next morning, Greenlee arranged (through Perelman) to meet Strayhorn for the first time in front of the Stanley Theatre before the 1:00 p.m. opening matinee. The day was chilly but still, and a light snow fell on and off. Strayhorn was collected, Greenlee would recall, and looked properly ascetic – “He was wearing his Sunday best, but they were pretty well worn.” They watched the first show, a long set of Ellington Orchestra numbers peppered with a tap-dance act (Flash and Dash) and a comedy team (the Two Zephyrs), then found their way through the baroque old Stanley, eight stories high, with thirty-five hundred seats and three full floors of dressing rooms. Ellington’s dressing room was the size of a large dining room and, in fact, was set up like one: several place settings were arranged on a table, and there was an upright piano along one wall. Ellington, alone with his valet, lay on a reclining chair in an embroidered robe, getting his hair conked, eyes closed.

“I introduced Billy, and we stood there,” said Greenlee. “Duke didn’t get up. He didn’t even open his eyes. He just said, ‘Sit down at the piano, and let me hear what you can do.'” Strayhorn lowered himself onto the bench with calibrated grace and turned toward Ellington, who was lying still. “Mr. Ellington, this is the way you played this number in the show,” Strayhorn announced and began to perform his host’s melancholy ballad “Sophisticated Lady,” one of a few Ellington tunes Strayhorn knew from his days with the Mad Hatters; as a trio, the group used to play a version inspired by Art Tatum’s arabesque 1933 recording. “The amazing thing was,” explained Greenlee, “Billy played it exactly like Duke had just played it on stage. He copied him to perfection.” Ellington stayed silent and prone, though his hair work was over. “Now, this is the way I would play it,” continued Strayhorn. Changing keys and upping the tempo slightly, he shifted into an adaptation Greenlee described as “pretty, hip-sounding and further and further ‘out there’ as he went on.”

At the end of the number, Strayhorn turned to Ellington, now standing right behind him, glaring at the keyboard over his shoulders. “Go get Harry,” Ellington ordered his valet. (Harry Carney, Ellington’s closest intimate among the members of his entourage in this period, had played baritone saxophone for the orchestra since 1926, when he was sixteen years old, and the two frequently traveled together to engagements.) “Wellll…” proceeded Ellington dramatically as he faced Strayhorn eye to eye for the first time, Ellington gazing down, Strayhorn peering up. “Can you do that again?” “Yes,” Strayhorn replied matter-of-factly, and began Ellington’s ruminative “Solitude,” once more emulating the composer’s piano style. When Harry Carney entered the room, Ellington stage-whispered, “Listen to this kid play.” Again Strayhorn declared, “This is the way I would play it,” and reharmonized the Ellington song as a personal showcase. Brazenly (or naively) the twenty-three-year-old artist demonstrated both a crafty facility with is renowned elder’s idiom and a spirited capacity to expand it through his own sensibility. The potency struck Ellington, Greenlee recounted: “Billy was playing. Duke stood there behind him beaming, and he put his hands on his shoulders, like he wanted to feel Billy playing his song,” Carney hustled out and returned with two more members of Ellington’s musical inner circle: alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, thirty-two, a premier Ellington soloist since he joined the band in 1928, and Ivie Anderson, thirty-three, who became Ellington’s first full-time vocalist in 1931.

As this group gathered around Strayhorn, “Things got hectic,” said Greenlee. “Duke fired off a million questions about Billy’s background and training and so forth. Billy kept playing from then on, mostly his own things – ‘Something to Live For,’ which he sang, and a few others” (including a piece so new he hadn’t given it a title yet). Recalling the occasion in later years, Ellington focused on that moment: “When Stray first came to see me in the Stanley Theatre, I asked him the name of a tune he’s played for me, and he just laughed. I caught that laugh. It was that laugh that first got me.” However impressed he may have been by Strayhorn’s musical skills, Ellington was also struck by something visceral.

Uncertain how best to use him – Ellington’s orchestra already had a pianist – Ellington left Strayhorn with an initial assignment to write lyrics to an instrumental piece. As Strayhorn recalled, “I know how something-or-other it must have been to meet a young man in a town like Pittsburgh. I played for him. I played and sang. Uh, he, uh, he was – he liked me very much, and he said, ‘Well, you come back tomorrow,’ and he gave me an assignment. He had an idea for a lyric. He said, ‘You go home and write a lyric for this,’ and I did. I rushed home and I wrote this lyric.” (The title of the song and the lyrics are unknown.) Strayhorn returned to see Ellington the following evening and submitted his work but found that the frantic events of late had taken a visible toll on him. “Everybody was just so wonderful to me – Ivie Anderson particularly, because she was worried,” he said. “She said, ‘Lookit, you go out and get yourself a sandwich or something, because you’re not eating.’ I must have looked a little peaked.” Invited back, he visited Ellington again at the Stanley three days later, when he was given a second assignment, this time to apply his evident skill at harmonization to a vocal selection for Ivie Anderson. As Robert Conaway remembered, “After the meeting, he said, ‘He likes my work, and he gave me an assignment to do'”

The next evening, Strayhorn worked on his orchestration for Ellington, polishing it with the help of his friend Bill Esch rather than returning to the Stanley; Ellington left the theater early that night anyway and spent the after-show hours at the Loendi, a black social club in a rambling three-story brick house on the Hill. By the follwing evening, Ellington’s last at the Stanley, Strayhorn was ready and returned with his work, and, sharing his good fortune, he brought along Esch. Ellington, who was between shows, wrapped up dinner in his dressing room with Thelma Spangler, a striking, soft-spoken young woman he had met the previous evening at the Loendi. The three musicians huddled together on their feet, poring over music paper for about five minutes, discussing aspects of the arrangement animatedly, Spangler recalled. A chime sounded and Ellington tucked the manuscript under his arm, pronouncing, “Time to go back on.”

Spangler watched the show from the wings. Strayhorn and Esch stood behind the curtain, near Ellington’s piano, while Ellington passed parts of Strayhorn’s arrangement to the musicians on stage. “Duke gave some of the guys some tips,” said Spangler. “Like, he’d hum something to one guy, or he’d say, ‘You come in here.’ A couple of times he asked Billy something, and Billy answered him, and then Duke explained it to the band. It all happened very quickly. Then Ivie came out on stage. Duke whispered to her and raised his hand, and they did the song, just like that.” The arrangement was a slow-tempo version of “Two Sleepy People.” “Oh God, it was pretty, like something in a dream,” Spangler said. “Ellington smiled all over himself, and he told Billy after the show how happy he was with his music.”

Clearly pleased, Ellington offered Strayhorn work. The kind of work, however, remained unclear. As Strayhorn recounted, “He said, ‘Well, I would like to have you in my organization. I have to find some way of injecting you into it. I have to find out how I do this, after I go to New York.’ He was on his way back east then. So I said, ‘Well, all right.’ Ellington paid Strayhorn twenty dollars for his orchestration of “Two Sleepy People” and jotted down subway directions to his apartment on Edgecombe Avenue in Harlem. “They were packing up – Willy Manning was getting clothes together in trunks and everything,” Strayhorn recalled. “And off they went, and off I went back home and back to the drugstore.”

_________________

Lush Life : A Biography of Billy Strayhorn

by

David Hajdu

 

Excerpt from “Overture to a Jam Session” from LUSH LIFE by David Hadju. Copyright © 1996 by David Hajdu. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

CAUTION: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

 

Share this:

2 comments on “Great Encounters #9: The first meeting of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn”

  1. What a great excerpt! Thank you for sharing it; I am putting together a book
    of Duke Ellington songs for beginning Jazz pianists and this was so helpful
    and inspiring. I may frame the whole book around the collaboration of Duke
    and Billy.

  2. What a great excerpt! Thank you for sharing it; I am putting together a book
    of Duke Ellington songs for beginning Jazz pianists and this was so helpful
    and inspiring. I may frame the whole book around the collaboration of Duke
    and Billy.

Comment on this article:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

In This Issue

"Nina" by Marsha Hammel
A Collection of Jazz Poetry — Winter, 2024 Edition...One-third of the Winter, 2024 collection of jazz poetry is made up of poets who have only come to my attention since the publication of the Summer, 2023 collection. What this says about jazz music and jazz poetry – and this community – is that the connection between the two art forms is inspirational and enduring, and that poets are finding a place for their voice within the pages of this website. (Featuring the art of Marsha Hammel)

The Sunday Poem

photo by Mel Levine/pinelife, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
“Lady Day and Prez” by Henry Wolstat

Click here to read previous editions of The Sunday Poem

Poetry

Proceeding From Behind: A collection of poems grounded in the rhythmic, relating to the remarkable, by Terrance Underwood...A relaxed, familiar comfort emerges from the poet Terrance Underwood’s language of intellectual acuity, wit, and space – a feeling similar to one gets while listening to Monk, or Jamal, or Miles. I have long wanted to share his gifts as a poet on an expanded platform, and this 33-poem collection – woven among his audio readings, music he considers significant to his story, and brief personal comments – fulfills my desire to do so.

Publisher’s Notes

photo by Rhonda Dorsett
A very brief three-dot update…Where I’ve been, and an update on what is coming up on Jerry Jazz Musician

Poetry

Photographer uncredited, but the photo was almost certainly taken by Chuck Stewart. Published by ABC/Impulse! Records.. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
“And I’m Not Even Here” – a poem by Connie Johnson

Click here to read more poetry published on Jerry Jazz Musician

Essay

"Lester Leaps In" by Tad Richards
"Jazz and American Poetry," an essay by Tad Richards...In an essay that first appeared in the Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poetry in 2005, Tad Richards - a prolific visual artist, poet, novelist, and nonfiction writer who has been active for over four decades – writes about the history of the connection of jazz and American poetry.

Interview

photo of Pepper Adams/courtesy of Pepper Adams Estate
Interview with Gary Carner, author of Pepper Adams: Saxophone Trailblazer...The author speaks with Bob Hecht about his book and his decades-long dedication to the genius of Pepper Adams, the stellar baritone saxophonist whose hard-swinging bebop style inspired many of the top-tier modern baritone players.

Click here to read more interviews published on Jerry Jazz Musician

Poetry

Three poets and Sketches of Spain

Interview

IISG, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Interview with Judith Tick, author of Becoming Ella Fitzgerald: The Jazz Singer Who Transformed American Song...The author discusses her book, a rich, emotionally stirring, exceptional work that explores every element of Ella’s legacy in great depth, reminding readers that she was not only a great singing artist, but also a musical visionary and social activist.

Trading Fours with Douglas Cole

The cover of Wayne Shorter's 2018 Blue Note album "Emanon"
Trading Fours, with Douglas Cole, No. 20: “Notes on Genius...This edition of the writer’s poetic interpretations of jazz recordings and film is written in response to the music of Wayne Shorter.

Click here to read previous editions of Trading Fours with Douglas Cole

Review

Jason Innocent, on “3”, Abdullah Ibrahim’s latest album... Album reviews are rarely published on Jerry Jazz Musician, but Jason Innocent’s experience with the pianist Abdullah Ibrahim’s new recording captures the essence of this artist’s creative brilliance.

Short Fiction

Christerajet, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Short Fiction Contest-winning story #64 — “The Old Casino” by J.B. Marlow...The author's award-winning story takes place over the course of a young man's life, looking at all the women he's loved and how the presence of a derelict building informs those relationships.

Click here to read more short fiction published on Jerry Jazz Musician

Book Excerpt

Book excerpt from Jazz with a Beat: Small Group Swing 1940 – 1960, by Tad Richards

Click here to read more book excerpts published on Jerry Jazz Musician

Poetry

"Jazz Trio" by Samuel Dixon
A collection of jazz haiku, Vol. 2...The 19 poets included in this collection effectively share their reverence for jazz music and its culture with passion and brevity.

Jazz History Quiz #171

Dick Cavett/via Wikimedia Commons
In addition to being one of the greatest musicians of his generation, this Ohio native was an activist, leading “Jazz and People’s Movement,” a group formed in the late 1960’s who “adopted the tactic of interrupting tapings and broadcasts of television and radio programs (i.e. the shows of Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett [pictured] and Merv Griffin) in protest of the small number of Black musicians employed by networks and recording studios.” Who was he?

Click here to visit the Jazz History Quiz archive

Community

photo via Picryl.com
.“Community Bookshelf, #2"...a twice-yearly space where writers who have been published on Jerry Jazz Musician can share news about their recently authored books. This edition includes information about books published within the last six months or so…

Contributing Writers

Click the image to view the writers, poets and artists whose work has been published on Jerry Jazz Musician, and find links to their work

Coming Soon

An interview with Tad Richards, author of Jazz With a Beat: Small Group Swing, 1940 - 1960;  an interview with Laura Flam and Emily Sieu Liebowitz, authors of But Will You Love Me Tomorrow? An Oral History of the 60's Girl Groups;  a new collection of jazz poetry; a collection of jazz haiku; a new Jazz History Quiz; short fiction; poetry; photography; interviews; playlists; and lots more in the works...

Interview Archive

Eubie Blake
Click to view the complete 22 year archive of Jerry Jazz Musician interviews, including those recently published with Richard Carlin and Ken Bloom on Eubie Blake (pictured); Richard Brent Turner on jazz and Islam; Alyn Shipton on the art of jazz; Shawn Levy on the original queens of standup comedy; Travis Atria on the expatriate trumpeter Arthur Briggs; Kitt Shapiro on her life with her mother, Eartha Kitt; Will Friedwald on Nat King Cole; Wayne Enstice on the drummer Dottie Dodgion; the drummer Joe La Barbera on Bill Evans; Philip Clark on Dave Brubeck; Nicholas Buccola on James Baldwin and William F. Buckley; Ricky Riccardi on Louis Armstrong; Dan Morgenstern and Christian Sands on Erroll Garner; Maria Golia on Ornette Coleman.

Site Archive