Published in Jazz Improv, V 4, No. 2 (6/2003)
Something to Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn, by Walter van de Leur. 328 Pages. Published 2002 by Oxford University Press.
Review by Virginia A. Schaefer
In the past few years, the music of Billy Strayhorn has drawn more attention from performers and writers. Notably, Joe Henderson's 1992 all-Strayhorn disc and David Hadju's 1996 biography, both titled Lush Life, have fostered the perception of Strayhorn as an accomplished composer and arranger and not only the capable assistant, or alter ego, to Duke Ellington.
In Something to Live For, Dutch musicologist Walter van de Leur presents a convincing case for the uniqueness and technical sophistication of Strayhorn's oeuvre. The author is a dedicated Strayhorn scholar, and the book reflects extensive research and analysis. In his introduction, van de Leur expresses hope that his book is part of a trend toward more musical (as contrasted with biographical) studies of jazz composers, and he notes that the compositional style of Ellington himself has not yet been the subject of a major study.
Something to Live For traces Strayhorn's career in largely chronological order. Following the narrative is helped by a look at the Hadju biography, which van de Leur cites as a major source of information on Strayhorn's life (and to which he contributed).
In the teenage Strayhorn's first compositions, van de Leur already finds characteristic traits : "formal balance, an advanced harmonic language, and an economic use of musical material." By the time he met, impressed, and became employed by Ellington in 1939, Strayhorn had written a locally acclaimed Gershwinesque review, well-known ballads "Lush Life" and "Something to Live For," and numerous dance-band arrangements. Examination of these works reveals progressive techniques such as chromaticism and tritone-related substitutions for the dominant.
Within the Ellington organization, Strayhorn wrote such noted works as "A Train," "Day Dream," and "Passion Flower." In "Chelsea Bridge," van de Leur explores another Strayhorn characteristic: non-functional harmonies, showing the influence of Debussy and other so-called impressionistic composers. In turn, "Chelsea Bridge" was an inspiration to jazz composers Gil Evans and Charles Mingus. Strayhorn's 1940 arrangement of the Grouya-Anderson "Flamingo" gained wide acclaim; van de Leur details the arrangement's "sophisticated modulations," "tonal ambiguity," and "dissonant texture evocative of ... Stravinsky."
Strayhorn collaborated with Ellington on numerous works, including "Black, Brown, and Beige," "Sepia Panorama," and "Such Sweet Thunder." Strayhorn's ability to blend his contributions seamlessly, and largely anonymously, into the whole of Ellingtonia resulted from skillful mimicry and Ellington's editing, rather than from any lack of creative chops. When exercising his own artistic prerogative, Strayhorn wrote melodies and arrangements that were, in comparison to Ellington's, more motivic (reusing a melodic phrase throughout the piece) and harmonically daring (for example, fourth-chords). In instrumentation, Strayhorn tended toward sectional writing (all reeds vs. all brass, for example) to emphasize form, while Ellington often used a cross-sectional approach (mixing reeds and brass). Strayhorn's style also gave more weight to melodic and harmonic development, while Ellington favored quick changes and startling juxtapositions. Ellington's favorite large form was the suite, in which he could string together short, largely unrelated pieces. A large work by Strayhorn more resembled a symphony.
Ellington was notorious among his players for rearranging segments of pieces, repeatedly and at the last minute, both on paper and on the bandstand. The effect on Strayhorn's contributions, the author documents, was obliteration of their carefully wrought balance and order. Furthermore, Ellington omitted performance altogether of a number of Strayhorn's complete compositions. This situation was likely a reason, along with unfavorable attribution and copyright treatment, that Strayhorn pulled away from the Ellington organization for a few years in the mid-1950s. He used the interim for personal projects as diverse as writing dance numbers for the Copasetics tap-dance troupe, famous in Harlem, and composing the music for a Garcia Lorca play. The latter effort garners van de Leur's praises as being highly expressive as well as technically outstanding.
When Strayhorn resumed regular work with a welcoming Ellington, he experienced fewer alterations of his collaborative efforts and performance of more of his originals. In Strayhorn's later compositions such as "Upper Manhattan Medical Group," the author finds a "mature style" that features, much as the contemporaneous "cool" jazz, a streamlined melody with harmonic changes on many notes and more rhythmic interest. A major collaborative work was "Far East Suite", which included the haunting Strayhorn number "Isfahan." Considering Strayhorn's last well-known composition, "Blood Count," van de Leur writes that devices unusual for Strayhorn (minor mode and melodic disjunction) serve to express "feelings of sadness, frustration, and failure," evocative of the message of his early song "Something to Live For." The author chose the name of that song as his book's title, in the belief that Strayhorn lived for his music.
The theoretically inclined reader will be satisfied by the book's numerous analytical passages, some with well-formatted score examples. Particularly interesting are the numerous references to unpublished or little-known Strayhorn compositions. Although most references to unfamiliar works are clear, occasionally the author leaves the reader puzzled by, for example, referring to an A part without naming the work's overall form. Readers with less theoretical knowledge or interest will likely want to skip much of the technical discussion.
Something to Live For is a rather challenging book, densely written and a bit short on overviews and summaries, but worth reading to gain an exceptionally close look at the music of an important jazz composer.
Note: To get a good look at (or perform) some less-known Strayhorn compositions, you can order scores and parts, prepared by van de Leur, from the Web site billystrayhorn.com. Also, the Dutch Jazz Orchestra, of which van de Leur is artistic coleader, has recorded on the Challenger label several CDs of familiar and newly uncovered Strayhorn works. One recording, Portrait of a Silk Thread, was released in the U.S. by Kokopelli but is currently out of print. I tracked down a library copy and found it a valuable complement to the book.