Archive for Billy Strayhorn

Blood Count

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on November 29, 2009 by telescoper

Yesterday I was listening to Jazz Record Requests on BBC Radio 3 and a piece cropped up that reminded me that today, 29th November 2009, would have been the 94th birthday of the great composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn.

The piece that came up wasn’t specifically chosen to mark Strayhorn’s birthday but I thought I’d put it up here because it is so beautifully poignant.  Strayhorn collaborated extensively with Duke Ellington over the years, producing some of the most gorgeous music to emerge from the 20th century in any genre.

Although apparently started some time earlier, Blood Count was the last piece completed by Billy Stayhorn who put the final touches to it while he was in hospital suffering from a terminal cancer. It was first performed after his death in 1967 by Duke Ellington’s orchestra as a tribute, with Johnny Hodges‘  alto sax taking the lead. Hodges was never a speed merchant on the alto sax, but his big warm sound, beautiful tone and poised lyricism won him huge admiration from all parts of the jazz spectrum, including John Coltrane who described him as “The World’s Greatest Saxophone Player”. High praise indeed, but listening to this performance it’s hard to disagree! Heartfelt but dignified, it’s not just a fitting eulogy for Strayhorn, but a lovely piece in its own right.

Chelsea Bridge

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , on March 29, 2009 by telescoper

When the great American songwriter Billy Strayhorn saw the beautifully evocative painting (left) by James McNeill Whistler of one of the bridges over the River Thames, it inspired him to write an equally evocative song to be performed by his longstanding musical collaborator and friend Duke Ellington. The song was written in 1941, but it was only years later that he realized that he had named it after the wrong bridge.

 

The painting was of Battersea Bridge; but he had named the song  Chelsea Bridge, a much less romantic location. Nevertheless, the tune quickly became a standard, and a feature for the band’s star saxophonist, Ben Webster who carried on playing it after he left Duke Ellington’s orchestra in 1943.

By all accounts Ben Webster was a drunken brute of a man but when he played ballads like this he produced music of great warmth and delicacy. In fact, his technique on the tenor sax would probably be called “wrong” by a teacher: he didn’t use his tongue properly on the reed so his notes had to be produced by much more lung power than “normal” players use. Instead of a clean attack, each note is wafted in on a sort of phoohing sound. The breathiness of his tone  is a consequence of this and, although he produced a huge volume which was good for playing in front of a big band like Ellington’s, it also made him unable to play well at faster tempos. His playing on slow ballads, though, was often exquisitely beautiful. Who says everyone has to be a speed merchant?

Ben Webster moved to Copenhagen in 1964 along with several other great Jazz musicians, to escape the racism and consequent lack of opportunity for black artists in  his homeland. He was buried in the part of Copenhagen called Nørrebro when he died in 1973. 

I am a fairly frequent visitor to Copenhagen – I’m going there again in June, in fact – and I did visit his grave once. There’s also a restaurant named after him in the city centre.

Anyway, here he is in in 1964 playing Chelsea Bridge with the marvellous Stan Tracey on piano who featured in a previous post of mine.