Piece of the Week: Strayhorn and More

Strayhorn & More

American composer Billy Strayhorn is best known as Duke Ellington’s longtime arranger and collaborator, but this does not quite capture the strong influence that Strayhorn has had on Ellington’s work and on the world of jazz in general. According to Oxford Music Online, Strayhorn collaborated on over 200 of the pieces in Ellington’s oeuvre, and the closeness of their collaboration cannot be overstated. Ellington himself eloquently summed this up in his autobiography, Music is My Mistress:

“In music, as you develop a theme or musical idea, there are many points at which direction must be decided, and any time I was in the throes of debate with myself, harmonically or melodically, I would turn to Billy Strayhorn. We would talk, and then the whole world would come into focus… He was not, as he was often referred to by many, my alter ego. Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head, and his in mine.”

Duke Ellington, Music is My Mistress (New York: Da Capo Press, 1973), p. 156.

In this collection from Alfred Music Publishing, some of Billy Strayhorn’s best-known pieces get new treatments from arranger Rich Sigler, including the songs “Raincheck,” “Caravan,” “Johnny Come Lately,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” and of course that immortal theme song of the Ellington / Strayhorn band “Take the ‘A’ Train.”

Our release of the Strayhorn & More collection also marks the culmination of our larger project of retooling SmartMusic’s jazz improvisation offerings. This includes a new jazz improvisation landing page in FindMusic and three collections of standard jazz pieces–titled SmartMusic Jazz Improv Vol. 1-3–that are built specifically for improvisation training. SmartMusic Jazz Improv volumes 1-3 feature “jazz patterns,” a unique function that allows students to play through any piece in the collection using a variety of different arpeggio and scale patterns as a way to help learn the theory behind jazz improvisation. Spend some time with these collections and you’ll see how assigning them to your jazz ensemble will help your players improve their comfort and fluency with improvising solos. Then check out Strayhorn & More and hear your students play classic jazz pieces with fully notated solos, by arranger Rich Sigler, that will help familiarize them with the language of jazz.

Audio Sample: Take the “A” Train

Audio provided by Alfred Publishing Co., Inc.

Composer Biography:

Billy Strayhorn was born on November 19, 1915, in Dayton, Ohio and died on May 31, 1967, in New York. Although a great composer, arranger and pianist in his own right, Strayhorn is known primarily as Duke Ellington’s collaborator. Strayhorn studied music extensively in his youth while living in Hillsboro, North Carolina and later in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1938, Strayhorn sent a composition to Duke Ellington for consideration. Ellington was very impressed with the young man’s talent, and recorded several of Strayhorn’s pieces that same year. After a brief stint as a pianist in Mercer Ellington’s band (Duke’s son), Strayhorn joined Duke Ellington’s band as second pianist and associate arranger. In the years that followed, over 200 of Ellington’s tunes were credited to the collaboration of Ellington and Strayhorn, including such classics as “Satin Doll” and “Take the ‘A’ Train,” a composition that became the band’s signature song. For nearly three decades, the two musicians worked in close collaboration, each complementing the talents of the other. Ellington’s band also recorded music written by Strayhorn alone. These sophisticated compositions include ballads like “Lush Life” and “Chelsea Bridge.” Strayhorn played in several recordings for pieces that Ellington conducted, and also played on a number of recordings with other members of the Ellington ensemble. His work with Ellington was brought to an end in 1967 by his death from cancer.

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If you are an educator, musician, composer or student with a suggestion for a “piece of the week” blog post, you can email your suggestion to Griffin at gwoodworth at makemusic dot com. Please let me know the name of the piece, composer, publisher, and why this piece is special to you.

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