In the midst of a writing project teaching 5thto 8thgraders about jazz and social justice—particularly racism— it feels important to also touch on sexism, homophobia and other constricting social constructs that made jazz musicians’ lives (amongst countless others!) difficult— and always unnecessarily so. Here I write about Billy Strayhorn, both because he deserves a place in the lineage of memorable jazz artists and because he had some particular struggles that other jazz musicians didn’t Note that this material is ©2021 Doug Goodkin and not to be shared without permission— but certainly to be pondered and followed up on by listening to Mr. Strayhorn’s extraordinary music. In honor of Gay Pride Month, in honor of ongoing anti-racism work, in honor of music education and in honor of the human capacity for expression, beauty, resilience, perseverance and more, here it is:
Imagine being a black man in a racist society. Imagine a man loving a man in a homophobic culture. Imagine a black man loving a white man in a country where both gay and bi-racial marriage is illegal. Imagine being a sensitive artist in a nation that wanted men to be macho males and ruthless businessmen. Imagine an extraordinary friendship with a fellow artist who often got the credit for things you created. Welcome to the life of Billy Strayhorn.
Billy Strayhorn worked side by side with Duke Ellington, helping to arrange music for the band, composing some pieces with Duke and composing some of his own that Duke sometimes got credit for! Because Billy’s personality was more shy and retiring and Duke was full of magnetic charm that lit up every room he walked into, the arrangement seemed to suit them both. At least until Billy stopped getting credit for famous tunes like Take the A Train! Duke always paid him well, but still it’s good to be known for what one does!
Billy was different in another way, being an openly gay man in a time when such things were usually hidden. He was proud of both his black identity and his sexuality long before James Brown could exclaim, “Say it loud! I’m black and I’m proud!” and before Gay Pride Parades were commonplace. He was very aware of the importance of the Civil Rights movement and someone who often came to visit him whenever he was in New York was his none other than Martin Luther King! He had come one night to visit Duke Ellington’s doctor, Arthur Logan and Billy Strayhorn got him into the kitchen to help him cook. That was enough to begin an ongoing friendship! The Logans hosted many fund-raising events in their home for Dr. King’s work and Billy Strayhorn always played piano at them.
Billy and his good friend, the singer Lena Horne, traveled to the South together to meet with organizers of the Civil Rights Movement and help them with fundraising through benefit performances. They both were present at the March on Washington where Dr. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Billy died too young at 51 years old from cancer. At his Memorial Service, Duke Ellington spoke and said:
Because he had a rare sensitivity and applied himself to his gifts, Billy Strayhorn successfully married melody words and harmony. His greatest virtue was his honesty, not only to others, but to himself. He demanded freedom of expression and lived in what we consider the most important and moral of freedoms:
• Freedom from hate. Unconditionally.
• Freedom for self-pity—even throughout all the pain and bad news.
• Freedom from fear of doing something that might help another more than himself.
• Freedom from the kind of pride that makes people feel they’re better than their neighbor.
These are the freedoms that take effort to achieve. To climb higher up the mountain of human kindness is difficult, but the view is marvelous. Billy Strayhorn always signed his letters: “Ever onward and upward!” We would do well to follow his example.