Lena Horne thought she’d have more of a lush life if she married William Thomas Strayhorn. She thought he was a “beautiful, so handsome man” whose talent was “a gift from God.” Lena was “madly in love with him” and would have married Strayhorn if he wasn’t gay. So she accepted her fate, accepted Strayhorn as a man and talent and continued loving him and loving to perform his songs. “Billy was the source of my consciousness raising,” Lena said. “I had to learn to accept myself first, and that’s what Billy helped me do.”
Horne wasn’t the only person who worshipped at the Strayhorn shrine. “When Strayhorn came on the scene, he just blew us away,” said Gerry Mulligan. “That’s all I did— that’s all I ever did—try to do what Billy Strayhorn did,” remembered Gil Evans. Perhaps best known for his 28-year collaborative role as Duke Ellington’s “writing and arranging companion,” Ellington once said: “Billy Strayhorn was always the most unselfish, the most patient, and the most imperturbable, no matter how dark the day. I am indebted to him for so much of my courage since 1939. He was my listener, my most dependable appraiser, and as a critic he would be the most clinical, but his background—both classical and modern—was an accessory to his own good taste and understanding.”
Lena Horne is still singing his works with a heavenly choir, with extra performances taking place this year since November 29 marks the centennial of Strayhorn’s birth. Celebrations of the genius (who died of esophageal cancer on May 31, 1967, in the company of his partner, Bill Grove) are planned throughout the country. Undoubtably you can take the A train (“A” as in “any”) and join the festivities.
In Pittsburgh, the celebration takes place Saturday, November 28 at 8 p.m. The event is actually the Eighth Annual Celebration of the life and legacy of Strayhorn, and they always take place as the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, named in honor of Billy and another Steel City native, Gene Kelly. For this occasion, Grammy-winning trumpeter Sean Jones performs with the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra for an unforgettable evening of artistry. Expect to hear extraordinary renditions of classic Strayhorn compositions—such as “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Chelsea Bridge” and “Lush Life”—among other works that reflect Strayhorn’s profound influence on musicians and music mavens. To top it off, this benefit event always ends sweetly, with a birthday cake for all. For ticket information, call (412) 363-3000.
Need a longer Strayhorn fix? Read “Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn” (1997), David Hajdu’s acclaimed tome that was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Learn how deep and complex the Ellington/Strayhorn relationship was: Duke was arguably a father figure and the band was affectionately protective of Strayhorn (who the band nicknamed “Strays”, “Weely”, and “Swee’ Pea”), but Ellington may have taken advantage of him. Though he took credit for much of Strayhorn’s work, Ellingtondid not maliciously drown out his partner. Ellington would make jokes onstage like, “Strayhorn does a lot of the work but I get to take the bows!” or opt for the brand-new “Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life” (Agate Bolden, $35) is a stunning collection of essays, photographs and ephemera celebrating the legend. Not to be missed!