Eastman Jazz Ensemble Plays Billy Strayhorn, Part 7

The Eastman Jazz Ensemble plays their final concert of the academic and calendar year, performing the seventh installment of their Billy Strayhorn tribute series, celebrating his centennial.

Eastman Jazz Ensemble Plays Billy Strayhorn, Part 7

Music lovers, if you’re looking for an opportunity to hear unique and rarely played music, look no further than the Eastman School of Music. On Tuesday, December 1st at 8pm, the Eastman Jazz Ensemble plays their seventh installment of Billy Strayhorn music this academic year, celebrating the centennial of his birth.

Billy Strayhorn, who passed away in 1967 at the age of 51, is one of jazz’s finest composers and arrangers, was most known for his work with Duke Ellington and the Ellington Jazz Orchestra. As one of jazz’s first openly gay writers and a fervent civil rights activist in the 1960’s, Strayhorn’s music often had elements that reflected the difficulties of his life. Though it is difficult to trace all of his influences, as a young boy he was particularly influenced by Impressionist composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, which was evident throughout all of his work, but particularly in his earliest pieces.

Though, because of the nature of his work with Ellington and the Orchestra, it was unclear for a long time how much of Strayhorn’s work was actually his, given that so many pieces were simply marked “Ellington-Strayhorn.” This predicament, similar to “Lennon-McCartney,” led many to speculate as to what Strayhorn actually wrote. This led author Walter van de Leur to write the definitive book on Strayhorn’s musical contribution and development, Something to Live For, which shares the same namesake of one of Strayhorn’s most loved pieces.

Eastman Jazz Ensemble director Bill Dobbins explains van de Leur’s research for the book:

“Searching through the Ellington and Strayhorn collections at the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution, van de Leur discovered about fifty Strayhorn compositions and arrangements that had never been performed or recorded, but were subsequently released on a 4-CD set by the Dutch Jazz Orchestra, Portrait Of a Silk Thread. Thanks to the help and generosity of Walter van de Leur and Alyce Claerbaut of Billy Strayhorn Songs Incorporated, some of these recently discovered works are included in this program.”

In addition to the honor of playing these rarely heard Strayhorn tunes, the Jazz Ensemble, as usual, will feature student arrangements. Dobbins decided to have his students arrange some of Strayhorn’s more familiar pieces.

“”Smada” is one of my favorite Billy Strayhorn compositions foremost for its simplicity,” said Max Berlin, a graduate student in jazz writing. “The melody manages to be interesting and exotic without being verbose.  Therefore, I chose to explore the many layers that Ellington’s band gave such a simple tune. In my arrangement, I’ve incorporated everything from the horn backgrounds to Duke’s original comping patterns.  Writing this piece has given me (and the audience) a great appreciation for the simplicity and artistry of Strayhorn’s music.”

Masters candidate and drummer George Darrah however, had another challenge when doing his arrangement.

“”Lotus Blossom” is a piece I had not heard before (Dobbins) presented it to me,” Darrah said. “I immediately became fond of it, in large part because it is a complicated and challenging piece as well as how naturally beautiful it is. Interestingly, there aren’t many arrangements of “Lotus Blossom” for big band… I am very happy with how Jazz Ensemble has interpreted my arrangement…

“I have found it very hard to find a piece of (Strayhorn’s) that is not enjoyable.  He certainly was ahead of his time in terms of arranging. The way he orchestrated as well as the rich harmonies he used is quite captivating. It’s hard to believe he wrote much of his music over 50 years ago because the pieces sound relevant and fresh today. There is never a dull moment with Strayhorn’s music.”

The Eastman Jazz Ensemble will also be paying tribute to Strayhorn playing movements from Ellington’s suites “The Queen’s Suite” and “Such Sweet Thunder,” as well as some early Strayhorn favorites, such as “Mid Riff.”

Dobbins appreciates the opportunity to play such rare music, especially from a man whom Dobbins referred to as “the greatest arranger of all time.”

The concert is at 8pm on December 1st at Kilbourn Hall. Admission is free.

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