Saturday, January 2, 2010

Historical Gay Artists Of Color: Billy Strayhorn

In 1940, a young composer rode the new NYC-owned Independent Subway System to a meeting of musicians in Harlem. The composer's name was William Thomas (Billy) Strayhorn. Inspired by his trip on the new subway cars, he composed Take The A Train in 1941, which became the signature song of the legendary Duke Ellington and his famous jazz orchestra. The timeless melody has, over the years, become identified with that subway route and service, and changed the style and rhythm by which jazz tunes were arranged. It was a masterwork for a composer who, despite a three-decade long collaboration as Ellington's composer and resident musical genius, was little noted during his lifetime.

Strayhorn's career spanned the 1930s to the 1960s, but he was not recognized for his contributions to American music until the late 1990's, almost 30 years after his 1967 death. He was born in 1915 in Dayton, Ohio, showed a gift for music at a very early age, and ultimately arrived in NYC during 1938, where the composer met jazz master Ellington for the first time. Ellington eagerly took the young Strayhorn under his wing, accepting the writer into his home. But just a year later, Strayhorn did something incredibly bold for Depression-era New York: he moved in with fellow jazzist and lover Aaron Bridgers. Living together on Convent Avenue in Harlem, the couple stayed together for ten years, until Bridgers moved to Paris to escape persistent homophobia in New York. The couple never made any secret of their sexuality or relationship, but it cost Strayhorn dearly. Because of he was known to be openly gay, he was kept in the background, rarely sharing the limelight with Ellington for his compositions. Although Strayhorn composed for other musical greats like Lena Horne who sang several of Strayhorn's classics, such as A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing, Strayhorn descended into alcoholism, brought on by not receiving credit for his works because he was openly gay.

Strayhorn was repeatedly advised to keep his relationship with Bridgers a secret, but he refused, believing in the ability of love to overcome all. Still, as the years went by, with Strayhorn composing ever-greater songs for Ellington, Horne, and their contemporaries, it wasn't unti, 1957--two decades after Strayhorn's career began--that he received full credit for a song. This was A Drum Is A Woman, and it highlights the difficulties faced by gay artists of the pre- and post-war era, in achieving recognition for their work. Billy Strayhorn bacame a political activist in his later life, attending the 1963 March On Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King and noted gay men of color James Baldwin and King confidante and March organizer Bayard Rustin. By this time, the onset of esophageal cancer was beginning to take its toll on Strayhorn, and he passed away four years later, on May 31, 1967, aged 53. During his short life, Billy Strayhorn introduced the world to a whole new method of making jazz music, and lived as an out, proud gay man of color in an era when the personal and professional costs of doing so were staggering. He is one more great figure in the pantheon of gay and lesbian artists whose legacy touches us to this day.

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