Billy Strayhorn finds love

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon May 14 16:47:58 MDT 2001

[While in Pittsburgh for a gig in 1938, Duke Ellington hired the 23 year
old Billy Strayhorn on the spot after hearing him play a few tunes in his
dressing room. When Ellington sent Strayhorn a letter giving him
instructions to his place in Harlem, Strayhorn took the words and turned
them into "Take the A Train", a tune that served as the Ellington theme
song. The fact that this 'typically' Ellington tune was written by
Strayhorn should give you an idea of how powerful their affinity was.

[Shortly after moving to NYC, Strayhorn started a relationship with a young
aspiring African-American jazz pianist named Aaron Bridgers. This excerpt
from David Hajdu's "Lush Life" should give you an indication of the relaxed
interaction between black heterosexual jazz musicians and their gay brothers.

[Implicit in Hajdu's narrative is the role of the CP in creating a tolerant
atmosphere for same-sexers. Although the party received blame--and
deservedly so--for making party membership and homosexuality incompatible
during the witch hunt (as did the Trotskyists), one can only assume that
the progressive values of the broad cultural milieu around the party
created a hostile environment for homophobia.

[Keep in mind that the party was deeply involved in the concert and theatre
world, where talents such as Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Jerome
Robbins--all gay--were in or around it. Just as the CP influenced this
world, it too would have been influenced. In this passage, and elsewhere as
far as I can tell, Ellington's friendliness to the CP is never mentioned.
Nor is the racially tolerant atmosphere of Café Society explained as a
function of having a CP owner, but this kind of world would have been
friendly to gay people as well one might surmise.

[One of the negative consequences of the decline of the CP in the black
community was the rise of homophobia. Black nationalism, especially
emanating from the Nation of Islam, would not accept "deviant" sexuality
and all the Black Panther leaders made vicious homophobic comments at
rallies in the 1960s. When socialism is once again accepted on a broad
scale by African-Americans, it will be necessary to root out this kind of
backward attitude just as it will be in the white working class.]


Around Convent Avenue, Strayhorn and Bridgers were so intimately associated
with each other that a neighbor, the dancer Royce Wallace, couldn’t
distinguish them in her mind; seeing Bridgers on the street alone once, she
called out Strayhorn’s name. "To me, said Wallace, "they were like one
person." Strayhorn was even outward about Bridgers in the company of old
hometown friends. According to George Greenlee, who visited Convent Avenue
shortly after Strayhorn and Bridgers moved in, "Billy was really happy to
be with Aaron and so proud that you had to be happy for him. He didn’t
worry that I might think differently about him all of a sudden, because he
never really made any secret about who he was in Pittsburgh, even if he
didn’t have anybody yet." Only with his parents did Strayhorn remain
cryptic about Bridgers, although his sister Georgia developed suspicions
when she made her first trip to New York. Lovely and confident, Georgia was
accustomed to pursuing what she wanted. "As soon as Billy was out of the
house and she and I were alone, she tried to seduce me," recalled Bridgers.
"She was trying to see if I was gay. I didn’t respond to her, naturally. So
she came out and asked me, ‘What’s going on with you and my brother? What’s
the story? Are you two lovers or what?’ I tried to explain to her, first of
all, that not responding to her advances does not necessarily mean that a
person is gay. When it came to Billy and me, I said it was something she
should properly talk about with her own brother. I don’t know if she ever
did that, but she didn’t come back to our house for a long, long time.

As he came into his own in New York, Strayhorn began to move in a circle of
like-hearted spirits, most (though not all) black and gay. Beyond Bridgers,
the core members of this group included Haywood Williams; Bill Patterson, a
psychology student at NYU; and Bill Coleman, a probation officer for the
Queens County Supreme Court who had been best man at Patterson’s wedding.
Honorary initiates included the arranger and composer Ralph Burns, then
working for Charlie Barnet, [Burns would later work for Woody Herman and
helped to define the sound of the great 1940s and 50s "Herds" as much as
Strayhorn helped to define the Ellington sound] and the theatrical-set
designer Oliver Smith. With various combinations of these friends,
Strayhorn set out to bring to life the lyrics he inscribed in block letters
in the Mad Hatters’ band book, images of penthouses and champagne, some
cocktails, some orchids, a show or two.

"I’d pickup the phone and Billy would say, ‘Allez-y!’ That would be the
signal, and we’d be off," recalled Williams. Strayhorn might hire a
limousine and spirit a few friends off for a spin through Central Park, a
tray of martinis balanced on their laps as they rode. All points seemed in
time to lead to Cafe Society. "Going there was like going home for us,"
said Williams, who first met Strayhorn on an outing to the downtown club.
"Aaron said, ‘Let’s go to Cafe Society—there’s somebody I want you to
meet,’ " recalled Williams. "So we took the subway downtown, and we met
Strayhorn, who was waiting for us in a subway station in midtown. I looked
over, and there was this little guy standing on the subway platform in a
porkpie hat. He looked so silly—still a square-head from Pittsburgh trying
to be cool. But he was already getting known in the in-the-know crowd.
People were starting to talk about the fact that Ellington brought this guy
in, and everybody wanted to know who this guy Billy was." Before long, the
bartenders knew: at Cafe Society, any customer could get a chilled martini
glass of gin with a light spray of vermouth by ordering Billy’s Martini.
Switching to rum one night, at Mary Lou Williams’s suggestion, Strayhorn
adjusted poorly. "He used to come down to the café practically every
night," Williams said. "I said, ‘Oh, we have some wonderful rum.’ He didn’t
know that this rum would knock you out if you drank a glassful of it. So he
was standing at the bar while I’m playing, you know, and everything’s cool.
And I looked around to the side, and I saw him reel a little bit, and he
had the glass in his hand. All of a sudden I heard this ‘Whoosh!’ They were
carrying him out, and he had the glass in his hand."

The night would go on, typically, well after Cafe Society closed, when
Strayhorn would lead whoever still had the life to a piano joint uptown
called Luckey’s Rendezvous, named for its proprietor, Charles Luckeyth
"Luckey" Roberts. He was a pianist’s pianist of the vigorous "stride"
school and composer of "Moonlight Cocktail," a sweet ballad that was a 1942
hit for Glenn Miller, and his club was located partway below street level
at St. Nicholas Avenue and 149th Street; there were red walls,
opera-singing waiters and waitresses (hired from Columbia University’s
music program), shoulder-to-shoulder drinkers, fried-shrimp sandwiches, and
a piano that Strayhorn would likely end up playing by dawn. Sam Shaw, a
film-maker and photographer with ties to the music business through his
brother Eddie, a song publisher, caught Strayhorn at Luckey Roberts’s
often. "Billy would be there every time I was at the place, and I went an
awful lot," recalled Shaw. "That was a place you could really let go, and
he would. He was never there alone. It was one place uptown where nobody
looked twice or cared about a couple of gay guys coming in. Billy and his
friends could have themselves a good time out in public. And he had started
to get quite a following there for his piano playing."

The gay social world in 1940s Manhattan centered around
friends-of-friends-only parties in private homes; held at regular hours
several nights a week, these events were de facto gay bars where drinks
and, often, light meals were sold. By all accounts, Strayhorn was not well
known in these quarters; he preferred more intimate gatherings with
Bridgers and their friends in his own home. Strayhorn would cook for a full
day or two, preparing mounds and pots of home-style dishes like fried
chicken and beans with rice. Bridgers acted as bartender, and the doors
opened for thirty or so friends and their friends. "Billy loved to play
host and make sure everybody was eating. That’s the kind of party he liked
to have," according to Ralph Burns. "It would be great, because a lot of us
had so much in common. A lot of us were in the music business, and we were
gay, of course—not that we would stand there and talk about being gay. That
wasn’t it. It was just really good to be in each other’s company. Billy
would put these parties together, and they were just a great, easy, natural
good time." When there was another pianist in the house, and there usually
was, Strayhorn would invariably sit the musician down for a four-handed
duet; he reveled in collaboration and was small enough to play standing up
while his partner sat alongside him on the piano stool. "That was one of
his favorite things," said Williams. "He’d do wonderful, incredible things
with another musician. People would get up after playing with Billy and say
they never sounded better in their lives." On occasion, Strayhorn and his
partner, or perhaps a whole group, would write a song on the spot. "It
would happen like a game," said Bridgers. "Somebody would start with a line
of words, and Billy would make up a melody for it. Somebody else would
throw out something else, and Billy would put it all together right there.
The next day, none of us would remember any of it—unfortunately, because
Billy had the ability to make something pretty good out of nothing."

Louis Proyect
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