They both grew up in Pittsburgh at the same time, the 1920s and 1930s, and knew each other. They were about the same age. But they were very different people. One was big and boisterous; the other was small and quiet. One spoke the rough argot of a Pittsburgh steelworker; the other was soft-spoken, articulate, and fluent in French. One was white; the other was black. Yet despite these differences and many more, these two men, Billy May and Billy Strayhorn, were remarkably alike. They both came to music in their teens, and somehow, magically, developed astonishing insights into the making of music. They were both fascinated by the limitless expressive possibilities of jazz, and the creation of musical frameworks where jazz could happen. As young men trying to make their way as aspiring performers and arrangers in Pittsburgh’s jazz community in the 1930s, their paths crossed often. They played music together, Strayhorn on piano, May on trumpet or trombone.
Then, within a few months in late 1938 early 1939, they were both gone, away from Pittsburgh for keeps: May with Charlie Barnet, and Strayhorn with Duke Ellington. Although their paths diverged, they remained lifelong friends and members of a mutual admiration society.
As Frank Sinatra (who worked with May often and tried on a number of occasions to work with Strayhorn) once said, “if a young musician or singer wanted to be involved in making music as a way of life during the swing era, and wanted to do it seven days a week, three hundred sixty-five days a year, there was no place better to do that than in the big bands.” The musicians of the swing era, even in ordinary bands, did that. But in top bands, musicians could find themselves working fourteen hours a day for weeks on end. Then they could get on the band bus and tour for months at a time, sometimes going from coast-to-coast. Billy May reveled in this and did it for four years, first with Charlie Barnet, and then, even more so, with Glenn Miller. Billy Strayhorn, though he greatly enjoyed working with the Ellington band in rehearsal and on recording sessions, largely avoided traveling with the band on tour. He preferred working from his home in Manhattan, or from a location like Hollywood or Chicago, where Duke and the band would occasionally be ensconced for weeks or months at a time.
Eventually, Billy May, with the money he made working non-stop with Miller in the early 1940s, moved to Los Angeles
during World War II, and got into free-lance recording and radio work. He was an early employee of the embryonic Capitol Records, an association that lasted through many phases from the mid-1940s into the 1970s. He worked as an arranger and conductor with many top-level Capitol artists, including most notably, Frank Sinatra and Nat “King” Cole. He worked successfully in television, and even appeared as himself in a feature film.(*) He lived a long and productive life and died in 2005 at age 89.
Billy Strayhorn chose another path. He worked in almost every possible musical situation with Duke Ellington from 1939 until 1967, when he died at age 51 from esophageal cancer. Although there was a period of estrangement between Billy and Duke in the early 1950s, and although they had their personal differences, there was an overriding respect between the two men, probably resulting from their great appreciation for each other as musicians, that kept them together. To say that they had a complicated, unconventional relationship would be an understatement. But in the end, it worked, though it was often painful and frustrating for Strayhorn. (At left: Ellington and Strayhorn, early 1960s.)
Billy May, though a jazz musician through-and-through, worked almost his entire career in the world of commercial music. He was perfectly suited to do that. In addition to being a very creative arranger who wrote music that was colorful and swinging, May could and frequently did write arrangements quickly, and in almost any place. (He seemed to like writing arrangements in cars.) There was little that Billy May did not understand about music, but his skills were in such great demand in the commercial marketplace that he seldom had time to compose.
Billy Strayhorn wrote literally hundreds (if not thousands) of arrangements for Duke Ellington’s big band and small groups. But in addition, Duke early in their relationship, began giving Strayhorn composing assignments. These assignments continued literally until Strayhorn was too ill to work shortly before he died, and yielded many masterful compositions.
One of Billy Strayhorn’s earliest compositions was captured in the beautiful and beguiling Ellington recording of “Chelsea Bridge.” I first heard it on an LP record of Ellington’s music in the middle 1960s. It shook me. I had no idea why then, because as a callow teenager I knew very little about music. I just knew what I liked, and I loved “Chelsea Bridge.” A few years later, in the late 1960s, I made my first visit to New York City, where Strayhorn lived from 1939 until his death there on May 31, 1967. As I was browsing the books in the wonderful Rizzoli book store (I think it was on Fifth Avenue, near Rockefeller Center), the most marvelous piano music was playing on the store’s sound system. I had no idea what it was, so I asked a disheveled middle aged male sales clerk, who was wearing a white shirt, tie and dark suit about it. He led me to the place where an LP record was playing. He picked up the dust jacket for the record that was playing, looked at it, and said, “oh, that is a part of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. It is called “Forlane.” I understood nothing of what he told me. But I said to him, “I’d like to buy that record. Is it for sale?” As he took the record off the turntable he said, “everything in here is for sale, Sonny.”
When I returned home from Manhattan, I repeatedly played the record containing the music from Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. It evoked in me the same feelings as Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge.” I thought nothing more about it. I just continued to listen to and enjoy more and more both “Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge,” and Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin.
In the very late 1960s, I became aware of a mammoth project at Capitol Records where Billy May, by then a revered elder statesman in the music world, was leading a revolving group of some of Hollywood’s greatest swing era veteran musicians in what were called “recreations” of many of the greatest recorded performances of the great swing bands of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. The series of records that was produced was called “The Swing Era.” The purpose of this project was to record performances of swing era classics in 1970 state of the art stereophonic sound. This concept was very attractive to swing lovers because at that time, the market for the original recordings made by the classic swing bands was full of reissues of those recordings (the handiwork of careless producers), that very often had mediocre to poor sound. The “Swing Era” project was heavily promoted by its sponsor, the publisher of Time and Life magazines, and was enormously successful with the public. (At left: Billy May conducts the Swing Era Orchestra in the Capitol Tower studios pictured at right, Hollywood, CA, circa 1970.)
I quickly signed up to receive these new stereo performances of swing classics. Each volume of recordings contained three LP records, and about thirty songs. (Some were reissues of earlier recordings following the same format led by swing era veteran bandleader Glen Gray, who died in 1963, and a few other recreations.) Also included in each volume was a lavishly illustrated book with a feature story about life during the swing era, extensive notes on the music, as well as discographical information about the oringinal recordings that were being recreated, and the personnel listings for the new recordings. I learned a lot about the music and the history of the swing era from this series of recordings.
What interested me from the beginning was how different these “note-for-note recreations” were from the original recordings (which it took me years, indeed decades, to collect). I played both, the originals and the recreations, endlessly, making comparisons. The more I listened, the more I learned.
Many years after these Time-Life (now called The Swing Era) recreations were produced, I had the opportunity to talk with a good number of the musicians who performed on them. All of these performers were absolute masters of their instruments, who had long and successful free-lance careers as Hollywood studio musicians after they played early in their careers in the great swing bands. What I found to be amazing was that they all, unanimously, loved working on this project. While they recognized that sometimes their performances did not capture the essence of the original recordings, they also knew that many times, they absolutely “nailed it.” Moreover, many of them said to me substantially the same thing: “After the junk we very often had to play, going back to the great music of the swing era, which was the music we grew up with, was a joy. In seriously working with this music again after so many years of being away from it, we realized all over again how great it really was.” Their respect for the creators of the music was reaffirmed.
Although I eagerly awaited the arrival in the mail of each new volume of The Swing Era, and then listened voraciously to the music on each (and then compared it with the original recordings), and though the music was always performed professionally, with understanding and feeling, I rarely thought that the recreations equaled, much less eclipsed, the original performances. Then I heard the recreation of Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge.” I played it and the original Ellington recording back to back, probably dozens of times over the years. The conclusion I finally reached, after decades of doing this, is that this “recreation,” though it is plainly different from the original, nevertheless captures completely the spirit of the original. And it is recorded in absolutely superb sound, which allows the listener to hear all of the musical details Billy Strayhorn created, something not always possible on the original recording.(At Left: Billy Strayhorn in the late 1940s.)
Here is the Ellington original recording of “Chelsea Bridge,” followed by the “recreation,” directed by Billy May.
(*) Called Nightmare, it was released in 1956 and starred Edward G. Robinson and Kevin McCarthy and Connie Russell. Meade Lux Lewis also has a cameo appearance.
Composed and arranged by Billy Strayhorn.
Recorded by Duke Ellington’s Orchestra directed by Billy Strayhorn on December 2. 1941 for Victor, Hollywood, CA.
Billy Strayhorn, piano, directing: Wallace Jones, first trumpet; Ray Nance, trumpet; Rex Stewart, cornet; Juan Tizol, (first) valve trombone; Lawrence Brown, Joseph “Tricky Sam” Nanton, trombone; Otto “Toby” Hardwicke, first alto saxophone; Johnny Hodges, alto saxophone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Ben Webster, tenor saxophone; Harry Carney, baritone saxophone; Fred Guy, guitar; Alvin “Junior” Raglin, bass; Sonny Greer, drums. Solos by: Billy Strayhorn, piano; Ben Webster, tenor saxophone; Juan Tizol, valve trombone. Note: Pioneering jazz bass virtuoso Jimmie Blanton was in the Ellington band throughout the time when Billy Strayhorn was creating “Chelsea Bridge.” Strayhorn created a number of spaces in “Chelsea Bridge” for Blanton to fill with short bass improvisations, which fortunately were captured in another recording made eleven months prior to the Victor recording. Unfortunately, Blanton contracted tuberculosis in the fall of 1941, and left the Ellington band shortly before this recording was made. Blanton died on July 30, 1942.
“Chelsea Bridge” opens with Strayhorn’s four-bar piano introduction (Duke ceded the piano bench to Strayhorn for the Victor recording), which sets the impressionistic atmosphere while employing “…the parallel movement of detached chordal structures. Strayhorn’s broken major-seventh nine piano chords, an utterly modern sound in the jazz vocabulary of that time, are not related to any tonality and do not stand in any functional harmonic relationship.” (“Something to Live For…The Music of Billy Strayhorn,” by Walter Van de Leur, hereafter (VDL), page 51) (At right: tenor saxophonist Ben Webster. Strayhorn created many lyrical showcases for Webster, and also for Ellington’s alto saxophonist supreme, Johnny Hodges.) Ellington recorded “Chelsea Bridge” for the Standard Transcription service on January 15, 1941. (See and hear it below.) From that earlier recording, it is clear that the solos of Ben Webster and Juan Tizol are almost identical to those they played on the Victor recording made almost 11 months later. Also, Duke played piano on the earlier recording, playing an introduction that is somewhat disconnected from the main melody of the tune. Most significantly, the earlier recording included a number of bass interludes played by Jimmie Blanton. Due to Blanton’s departure from the Ellington band in late 1941 because of health issues, those solos were in essence taken over by Strayhorn himself on piano on the Victor recording.
Van de Leur also reminds his reader of the almost universal negative reception of “Chelsea Bridge” by jazz critics at that time, noting these same critics “…hailed Ellington’s non-conformist music, likening his work to composers from the classical field such as Delius.” (VDL 53) What these critics said then about “Chelsea Bridge” is now quaintly amusing, but not very valuable to our understanding of the music. Still, from that time on, Strayhorn found himself answering questions about him being influenced by various French Impressionist composers. His most cogent answer to a question about Ravel’s influence on him while he composed “Chelsea Bridge,” dryly given in an interview, is as follows: “I had not yet heard the Valses Nobles et Sentimentales of Ravel (when I composed ‘Chelsea Bridge’). Therefore, I don’t think one could speak of an influence.” (VDL 51)
It is also notable that for the Victor recording of “Chelsea Bridge” on which Strayhorn conducted the Ellington band,[ii] he instructed the musicians to play the ensemble passages without vibrato. (Soloists Ben Webster and Juan Tizol, were given no such instructions.) This and a few other swing era recordings in 1941 (like Claude Thornhill’s “Snowfall”), initiated a reevaluation of the entire practice of using vibrato in jazz performance, culminating with many ensembles and soloists, most notably trumpeter Miles Davis, using almost no vibrato in their playing in the later 1940s and after.[iii] Strayhorn also cast Juan Tizol’s mournful sounding valve trombone in the lead part for Ellington’s trombone trio throughout “Chelsea Bridge” to further enhance the foggy, misty atmosphere. Usually, Lawrence Brown played lead trombone.(Juan Tizol is pictured above left.)
Predictably, musicians had a different reaction than most critics to “Chelsea Bridge.” Gil Evans stated many years after 1941, “From the moment I first heard ‘Chelsea Bridge’ I set out to try to do that. That’s all I did—that’s all I ever did—try to do what Billy Strayhorn did.” Charles Mingus’s compositions “This Subdues My Passion” (1946), “Minor Intrusion” (1954), “Profile of Jackie” (1956), and “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” (1974) also reflect his awareness of the musical components of “Chelsea Bridge.” (VDL 55)
[i] Much erroneous speculation about the title “Chelsea Bridge” has circulated since 1941. Based on the statements of Aaron Bridgers (Strayhorn’s companion throughout much of the 1940s) in 1997, Strayhorn was well aware of the Impressionistic painting by James McNeill Whistler called Old Battersea Bridge. However he was also aware of the fact that Chelsea Bridge, two bridges east of Old Battersea Bridge and never a Whistler subject, existed, and thought it a better sounding title for this composition. (VDL 292)
[ii] Yet another indication of Ellington’s great respect and appreciation for Strayhorn’s talent. Which other major bandleaders electively stepped aside and turned over their bands to another conductor at recording sessions?
[iii] Still, at least one jazz musician, the high-note trumpeter Chuck Peterson, was using no vibrato in his playing in 1941. For an example of his approach to vibrato, hear the Tommy Dorsey recordings of Sy Oliver’s original compositions “Loose Lid Special” (1941), and “Well Get It!” (1942). On both recordings, Peterson’s vibrato-less playing is contrasted with the brash trumpeting of Ziggy Elman.
[iv] In addition to Gil Evans and Charles Mingus, Strayhorn’s pioneering arrangements influenced an entire generation of arrangers including but certainly not limited to Bill Finegan, Ralph Burns, Nelson Riddle, Tadd Dameron, and Gerry Mulligan.
Here is Billy May’s interpretation of Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge.”
Composed and arranged by Billy Strayhorn; original arrangement reconstructed by Billy May.
Recorded by Billy May and the Swing Era Orchestra on May 24, 1971 for Capitol, Hollywood, CA.
Billy May, directing: John Best, first trumpet; Walter “Pete” Candoli, Clarence “Shorty” Sherock, Uan Rasey, trumpets; Dick Nash, first trombone; Pullman “Tommy” Peterson, trombone; Lew McCreary, valve trombone; Les Robinson, first alto saxophone; Marshal Royal, clarinet; Wilbur Schwartz, alto saxophone; Justin Gordon, tenor saxophone; Bill Perkins, baritone saxophone; Plas John Johnson, Jr., solo tenor saxophone; Ray Sherman, piano; Jack Marshall, guitar; Morty Corb, bass; Nick Fatool, drums. Solos by: Ray Sherman, piano; Plas Johnson, tenor saxophone; Lew McCreary, valve trombone.
This performance starts with the silken piano sound of Ray Sherman (shown at left), one of the finest, most versatile pianists in the Hollywood studios in the years from the 1950s through the 1970s. His approach to the piano solos in “Chelsea Bridge” is to concentrate on tone and touch, bringing out the beauty of the piano lines originally carefully crafted by Strayhorn. (See below.) The softly played, velvety open brass state the melody against striking Impressionistic sonorities provided by the reeds. Big-toned tenor saxophonist Plas Johnson (creator of the famous tenor solo on Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther theme,” shown at right in dark shirt, along with Billy May (standing) and Chuck Gentry on baritone sax), pays homage to Ben Webster here. Listen for pianist Sherman’s excellent accompaniment behind Johnson. The brief solo piano parts in “Chelsea Bridge” (which were played originally by bassist Jimmie Blanton, and then taken over by Strayhorn on the Victor recording after Blanton left the Ellington band), were carefully constructed by Strayhorn to provide a pianistic leitmotif throughout the piece, rather like a diamond-cutter shaping a fine jewel so that it will glitter and gleam. Ray Sherman plays them superbly in this performance. Then the trombones, led by Lew McCreary’s valve trombone, play melody for eight bars. The reed passage that follows (with Marshal Royal leading on clarinet), indeed the lovely organ-like voicing of the reeds throughout, is quintessential Strayhorn. Once again, Ray Sherman’s piano provides marvelous counterlines to what the reeds are playing that create a perfect musical balance. Lew McCreary plays Juan Tizol’s valve trombone solo. The sumptuous brass return to conclude this sensitive performance. One last observation: the bass playing of Morty Corb (shown at left) at all points in this performance is magnificent.
This recording is a moving musical tribute from one great musician, Billy May, to another great musician, his friend, Billy Strayhorn.
As a bonus, here is the January 16, 1941 Standard Transcription recording of “Chelsea Bridge.” The key differences from the Victor recording made eleven months later and this one are that Ellington plays piano on this, that bassist Jimmie Blanton is featured throughout, and that Juan Tizol’s valve trombone is utilized in the last segment alone. This version is an interesting early snap-shot in the evolution of this Billy Strayhorn great composition.
All recordings presented in this post have been digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.