Composed and arranged by Billy Strayhorn.
Recorded by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra for RCA Victor on August 28, 1967 in New York.
Duke Ellington, piano, directing: Herbie Jones, William “Cat” Anderson, Mercer Ellington, trumpets; Lawrence Brown, Buster Cooper, tenor trombones; Chuck Connors, bass trombone; Russell Procope and Johnny Hodges, alto saxophones; Jimmy Hamilton and Paul Gonsalves, tenor saxophones; Harry Carney, baritone saxophone; Aaron Bell, bass; Steve Little, drums.
The story: In the world of Duke Ellington, there were usually several story lines playing out at any one time. Duke loved this duplicity or triplicity. He was stimulated by many things happening at one time, especially when he was the only one who knew what was happening at all times. Duke’s impenetrable facade was something that baffled journalists, scholars, and most everyone who wanted to learn anything about the maestro by asking him directly. If interviewers got much more than a few of Duke’s elegantly uttered platitudes, or possibly a couple of diversionary bon mots from him, they would be lucky. But in fairness to Duke, by the last decade of his life, he had been on public display around the world for more than forty years, and had been interviewed thousands of times. Interviews bored him, unless the interviewer was a beautiful woman. Then matters progressed in a way that was usually entertaining, if not informative.
The continuing story line that encompassed the unusual relationship between Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, from late 1938, when they met in Pittsburgh, until Strayhorn died on May 31, 1967, was quintessentially Ellingtonian in many ways. Although they worked as intimate musical collaborators for almost 30 years, at the time of Strayhorn’s death, few people actually knew much about their musical collaboration, and much less about the personal relationship between these two men. Ellington, who thrived on mystery, liked it that way.
Strayhorn’s view of Ellington evolved over the years. Early in their collaboration, Billy was thrilled to be working in the increasingly extensive ways Duke chose to use his talents. Those talents were so formidable that it seemed that there was no musical challenge Billy could not meet and overcome successfully. Duke came to rely on Billy, and he kept him very busy. In exchange, Duke was incredibly generous to Strayhorn in many ways, including financially. Nevertheless, various people from time to time were nudging Strayhorn in the direction of becoming what they termed “his own man,” meaning to elevate his public profile and have a career separate from Ellington. But Strayhorn was objective enough about this to know that he was uncomfortable performing in public, and disliked touring. These would have been things he would have had to do if he was going to establish a career niche as a performer. And Strayhorn was well aware that if he were to try to earn a living as an independent composer/arranger/conductor, he would have had to quickly build up the professional connections, including to retain the services of a personal manager, to do that. Last but not least, Billy did not want to suffer the financial difficulties that would result if Duke shut-off his cash-flow. Moreover, he observed the process of various Ellington sidemen, most notably Cootie Williams and Johnny Hodges, as well as Duke’s son Mercer, in trying to have careers away from Duke. All of these ventures ended in varying degrees of exasperation, exhaustion and insolvency, with each man returning to the Ellington fold. Eventually, Billy became resigned to accepting his role as a planet, albeit a large and important one, in Duke Ellington’s solar system.
Of course, as so often is true in human affairs, the decision Strayhorn arrived at as to how his career would progress did not involve a binary choice. Starting in the mid-1950s, he began to work in a quasi-independent fashion with musicians who were in the Ellington orbit, most notably Johnny Hodges, making recordings. Most of this work was done in recording studios in Manhattan. But Billy also continued working with Ellington on an ongoing basis. It is not unreasonable to assume that Strayhorn’s “outside” musical activities had Duke’s blessing.
In practical terms, whatever work Strayhorn did, he centered his professional and personal lives in Manhattan. And this was of great importance to Billy. Beyond being a musician, Strayhorn was an intellectual whose interest in cultural matters was exceeded only by his interest in human interactions. Specifically, he became involved in the cause of improving the lot of African Americans. Through New Yorkers Arthur and Marian Logan (Arthur was Duke’s and Billy’s physician), Strayhorn met and became friends with baseball legend Jackie Robinson and his wife Rachel, and Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first black justice on the Supreme Court of the United States. These people and others in New York became, through the 1950s and into the 1960s, leaders on issues involving race relations, and that led them to meet and become involved in the work of Martin Luther King. Dr. King met and talked with his Manhattan supporters, including Strayhorn, many times in various gatherings in New York to discuss strategies to deal with any number of explosive situations, as well as to raise money for King’s work. Strayhorn did not hesitate to take Dr. King aside and express his opinions and ideas, which King respected. Strayhorn was a well-informed, thoughtful person. Billy participated in Martin Luther King’s march on Washington in August of 1963 as a member of Dr. King’s inner circle.(1)
The usual protocol for events hosted by the Logans in their home was later described by Marian Logan: “Strays always helped me plan the whole thing, the menu and such. And he always played piano. And he always gave a big check. After a couple of hours, I would tell everybody, ‘Okay now, it’s time to be quiet because we have something to say. The purpose of this gathering is that Freedom in not free. So cough up.’ From a few steps up the Logans’ stairway, Dr. King would give a short, inspirational speech, while Marian Logan collected donations. (While this was going on) Strayhorn would play ‘Why Don’t You Do Right.’ Its chorus, though Billy didn’t sing it, ends with the lyric …’Get out of here, and get me some money too.'” (1A)
At the home of Arthur and Marian Logan in 1963 celebrating the baptism of their son, Warren Arthur “Chip” Logan: L-R: Martin Luther King, who officiated at the baptism, Marian Logan holding Chip, Arthur Logan, and Rachel Robinson and Billy Strayhorn, who both served as Chip’s godparents.
Billy Strayhorn’s life was busy and in many respects fulfilling as the early 1960s progressed. His involvement with Arthur and Marian Logan had long since evolved into a close personal friendship. Still, Arthur Logan, whom Billy called “Arturo,” continued to be Billy’s personal physician. Billy visited them in their home at 121 West 88th Street often. Once, on a wintry afternoon in early 1964, when Strayhorn had ascended the steps to enter their apartment from the street, Arthur Logan found him sitting down just inside the door, huffing and puffing. Logan went to him, and noticed that his eyes were slightly popped and that he was ashen. Logan suggested that he undergo some tests. Those tests revealed that Strayhorn had advanced cancer of the esophagus.(2)
After this, Strayhorn became a cancer patient. There were various treatments and surgeries, including a gastrostomy, which allowed food and drink to be poured directly into his stomach. During these increasingly dire times, Billy’s ironic sense of humor did not desert him, although he now applied it with a sardonic tinge. Both Arthur and Marian Logan were solicitous when they invited him for dinner. As the various foods to be served at dinner were being prepared, Billy poured his pre-dinner Sterling martinis into his gastrostomy tube, and kept up his normal witty repartee. When the food was ready to be served, Marian would liquify what would be served to Strayhorn in a blender. As the various glass containers were placed before him at the dinner table, he would smile and say, “Lovely! Oh, that looks wonderful!” Then, “he’d pour his filet of fish or his fettuccini into his stomach and say, ‘Oh, that’s delicious, Arturo! You must give me the recipe!'”(3)
Billy became progressively thinner and weaker through 1965 and 1966. (Above right: Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington in Antibes Juan-les-Pins, France – July 1966.) By the end of 1966, he was emaciated. When his good friend Lena Horne saw him then, she was appalled. She told Billy that he needed rest and relaxation in the sunshine, and she and Strayhorn’s last partner, Bill Grove, drove him across the country to Lena and her husband Lennie Hayton’s home in Palm Springs, California. Despite Lena’s wish to help Strayhorn, it was obvious that Billy had entered the final stages of his illness. He asked to be taken to the Los Angeles airport, and from there flew to Pittsburgh, to say goodbye to his family. His visit there was brief. He wanted to get home to Manhattan.(4) (Above left: Billy Strayhorn and Lena Horne – early 1960s, at the Palm Springs home of Lena and her husband Lennie Hayton.)
The music: By the time Billy Strayhorn returned to Manhattan in February of 1967, his condition had deteriorated to the point where he needed constant professional care. Arthur Logan admitted him to the Hospital for Joint Diseases in East Harlem. At some point in early 1967, Strayhorn apparently finished work on what would be “Blood Count.” “Blood Count” is generally assumed to be the last original that Strayhorn composed for the Ellington orchestra, but the evidence is elusive. Two scores survive, one titled “Blood Count,” and another titled “Blue Cloud.” Both scores provide only rough clues as to their earliest possible production dates, since they both refer to the orchestra’s first bass trombonist, Chuck Connors, who joined in July 1961. For his tribute album to Strayhorn recorded in August 1967 (…And His Mother Called Him Bill), Ellington used the version titled “Blood Count.”(5)
Ellington was in Europe when he received the music for “Blood Count.” The first recording of “Blood Count” was made by the Ellington band at a concert at Liederhalle in Stuttgart, Germany on March 6, 1967. It was a showcase for the alto saxophone of Johnny Hodges, the man who, aside from Ellington, was Strayhorn’s most transcendent musical collaborator and interpreter.
“Although in music-technical terms ‘Blood Count’ is largely consistent with Strayhorn’s previous writing, the piece explores emotions not heard in his work before. Much as all his earlier compositions seemed to resound a deeper biographical layer, in ‘Blood Count’ Strayhorn uses musical metaphors to express openly his feelings of sadness, frustration and failure.”(6)
“‘Blood Count’ is in D minor, a remarkable key since Strayhorn hardly ever used minor tonalities in his work. He confirms this minor key decisively in the second half of the first eight-bar strain, where a desperately repeated gesture spells out the interval between the minor third and the tonic. At the end of this first strain, Strayhorn uncharacteristically cuts off the alto’s line to jump back to the initial melody, without any melodic or harmonic connection. With this hard cut he deviates sharply from his compositional habits. ‘Blood Count’ grows increasingly unnerving in the bridge, with its anguished repeated descending gesture e”-f-e’, and the ending is utterly unsettling: over a pedal bass, the trombones and trumpets play a line of desolate descending triads that keep falling back to a D minor chord, suggesting there is no escape. With its dramatic melody and interrupted thoughts, and the fatalism of its final bars, ‘Blood Count’ conjures the devastating consequences of Strayhorn’s progressing cancer.” (7)
The story continues:
Arthur Logan had the unenviable task of calling Ellington after Strayhorn’s death. Duke was in the middle of an engagement at Harrah’s Casino in Reno, Nevada. Marian Logan recounted: “Arthur said that Edward just cried. He said, ‘this is too much for me Arthur.’ Arthur then asked him if he was going to be all right. ‘F… no, I’m not going to be all right! Nothing is all right now.'”(7) Ellington soon pulled himself together and came across the country to attend Strayhorn’s funeral at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Manhattan. Here is a part of the eulogy he gave:
“Poor little Swee’ Pea, Billy Strayhorn, William Thomas Strayhorn, the biggest human being who ever lived, a man with the greatest courage, the most majestic artistic stature, a highly skilled musician whose impeccable taste commanded the respect of all musicians and the admiration of all listeners.
His audience at home and abroad marveled at the grandeur of his talent and the mantle of tonal supremacy that he wore only with grace. He was a beautiful human being, adored by a wide range of friends, rich, poor, famous, and unknown. Great artists pay homage to Billy Strayhorn’s God-given ability and mastery of his craft. Because he had a rare sensitivity and applied himself to his gifts, Billy Strayhorn successfully married melody, words, and harmony, equating the fitting with happiness.
His greatest virtue, I think, was his honesty, not only to others but to himself. His listening-hearing self was totally intolerant of his writing-playing self when or if any compromise was expected, or considered expedient. Condescension did not exist in the mind of Billy Strayhorn.
He spoke English perfectly and French very well. He demanded freedom of expression and lived in what we consider the most important and moral of freedoms: freedom from hate, unconditionally; freedom from self-pity (even throughout all the pain and bad news); freedom from fear of possibly doing something that might help another more than it might help himself; and freedom from the kind of pride that could make a man feel he was better than his brother or neighbor.
His patience was incomparable and unlimited. He had no aspirations to enter into any kind of competition, yet the legacy he leaves, his oeuvre, will never be less than the ultimate on the highest plateau of culture (whether by comparison or not).
God bless Billy Strayhorn.”
The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(1) Something to Live For …The Music of Billy Strayhorn, by Walter van de Leur (2002), 165.
(1A) Lush Life …A Biography of Billy Strayhorn, by David Hajdu (1996), 224.
(2) Ibid. 231-232.
(3) Ibid. 250.
(4) Ibid. 252.
(5) Something to Live For …The Music of Billy Strayhorn, by Walter van de Leur (2002), 171. It appears that Strayhorn’s last composition was a three-part piece called The North by Southwest Suite. Its three parts were entitled: “Up There,” “Boo Loose,” and “Pavane Bleu No. 2.”
Here are links to more great performances of music by Billy Strayhorn:
For those who want to take a deep-dive into the story of Billy Strayhorn’s life and music, here is a link to an American Masters documentary about him: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1EHoLU1-SVU