Sunday, November 29, 2015

BILLY STRAYHORN

November 29, 1915-May 31, 1967


      B NATURAL

Strayhorn was definitely trying to do a classical thing with a jazzy touch. “Bach liked to do it, Lou. Try it. You’ll like it, too.”


That was the day he selected the clothes his mother would be buried in. His satin doll. “Now,” he said, “I don’t have to worry.”

Johnny Mercer was brought in to replace Strayhorn’s Oedipal lyrics. Strayhorn’s original lyrics to “Satin Doll” are not known to have survived.

Lena called every night: “Hello purple people. Talk to me, honey. What are we thinking about?”

“We’re thinking about flavoring milk with ashes.”

Blood Count


To make an impression on Ellington, Strayhorn wrote “Chelsea Bridge.” The musicians at that session were very uncomfortable faking their way across “Chelsea Bridge.”

Actually, by then he was beyond making an impression.


That was after he went to Rosemary Clooney’s house to rehearse with her because her pregnancy was difficult and she couldn’t travel. He sat at the foot of her bed as they made the recording and when they were finished he asked her, “Did you like your part?” Like something God might ask you at the end of your gig.

“Blood Count” he wrote at the end, when he was reduced to pouring booze into a tube directly into his stomach under his dinner jacket. There were roses all over the piano, very Duchess-of-Windsor. Or was that “Chelsea Bridge”?

No. There were no roses then. When he played “Blood Count” it was in a darkened room, and the piano was bare except for moonlight mammographed across its surface.


I fell asleep reading David Hajdu’s biography of Billy Strayhorn, thinking: I must find and listen to that piece of music Strayhorn wrote on a Shakespearean theme, the one with the beautiful title.

And then I dreamed that I’d camped out in the wilderness, on a moor near the ocean. I’d brought my TV. I’d plugged it in with a long cord, which unfurled behind me as I walked across the moor. 

Under the open moonless sky, far from buildings or people, I sat and watched cartoons, and when I got up to hike back to town as the sun went down, I left the TV on, a box of light on a slab of rock, the only light that night.



                     Three poems from THE PUBLIC GARDENS: POEMS AND HISTORY