For the last half century at least, musicians and historians alike have considered Duke Ellington to be one of the greatest jazz composers for a body of work that began in 1920s Harlem and ended up on concert stages across the world. Perhaps his band’s definitive and most-covered number was “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and many Ellington concerts concluded with the playful “Satin Doll.”
But neither is really an Ellington number.
“Satin Doll” was cowritten with Ellington’s arranger, and “‘A’ Train” was composed entirely by this bespectacled, long underappreciated figure who also wrote classics including “Lotus Blossom,” “Chelsea Bridge” and “Lush Life.”
Over the last few decades, Billy Strayhorn’s reputation has been emerging from Ellington’s shadow, and this week, the man and his music are the subject of a new dance piece making its world premiere at REDCAT.
Sometimes, it takes a while for the shy ones to get noticed.
David Roussève, the choreographer behind “Halfway to Dawn,” was drawn to the songwriter largely for the emotional tone of his work. “Bittersweet is my middle name,” says Roussève, a genial man with a dancer’s leanness and a fondness for tangents. “Even his joyous songs have a blue tone. ‘Lush Life’ is about sadness, but also yearning and seeking. This is why I fell in love with Billy Strayhorn.”
Although he’s now known to most serious jazz listeners, Strayhorn was nearly invisible for decades. Part of that was because of his introverted personality, eclipsed by the regal, extravagant Ellington. That Strayhorn was a gay man — “out” in midcentury America — probably didn’t help.
Nor did his boss’ working style.
“Ellington regarded his band as his extended instrument,” says Ted Gioia, a historian and author of “The Jazz Standards,” a guide to the genre’s most-performed songs. “So the debates will continue as to what Duke did and didn’t do. Sometimes Strayhorn’s name was on a piece, sometimes it wasn’t. A lot of people — me included — think his work was on the same par as Ellington’s. It’s wrong to see Strayhorn as some kind of assistant to Ellington — he’s an important artist and writer in his own right.”
Strayhorn grew up in Pittsburgh and met Ellington there in 1938 after one of the Duke’s concerts, and he won him over with some arranging suggestions. (He had just turned 23.) Not long after, Strayhorn moved to New York, and their collaboration began. The two worked on numerous songs, larger pieces like “The Far East Suite,” and the music for Otto Preminger’s film “Anatomy of a Murder.” Though he stayed behind the scenes, “Strays” was prominent enough to become friends with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and singer Lena Horne. But his drinking and smoking took a toll on him, and he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 1964 and died three years later.
Roussève, who spent much of the 1980s around the modern dance scene in New York’s East Village and now teaches at UCLA, became aware of Strayhorn in the late ’90s. Saxophonist Joe Henderson had released his celebrated tribute album, “Lush Life,” and journalist David Hajdu had recently published an eloquent biography of Strayhorn by the same name.
Though the son of a jazz musician, Roussève was more oriented to dance and theater. But a line of Ellington’s stuck with him. “Duke once said, ‘Billy Strayhorn is a dancer, and if you don’t believe me, listen to “U.M.M.G.”’ Bingo. To have bodies explore the emotional undercurrents of ‘Blood Count’ and ‘Lotus Blossom’ — wow!”
Strayhorn, however, is not a natural for a jukebox musical of the kind devoted to ABBA, the ’50s hit parade or Huey Lewis and the News. “No one would ever call Billy Strayhorn a composer for dancers,” says Gioia. “But it makes sense to use his work that way, because there’s a narrative quality to his songs, even the ones that don’t have lyrics. In another life, I could contemplate him doing ballets.”
And although Ellington’s rhythms come from Harlem stride and the swing era, with their firm, insistent feeling, “Strayhorn’s rhythmic sensibility is more open.”
Roussève originally contemplated a piece that “deconstructed” the songwriter’s work, reflecting his own interest in postmodernism and boundary pushing. “Within a few weeks of working, I said, ‘Scratch all that.’ To excavate anything from his soul, the place to start was his music.”
“Halfway to Dawn” unfolds in two acts, with the first set in a ’50s jazz club, the second in a kind of dreamworld. The bare facts of the artist’s life are projected on a screen, with the music and movement — Roussève calls the dance style “Judson Church meets swing” — providing the resonance and meaning.
“As Strayhorn’s life starts to unravel, the piece begins to unravel as well,” he says. “It’s more abstract and surreal.”
Strayhorn’s career, Roussève believes, has a larger meaning. “In a time when we have a reality-TV president, and everybody’s seeking fame, there’s a dialogue about living your personal truth versus living for recognition and fame. I hope that’s what people take from him.”
‘David Roussève: Halfway to Dawn’
When: 8:30 p.m. Oct. 4-6, 3 p.m. Oct. 7
Where: REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles