Saturday, 8 August 2015
2015 sees not only the centenary of Billy Strayhorn, but also of Orson Welles.
In the course of researching Strayhorn's involvement with musical theatre (surely the new frontier of research into the musician's work), I discovered, courtesy of Google Books the following extract from America’s Mistress: EarthaKitt, Her Life and Times by John L. Williams:
Othello had been a huge strain to make – at one point Welles had resorted literally to throwing himself at the feet of the movie producer Darryl Zanuck to beg for funding – and most of the actors had yet to be paid. So, as something of a relaxation (and a way of generating some quick cash), he had decided to debut two short plays at a theatre in Paris and then tour them around Europe. The project would be relatively low-key and a chance to focus on acting for a change. At least that was the idea.
The two plays were an anti-Hollywood satirical squib called The Unthinking Lobster with Suzanne Cloutier starring opposite Welles, and an extremely loos e adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus entitled Time Runs. This would feature Orson again, plus Hilton Edwards (Micháel MacLiammóir’s partner in both life and work) in the role of Mephistopheles. Duke Ellington had agreed to provide the music. The play also required an actress to play the part of Helen of Troy, a timeless embodiment of feminine beauty. Welles had trouble deciding whom to cast for this part. He’d tentatively offered it to several different actresses before he had the notion of asking the young woman he’d seen dance with Katherine Dunham and perform in cabaret at Carroll’s club: Eartha Kitt. He’d done his best to get hold of Eartha, but had been told she was still in New York. So he’d found another potential Helen instead, the Anglo-American singer and actress Annie Ross.
But Orson was a capricious employer and when Eartha showed up at the theatre he decided that she was after all his perfect Helen of Troy. She was in and Annie Ross was out. Annie duly received the bad news:
“I realised I hadn’t been given a rehearsal call, so I rang the theatre a couple of days later. This voice said, ‘I’m his secretary’. I said, ‘Can you tell me when my call is?’ and he said, ‘Mr Welles last night rewrote the whole play and he’s cast somebody else,’ so I said, ‘Oh what a drag.’ I was really disappointed. And that person turned out to be Eartha.”
Not only did Eartha have the part, but it was now a rather bigger one than originally planned. Orson rewrote the play overnight, prompted by his enthusiasm for his new Helen. As he told his biographer: “Eartha Kitt was obviously a star. You could tell that.”
Rehearsals were to start the following day, a Tuesday. According to Eartha, the show was due to open the following Saturday. However, an examination of Micheál Mac Liammóir’s published diary suggests this to be an exaggeration. His entry of 28 may reveals that Eartha had already been cast and the opening night was not until 19 June. So there was probably something closer to a month’s preparation. Meanwhile there was scenery to be painted and costumes to be sewn. Some of this, Eartha was used to, thanks to her time with the Dunhams, but the acting was a whole new challenge for her. Orson Welles recognised this and would stay late at the theatre with her helping her with her lines.
Mac Liammóir’s diary offers a vivid picture of Time Runs’ genesis:
[Time Runs] is based on the legend of Dr Faustus … it is as strangely moving in its way as one expects from Orson; it also has a dark malevolent glitter that causes the flesh to creep. The stage is populated by actors in the role of students of the Jean-Paul Sartre order conducting brisk debate on damnation with a young coloured girl (her name is Eartha Kitt, discovered by Hilton and orson in some nightclub in the rue du Colisée, a tiny, curious, bitterly-smiling fascinating creature), who at given moments flashes an electric torch on the audience as she sings in a husky amber voice about Satan, Hell and eternal Damnation (swing). Music, however, not yet written, so at present eartha K strings notes together herself, often with lovely haphazard effect. Who’s going to write it?
The answer to this last question was meant to be Duke Ellington, who had met Welles in 1941 and was currently touring Europe. Unfortunatley the demands of touring meant that Ellington himself was unable to devote much time to the project. However he was able to send his regular co-writer, the wonderfully talented Billy Strayhorn, to Paris. Strayhorn was happy about this as his long-term lover Aaron Bridgers had recently moved to the city and just been hired as the pianist at eartha’s favourite hangout, the Mars Club. Strayhorn was given four Orson Welles song titles (though no actual lyrics)to work with: Me is the Trouble, Zing, Zing, In the Dungeon of Guilt and Song of the Fool.
Close to show-time Welles still hadn’t written any lyrics and was considering cutting the songs altogether. At one point he sent Hilton Edwards to Stockholm to meet Ellington and ask for a number of pieces of incidental music. Nothing appears to have come of that mission, however, at elast for the show. Instead Welles went out with Strayhorn to the Café de la Paix and over several drinks came up with the odd, haunting words for Me is the Trouble (words surely inspired by his enigmatic new star): Hungry little trouble, bound in a bubble, yearning to be, be or be free/ All that you see, is all about me/ Hungry me.
Strayhorn gave them a mournful blues setting and hoped for the best.
Here are a couple of pictures of the Ellington band (with vocalist Betty Roché) on that tour, performing at the Palais de Chaillot, Paris, 1950.
Posted by Ian at 06:19:00
Thursday, 6 August 2015
On a Turquoise Cloud marks the alluring debut album of American soprano Candice Hoyes, in collaboration with two-time GRAMMY® award winner Ulysses Owens, Jr. and an exceptional octet. This song collection has gone virtually unrecorded since Ellington’s originals.
Ellington created these high-flying songs to showcase versatile divas Adelaide Hall, Kay Davis, and Alice Babs, and this gifted ensemble reimagines them with a distinctly contemporary sound. These are the songs where swing first met classical, and they were a blueprint for much of today’s best musical theater, opera, and art song.
Hoyes, a rising star in this generation of vocalists, is devoted to adding this missing piece to the Ellington legacy. “My grandparents were 1940s Harlemites and they danced to Ellington’s big band regularly. That generation is leaving us- my grandmother is 93. It means so much that we can share this album because the music is sensational.” To find the song manuscripts, Hoyes pursued months of archival research. “It was a real hunt, which makes it even sweeter when you find them all.”
The supple vocal lines of On a Turquoise Cloud infuse the signature Ellington harmonies with a sultry femininity, setting these tunes apart in his songbook. On a Turquoise Cloud brings a stunning corner of Ellington to light again, offering a fresh and stylish reading that ensures this music has new life.
Candice Hoyes / Vocalist
Ted Nash / Alto Saxophone, Alto Flute, And Clarinet
Ron Blake / Tenor Saxophone, Soprano Saxophone, And Flute
Carl Maraghi / Bass Clarinet & Baritone Saxophone
Marcus Printup / Trumpet
Vincent Gardner / Trombone
Adam Birnbaum / Piano
Yasushi Nakamura / Bass
Ulysses Owens Jr. / Drums & Percussion
Joe Temperley / Bass Clarinet (Single Petal Of A Rose)
Wycliffe Gordon / Trombone (Almighty God)
Posted by Ian at 16:28:00
Celebrating Billy Strayhorn, an overlooked master, at 100 with a new festival
(From Chicago Tribune)
He was one of the greatest jazz composers America has produced, but he remains overshadowed by his brilliant employer, Duke Ellington.
He penned scores that are revered around the world, but masterpieces such as "Lush Life" and "Take the 'A' Train" are far more famous than the man who wrote them.
He showed courage in coming out as a gay man in an era when few artists of his stature did, but he paid dearly for that heroic stance.
Fortunately, as Billy Strayhorn's Nov. 29 centennial approaches, the world slowly is beginning to acknowledge his importance as man and musician, with Chicago to take on a prominent role in celebrating his achievements.
A citywide Billy Strayhorn Festival will run Sept. 4 through Nov. 21 in clubs, concert halls, community centers and other venues. And a new book, "Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life" (published by Evanston-based Agate Bolden), will pair historic images with commentary from Ramsey Lewis, Nancy Wilson, Dianne Reeves and other major jazz figures.
Coordinated by the Auditorium Theatre — which presented a sprawling Miles Davis Festival in 2011 — the Strayhorn celebration will feature performances of his work in many forms, as well as panel discussions examining Strayhorn's place in music, culture and American society.
Though it's easy to understand why the Auditorium had put its resources behind a festival celebrating Davis, a global jazz icon with deep ties to Chicago, Strayhorn might seem like a surprising follow-up.
"The music is fantastic — that is without question," says Brett Batterson, executive director of the Auditorium Theatre, stating an incontrovertible truth.
"It just seemed like given the opportunity to raise the visibility of Billy, it was something we wanted to do. … To introduce him to people who may not have heard him. To honor him for his bravery in coming out, at a time when other people weren't doing that. And to salute his genius."
Batterson had a head start on conceiving such an event, for he knew Alyce Claerbaut, Strayhorn's niece and president of Billy Strayhorn Songs Inc. She lives in the Chicago area, has been advocating for her uncle's place in the jazz pantheon for decades and years ago told Batterson of a centennial that was years away. He didn't forget.
"He knows the legacy, and he wanted to make sure that Chicago was one of the major cities for this," says Claerbaut.
"Brett said, 'We had a model with Miles Davis, and we could probably do that with Billy Strayhorn.' He went out, wrote a grant (application), got funding."
Batterson secured support from the Chicago Community Trust, the festival's lead foundation supporter, with additional resources from the Joyce Foundation.
The $150,000 budget for the Strayhorn Festival is less than the $250,000 allotted for the Davis celebration, which presented 21 shows in 18 clubs (more than is scheduled as of now for the Strayhorn event).
But the tone of the Strayhorn celebration will be somewhat different from the Davis extravaganza, in part because the upcoming event will have an educational emphasis. Scholars, musicians and others will convene in various locations to examine Strayhorn's life and its impact on contemporary culture.
"The other piece of this (worth noting) — because of the Auditorium's educational mission — is Billy's choice to be an openly gay man at the time he chose to do it, (which) was a very brave decision," says Batterson.
"But it allowed for him to be taken advantage of."
Indeed, Strayhorn's openness about his sexuality meant that more than half a century ago, in a very different America, he could not bask in the spotlight and wide acclaim lavished upon his boss, Ellington. So Ellington, obviously a genius in his own right, benefited from the wizardry of music Strayhorn wrote for the Ellington organization, with Strayhorn enjoying few of the accolades.
"Duke ended up being somewhat complicit in the subordination of Strayhorn," Strayhorn biographer David Hajdu says in the 2007 documentary film "Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life."
"He didn't actively diminish Strayhorn, squeeze him out. But he allowed it. And I think it was a mistake. A big mistake made by a great man capable of better."
Or as composer-scholar Gunther Schuller put it in the film, Strayhorn became, "in the highest sense, a slave" to Ellington.
Strayhorn centennial celebrations, such as the upcoming Strayhorn Festival and the Strayhorn book, can serve as a posthumous corrective, belatedly giving Strayhorn his due as master composer and pioneer of equal rights. That the festival occurs in the wake of Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states makes the occasion all the more timely.
"He was very important to our society in many, many ways," says Claerbaut of her uncle who died in 1967 at age 51. "And a lot of that history has been underrated.
Among the festival's many events, two stand out: Jeff Lindberg's Chicago Jazz Orchestra performing newly commissioned arrangements of Strayhorn's music on Sept. 4 in Millennium Park during the Chicago Jazz Festival; and "Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn," featuring singers Darius de Haas and Joan Curto with pianist Alan Broadbent, the Joel Hall Dancers, orchestra and chorus in concert, at the Auditorium Theatre on Nov. 21.
What does Batterson hope will come of all this music, discussion and analysis?
"It's the social message, along with the entertainment value," says Batterson.
Few jazz figures combine those themes more poignantly than Strayhorn.
Following are highlights of the Billy Strayhorn Festival as it now stands, with events to be added. For details, visit auditoriumtheatre.org or phone 312-341-2310.
Chicago Jazz Orchestra. Jeff Lindberg's band kicks off the festival with new versions of Strayhorn repertoire; 8:30 p.m. Sept. 4 at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, near Randolph Drive and Michigan Avenue; free; go to chicagojazzfestival.us.
Mike Smith Quartet. Saxophonist Smith and pianist Baskin will collaborate on music of Strayhorn; starting at 9:30 p.m. Sept. 23 at Andy's Jazz Club, 11 E. Hubbard St.; $10; 312-642-6805 or andysjazzclub.com.
"The Life and Music of Billy Strayhorn." Northwestern University Professor E. Patrick Johnson collaborates with Kim Hunt, Johari Jabir and Cedric Brown in a discussion of Strayhorn's life, with musical performance and recordings. 4 p.m. Oct. 4 at Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted St.; free; centeronhalsted.org.
"Jazz'n on the South Side" featuring Dee Alexander. The great Chicago singer performs music of Strayhorn. 7 p.m. Oct. 7 at Caribbean Cove, 8020 S. King Drive.
D'Erania. The saxophonist performs Oct. 30 at T&JJ's, 718 S. 5th Ave., Maywood.
"Strayhorn: an Illustrated Life" (Agate Bolden). The coffee table book includes a foreword by Ramsey Lewis and essays by authors David Hajdu, Walter van de Leur and film director Robert Levi; to be published Nov. 10; $35.
"Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn." The festival's grand finale will be a revue of Strayhorn's music featuring vocal soloists, dancers, chorus and orchestra. In addition, the Auditorium will present its first annual Eighth Wonder Award. 8 p.m. Nov. 21 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Parkway; $29-$68; tickets go on sale 10 a.m. Friday; 312-341-2300 or auditoriumtheatre.org.
Posted by Ian at 13:28:00