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  • Jayden Pierce

Black Queer Influences


Photograph: Carl Van Vechten/Van Vechten Trust/Yale Collection


Growing up Queer and Black, I have never had anyone to look up to. I grew up in a household where I did not speak and hid all parts of myself. As I gained more awareness of myself, I found idols and self-expression. These idols were black musicians in genres where black people are overlooked. Not only did I find a home in music, but I also found music’s connection to film, writing, and fashion. My role models started consisting of black queer people existing in spaces where black people have pioneered and are kept outside of the trends and culture that began with us.


I want to talk about an openly gay black Jazz Pianist Billy Strayhorn, whose most well-known work is the 1992 album Lush Life, Collaborating with the great pianist and Jazz composer Duke Ellington. Strayhorn produced iconic work for Ellington, specifically composing the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s theme “Take the ‘A’ Train”.


Strayhorn got inspiration for the song from directions on how to get to Ellington’s house after he hired him and turned it into a theme song for The Duke Ellington Orchestra. Ellington would take credit for more songs created by Strayhorn for the 28 years they worked together composing over 100 songs for Ellington.


Ellington never gave Strayhorn proper credit and as a result, Strayhorn never became the legend that Ellington despite him composing the majority of their songs, yet he never publicly complained. I seem to find queer Black people who heavily influenced movements and trends years ago are unknown due to lack of recognition or acknowledgment.


In the racial climate of the 1940s, life couldn’t seem to be worse unless you were also gay during the 1940s, which Strayhorn was. This means not only did he face extreme forms of racism, he also experienced homophobia from white people and black bandmates alike.


Before Strayhorn met Ellington, he was already an accomplished musician. In an article from his nephew, he states that, “In 1934 he was featured in a performance of Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 16. He wrote a production entitled Fantastic Rhythm which included ‘My Little Brown Book’.” He wrote the famous song, “Lush Life” as a teenager which was later performed by Queen Latifah, Lady Gaga, John Coltrane, Nat King Cole, and many more influential artists.


With or without Ellington, Billy Strayhorn would continue to influence Jazz. He left his partnership with Ellington in the 1950s to pursue a solo career and releasing two albums before lending his talents to theater productions.


I found about Strayhorn through research on Black queer figures who get little to no recognition. I want to continue to shine a light on artists like Strayhorn and other artists who existed in the shadows quietly producing work that creates legacies. Billy Strayhorn wrote over 100 songs for Duke Ellington before dying of cancer in 1967 at 51.


Resources

Gainer, Nichelle. “Vintage Black Male Glamour — in Pictures.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 8 Dec. 2016, www.theguardian.com/fashion/gallery/2016/dec/08/vintage-black-male-glamour-in-pictures.

Morris, Ph.D., Gregory A. “Cherish the Legacy of Billy Strayhorn.” Jazz Education Network, Jazzednet.com, 28 Aug. 2017, jazzednet.org/resources/cherish-the-legacy-of-billy-strayhorn/.

Vitale, Tom. “100 Years Of Billy Strayhorn, Emotional Architect Of Song.” NPR, NPR, 29 Nov. 2015, www.npr.org/2015/11/29/457598579/100-years-of-billy-strayhorn-emotional-architect-of-song.

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