Billy Strayhorn was a teenager when he composed “Life is Lonely,” later renamed “Lush Life.” One can easily imagine that life was indeed lonely for a black gay male in Pittsburgh, circa the 1930s.
Strayhorn went on to become Duke Ellington’s shadow. The recent OutBeat: America’s First Queer Jazz Festival brought LGBT jazz musicians out of the shadows. Organized by the William Way LGBT Community Center, the four-day event featured panel discussions and performances by LGBT artists, including Dena Underwood, Fred Hersch, Andy Bey, Mike McGinnis, Patricia Barber, Bill Stewart and Terri Lyne Carrington.
Strayhorn composed Ellington’s theme song, “Take the ‘A’ Train.”
The “A” train was my subway line. Strayhorn’s composition has loomed large in my imagination since I was child.
So I was particularly looking forward to its re-imaginings at the “Tribute to Billy Strayhorn,” presented in collaboration with the Philadelphia Jazz Project.
I was not disappointed. It was an awesome evening. For me, the highlight was spoken word artist Lamont Dixon’s “Encore for Strayhorn.”
Strayhorn died on May 31, 1967. At his funeral, Ellington said this about his friend and collaborator
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 through all the pain and bad news); freedom from fear of possibly doing something that might possibly help another more than it might himself and freedom from the kind of pride that might make a man think that he was better than his brother or his neighbor.
It was a fitting that Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All be Free” was performed at the Strayhorn tribute.
Christopher Bartlett, executive director of William Way, told Philadelphia Magazine:
It was a historic weekend. We had all of the great living LGBT jazz greats in the city, and a lot of allies who came because they wanted to participate in this history-making moment. It was one great concert after another. Everyone said we need to do it again, that we need to continue to explore the story.
Bartlett was asked whether there’ll be a second OutBeat:
Our initial thought is that we’ll do it every two years. We’re very excited to do it again and continue this conversation. It’s revealed the great energy of today's LGBT jazz performers, and opens doors for a whole new generation of jazz performers who are eager to continue the work of the people we saw this weekend.
Jazz paved the way for the Civil Rights Movement. OutBeat can play a similar role for the LGBT community. While out of the shadows, the community still isn’t free from hate crimes and homophobia.