SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR by Walter van de Leur


The Music of Billy Strayhorn
Email this review


Jazz musician and historian van de Leur subjects Billy Strayhorn’s musical arrangements to deep scrutiny and credibly finds them original, undervalued, frequently misattributed, and tasting of the sublime.

There isn’t much music in van de Leur's prose, but there is a real intellectual hunger in this exploration to identify the unique glory and lasting contribution Strayhorn (1915–67) made to the art of jazz and to give credit to Strayhorn where credit is due. Readers unaccustomed to the patter of musical composition—“characterized by an ascending B[sharp] Aeolian minor scale that surprisingly leads to the major seventh, underscrored by a third inversion B[sharp]mi6”—will find themselves briskly and repeatedly treading water, but van de Leur is equally capable of conveying Strayhorn’s magic in less idiosyncratic language. The main concern here is to situate Strayhorn as he relates to Duke Ellington, with whom he worked for most of his professional life and by whom van de Leur feels Strayhorn is overshadowed. While the author wouldn’t deny the enormous influence Ellington had on the younger Strayhorn, nor their shared “fascination for orchestral sonority, harmonic richness, and formal balance,” he can find evidence of original Strayhorn fingerprints all over the work Ellington and his band played. They’re in his “temporary modulations,” his specific dissonance, choral choices, rhythmic figures. It might well be that Strayhorn and Ellington worked so well together because they were complementary: Strayhorn the tight-knit, Ellington the streetwise and striding. Along the way, van de Leur sticks it to a whole company of critics he feels have given Strayhorn a bum rap, perhaps because of homophobia, perhaps because they simply never appreciated the breadth of jazz that Strayhorn pioneered, such as subdued bebop.

A dense and closely argued piece of work. Since van de Leur often proceeds by feel—many original scores are lost—his attributions will doubtless be richly provocative to jazz fans. (Inventory of scores, compositions, and works on record)

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-19-512448-0
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2001