Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

May/June 2011: Wynton Marsalis (Festival Edition)

Duke Ellington (1899-1974):
And His Mother Called Him Bill

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One of the most productive relationships in music, let alone jazz, was the one Duke Ellington had with his musical alter ego, Billy Strayhorn. It is a collaboration that started in 1938 and ended when Strayhorn died in 1967. Their work led to such classics as “Take the A Train,” which Stayhorn wrote after listening to Ellington’s directions on how to get to his audition, “Daydream,” “Star Crossed Lovers,” “Satin Doll,” and the soundtrack to the movie Anatomy of a Murder.

Strayhorn’s nickname for Ellington was the Big Monster; Ellington in turn called him the Little Monster or Sweet Pea. Their relationship was so close that, wherever he was in the world, Ellington would call Strayhorn when he had an idea for a song, and they would compose it over the phone. When they had a chance to work together in person, their sessions were often all-night writing marathons, where they would write and sleep in shifts, a musical tag team that alternated throughout the night until they were finished. Their writing styles were so similar that it is impossible to tell where one stopped and the other took over.

Strayhorn was fifty-one when he died on May 31, 1967, after a two-year battle with esophageal cancer. Ellington was devastated and angry, and for the first time in his life didn’t want to play. After one concert, a friend found Ellington backstage by himself, with his head hung low, playing Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom” again and again.

Three months after Strayhorn’s death, Ellington and his orchestra were in the studio recording And His Mother Called Him Bill [Bluebird RCA #56287], a fifteen-song tribute of material Strayhorn wrote between 1941 and 1967. The album features both well-known and previously unrecorded compositions that show Strayhorn’s gift as an arranger and composer.

“Snibor” was written by Strayhorn in 1949 and was titled for a publisher friend whose name it spells backward. It features Johnny Hodges’s smooth, swinging saxophone.

“Blood Count” is a song Strayhorn sent from the hospital for a Carnegie Hall concert the orchestra gave in 1967. It is beautifully poignant and features a heartfelt performance by Johnny Hodges. It was Strayhorn’s last composition.

“U.M.M.G.” stood for Upper Manhattan Medical Group, the practice of Strayhorn and Ellington’s friend and physician Dr. Arthur Logan. It features a beautiful solo played on flugelhorn by Clark Terry.

The solo piano version of “Lotus Blossom” was an afterthought. The band was packing up in the studio when Ellington started reminiscing about the times Strayhorn and he were alone and he would often ask Ellington to play “Lotus Blossom” for him. The tape kept rolling.

Considering all that Strayhorn composed, this album is a fitting tribute. And His Mother Called Him Bill is a classic. For those involved, it was an emotionally charged event, a tribute performed with love and understanding.

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