Before the celebrated composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn passed in 1967, he asked his nephew Gregory Morris to serve as Executor of his Estate and take care of his music. For 50 years Dr Morris kept the collection intact, first in Pittsburgh and most recently at his home outside of Phoenix, AZ. The collection, including scores, sketches, business papers and photographs is now available to researchers in the Performing Arts Reading Room. A Finding Aid for this collection may be found online here.
[Finding Strayhorn panel discussion in the photo above L-R: Chris Potter, Walter Van de Leur, David Hajdu, Alyce Claerbaut, Gregory Morris, Larry Appelbaum]
I first went out to look at the collection and meet the family in January of 2017. It was obviously a collection of great musical significance for anyone interested in jazz but I needed to assess the contents and condition and report back to my colleagues before we could move forward on acquiring it for the Library’s Music Division.
The collection came to the Library in 2018 and it became a top priority for us to process and catalog it in order to provide access to researchers in the Reading Room. On June 12, 2019 we gathered Strayhorn’s niece Alyce Claerbaut and Dr. Morris for a special event at the Library titled Finding Strayhorn. We were joined by Strayhorn biographer and critic David Hajdu (“Lush Life”) and Dutch musicologist Walter van de Leur (“Something To Live For”) to celebrate and formally announce the acquisition of the Billy Strayhorn Collection. We also invited Chris Potter, this year’s Music Division jazz scholar-in-residence, to talk about how Strayhorn’s music continues to inspire him. He brought his tenor saxophone and played a stirring, virtuosic and deeply moving medley of Strayhorn compositions: Lush Life, Take The A Train and Blood Count.
Ms Claerbaut spoke at length about the Strayhorn publishing company, Billy Strayhorn Songs, Inc. Dr Morris discussed his responsibilities as Executor of the Estate and the promises he made (and kept) to his uncle. Dr. Van de Leur explained the detective work involved to determine which unsigned works or fragments were composed by Ellington vs Strayhorn and Hajdu discussed the intersection of Strayhorn’s private life and his music. I had the great pleasure of moderating the discussion. With audience participation it turned into a fascinating discourse about the legacy of this gifted, creative musician, composer and arranger and how public access to the collection will impact music research and scholarship for generations to come.
Video by Larry Appelbaum