Musician and composer Billy Strayhorn’s music lives on.
A group of talented musicians and artists will gather together at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty to celebrate the prolific man’s life and music in a 96th birthday celebration entitled “Suite Life: A Billy Strayhorn Birthday Bash” at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater—which was named after Strayhorn and fellow artist Gene Kelly—on Saturday, Nov. 26 at 8 p.m.
This is the fourth year for the birthday celebration, which the theater started in 2008 as a tribute to Strayhorn. Both he and Gene Kelly’s birthday’s are celebrated yearly.
The former Regeant Theater was renamed the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in 2000 in honor of both Kelly and Strayhorn.
“Billy Strayhorn’s legacy isn’t really known here or appreciated as well as it should be. It’s known nationally and internationally, but it’s not always connected with Pittsburgh,” said Kelly Strayhorn Executive Director, Janera Solomon.
The evening promises to be beautiful as it will feature local and nationally known Jazz musicians including Roger Humpheries and a six-piece Jazz ensemble with three vocalists singing Strayhorn’s music; spoken word artist Leslie “Ezra” Smith will read a work that was commissioned for the occasion. Former Pittsburgh resident and Billy Strayhorn’s nephew, Dr. Greg Morris, will join in the celebration.
“We’re excited to have the program filled with Jazz artists and young artists,” said Solomon. “Ezra is an incredible young poet. People can expect an evening of great live music filled with classics.”
Billy Strayhorn was born in Dayton, Ohio, but his family moved to Pittsburgh’s Homewood section where he attended Westinghouse High School. His musical career began in the Golden Triangle when he studied music at the Pittsburgh Music Institute. Strayhorn met band leader Duke Ellington in 1939 after a performance in Pittsburgh. At that time, Strayhorn informed Ellington how he would have arranged one of Ellington’s songs. Strayhorn’s boldness enticed Ellington enough for him to invite his band to hear Strayhorn. Next, Ellington invited Strayhorn to New York and Strayhorn worked with Ellington for the next quarter century as an arranger, composer pianist and collaborator until Strayhorn’s death from cancer in 1937.
“It took me a while before I knew what kind of music he composed. But when he would come home to Pittsburgh, there would be a big celebration. When he got involved with Duke Ellington he sent me postcards from all over the world. I knew he was something special. I knew he was something very big. But I didn’t have a sense of how widely known he was and the music he made until after he died,” said Morris who now lives in Arizona.
Morris will be returning to Pittsburgh to take part in his uncle’s birthday celebration and he is excited to see what’s on tap for the evening.
Strayhorn’s most celebrated tunes including “Take The A Train,”“Lush Life” and “Something To Live For” (a collaboration with Duke Ellington) will be performed.
“These incredible, gifted musicians will represent Billy Strayhorn very well and they will show that his music lives on,” explained acclaimed Jazz drummer Roger Humpheries.
Tickets for “Suite Life: A Billy Strayhorn Birthday Bash” are $30 at the door, $25 in advance;$20 for residents of the 15206 zip code and $15 for students and artists with valid ID. Tickets can be purchased by visiting http://www.kelly-strayhorn.org or calling (412) 363-3000.
Attendees of the birthday bash are invited to partake in the pre-show mixer, which includes birthday cake, beginning at 7 p.m.
“Our family is honored by this celebration that keeps alive the memory and music of Billy Strayhorn,” Morris said.
He is working hard on his own to extend Billy Strayhorn’s legacy. Morris, along with Strayhorn’s heirs, have created Billy Strayhorn Songs, Inc. an initiative geared toward making people aware of Strayhorn’s breadth of music.
The musicians performing with Roger Humphries on drums are pianists Alton Merrell and Brett Williams; Tony DePaolis on bass; Emmett Goods on trombone; Jamie Moore on trumpet; Curtis Johnson on saxophonist and vocalists Maggie Johnson, Carolyne Perteete and Spanky Wilson.