Kelly Strayhorn ‘Suite Life’ birthday bash celebrates life of composer Billy Strayhorn

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Gregory Morris is sure his uncle, the incomparable Billy Strayhorn, would have been proud of the lineup the Kelly Strayhorn Theater put together to celebrate Strayhorn’s 97 birthday.

sean-jones
SEAN JONES playing trumpet

The fifth annual “Suite Life A Billy Strayhorn Birthday Bash” was held at East Liberty’s Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, which is named for musicians Billy Strayhorn and Gene Kelly, both who lived in Pittsburgh.

“We’ve always had great artists during Suite Life,” explained Kelly Strayhorn Theater Executive Director Janera Solomon. “The musicians and the music has always been great. I wanted to have a celebration where different kinds of people from different backgrounds could enjoy music by the best musicians in a great, artistically sound environment. Each year we try to find something new and different.”

The Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra headlined the night performing some of Strayhorn’s biggest hits like “Lush Life” and “Take the A Train.”

“Uncle Billy would be proud,” explained Morris executor of Billy Strayhorn Estate and board of directors at large member of the Billy Strayhorn Songs, Inc. organization. “Billy went to key musicians and he wrote music for each instrument. He was very concerned about musicians playing his music. He would have been very pleased with the passion and vitality that these men have demonstrated here tonight. These men are professionals and that’s what it takes.”

William Thomas “Billy” Strayhorn was born in Dayton in 1915 but moved to Homewood in 1920 and attended Westinghouse High School. After meeting Jazz great Duke Ellington in 1938 after Ellington performed in the Golden Triangle, Strayhorn joined Ellington’s band a year later.

Ellington quickly took the prolific 22-year-old shy musician under his wing. By the end of 1939, Strayhorn had become an essential part of the band, composing and arranging gems like “Take the A Train,” “Lush Life” and “Chelsea Bridge.” Strayhorn died of Esophageal cancer in 1967 at the age of 51.

“Billy is well known, but he is an unsung hero. The depth of his music is incredible. There are very few songwriters who are their won lyricists. The lyrics are so striking and the whole amazing body of Billy’s own work tends to be amazing, especially in the Jazz realm,” explained saxophonist and Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra Co-Artistic Director, Mike Tomoro.

That was evident with the sold-out crowd that attended the Kelly Strayhorn Theater event.

“I did the first two Suite Life’s as a quintet and to see it grow is a testament to the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. It was great to play at the Kelly Strayhorn. The audience got a musical education. Billy was one of the greatest composers America has ever seen,” said Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra’s Artistic Director and trumpeter Sean Jones.

Solomon believes the universal appeal of music is what caused the event to be successful.

“This was about music spanning generations,” Solomon said. “A great song is a great song and it lasts forever.”

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