Jazz artist Billy Strayhorn wrote some of Duke’s Ellington’s greatest hits during the band leader’s heyday. Yet, “Sweet Pea” Strayhorn, as he was known, remained largely unsung during his life as a composer, pianist and arranger.
Born in 1915, Strayhorn joined Ellington’s band at age 24, having spent time as a child in Hillsborough, where his grandmother had a home. He even attended his first year of school there. His family had deep roots in the Orange County town and his grandmother was the one who introduced him to the piano.
Now, Los Angeles choreographer David Roussève has created a dance/theater piece exploring the texture of Strayhorn’s emotional life as a black man who shunned fame but lived openly as a gay man even during the 1940s and ‘50s. Commenting on the jazz artist’s work, Roussève said, “The music is so beautifully composed. In its own day, some of it was pretty adventurous.”
He noted that Strayhorn’s music combines “absolute joy and celebration, often tinged with a little bit of pathos or sadness.
“His red colors musically are always engaged with his blue colors, and I just fell in love with that part of his music, that he was mixing the highs and the lows of life in one melodic line.”
This month, Roussėve and his company, REALITY, will present “Halfway to Dawn,” based on Strayhorn’s life and featuring 15 of his songs. Included will be Strayhorn’s most famous piece, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” composed in 1941.
Roussève theatrical dance piece was co-commissioned by NCSU, and its title comes from a phrase of Strayhorn’s. It will be shown as part of NC State LIVE in the Stewart Theatre within the Tally Student Union. Equally as important as Strayhorn’s music, according to Roussėve, is his life story. The jazz artist lived with his partner openly in Harlem until his death in 1967 at age 52. Roussève suggested Strayhorn may have sacrificed fame to live out his personal truth. Today, the choreographer said questions of fame, notoriety and public profile versus privacy, personal truth, integrity and artistic creation couldn’t be more relevant.
“Halfway to Dawn” is set to Strayhorn’s music with dancing, text and video, examining the emotional currents of the man’s life. The first part, in a jazz dance club, is more literal, less complicated, more emotional, Roussève said, describing it as a “post-modern musical theater piece.” The second part is more surreal.
“We’re trying to capture the essence of Billy Strayhorn’s soul in two different ways.”
One device used is a sad clown, real and projected. The clown, Roussève said, is a metaphor for Strayhorn.
“Always smiling, always amicable, just a lovely cheerful person, but by the end of his life as he drank and smoked himself to death, it was clear there was more turmoil, sadness, maybe a little bit of bitterness, inside of him,” Roussève said.
The choreographer founded his company in 1988 and decided on the name REALITY, along with his dancers, for as he said, “We thought, wow, we’re really invested in reality being reflected on the stage.”
Roussève grew up in Houston, Texas, going to acting school at age 5. For college, Princeton University recruited him although he said he wasn’t sure even where Princeton, N.J., was. The choreographer majored in pre-law, also taking dance, theater and African studies. Graduating magna cum laude, Roussève headed for downtown Manhattan and its arts scene, and never looked back. Since 1996, he has been a tenured professor of choreography at UCLA.
He admitted he misses the vast, coherent community of art makers on the East Coast, known often for addressing similar issues. But instead, as he noted, “In LA, the sky’s the limit. “You are required to find your own voice. I kind of like that sense of the wild, wild West when it comes to choreography.”
On show night, NC State LIVE will sponsor a jazz bus from Hillsborough in honor of Strayhorn’s roots. More events are planned both in Hillsborough and Raleigh. As for Duke Ellington’s take on Billy Strayhorn, he’s known to have said: “…Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.”
What: David Rousseve/REALITY: “Halfway to Dawn”
Where: NC State LIVE, Stewart Theatre, NCSU’s Talley Student Center
When: Saturday, March 2, 8 p.m.; pre-show talk with David Roussève, 7 p.m. Talley Student Union, Room 3285.