Duke Ellington was thoroughly heterosexual and notoriously promiscuous; Billy Strayhorn was gay, shy, and had romantic relationships with only two men: he spent ten years with pianist Aaron Bridgers and three years with Bill Grove. Lena Horne, a longtime friend of Strayhorn and Ellington, noted that despite their different natures, "their relationship was very sexual. Don’t misunderstand—it wasn’t physical at all. Duke treated Billy exactly like he treated women, with all that old-fashioned chauvinism. Very loving and very protective, but controlling." As Hajdu wrote, "The relationship was largely psychosexual, though by no means physically homosexual." Their romance found its expression and union in the music they created together. (Picture: Aaron Bridgers)
Strayhorn was born in Dayton, Ohio. His family soon moved to the Homewood section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. However, his mother's family was from Hillsborough, North Carolina, and she sent him there to protect him from his father's drunken sprees. Strayhorn spent many months of his childhood at his grandparents' house in Hillsborough. In an interview, Strayhorn said that his grandmother was his primary influence during the first ten years of his life. He first became interested in music while living with her, playing hymns on her piano, and playing records on her Victrola record player.
Bridgers was introduced to Strayhorn as a perspective "partner" by Mercer Ellington, son of the Duke. A straight black man in 1939 introduced these two "gay" men to one another. Anyway, a year after their meeting, both Strayhorn and Bridgers moved in together. They were describe as being very affectionate toward one another. Even more importantly, those who knew them as a couple were respectful of the two men and their relationship. Considering the time in which both men lived this is impressive in so many ways.
Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Image courtesy of Sony Music, Photo by Don Hunstein
Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn
Aaron Bridgers, Billy Strayhorn and Billie Holiday
Shortly before Ellington went on his second European tour with his orchestra, from March to May 1939, Ellington announced to his sister Ruth and son Mercer Ellington that Strayhorn "is staying with us." Through Mercer, Strayhorn met his first partner, African-American musician Aaron Bridgers, with whom Strayhorn lived until Bridgers moved to Paris in 1947.
Strayhorn was openly gay. He participated in many civil rights causes. As a committed friend to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he arranged and conducted "King Fit the Battle of Alabam'" for the Ellington Orchestra in 1963 for the historical revue (and album) My People, dedicated to Dr. King.
Strayhorn's strong character left an impression on many people who met him. He had a major influence on the career of Lena Horne, who wanted to marry Strayhorn and considered him to have been the love of her life. Strayhorn used his classical background in guiding Horne's singing technique toward improvement. They eventually recorded songs together. In the 1950s, Strayhorn left his musical partner Duke Ellington for a few years to pursue a solo career of his own. He came out with a few solo albums and revues for the Copasetics (a New York show-business society), and took on theater productions with his friend Luther Henderson. Strayhorn’s compositions are known for the bittersweet sentiment and classically infused designs that set him apart from Ellington.
Strayhorn was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 1964, which eventually caused his death in 1967. Strayhorn finally succumbed in the early morning on May 31, 1967, in the company of his partner, Bill Grove. It has often been falsely reported that Strayhorn died in Lena Horne's arms. By her own account, Horne was touring in Europe when she received the news of Strayhorn's death. His ashes were scattered in the Hudson River by a gathering of his closest friends.
While in the hospital, he had submitted his final composition to Ellington. "Blood Count" was used as the first track to Ellington's memorial album for Strayhorn, …And His Mother Called Him Bill, which was recorded several months after Strayhorn's death. The last track of the album is a spontaneous solo version of "Lotus Blossom" performed by Ellington, who sat at the piano and played for his friend while the band (who can be heard in the background) packed up after the formal end of the recording session.
Aaron Bridgers (January 10, 1918 - November 3, 2003) was an African-American jazz pianist who moved to Paris, in 1947. Bridgers was jazz composer Billy Strayhorn's lover from 1939 until Bridgers' move to France.
Bridgers is featured in the Paul Newman film Paris Blues (1961).
Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time by Elisa Rolle
Paperback: 760 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition (July 1, 2014)
CreateSpace Store: https://www.createspace.com/4910282
Amazon (Paperback): http://www.amazon.com/dp/1500563323/?tag=e
Amazon (Kindle): http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00MZG0VHY/?tag=e
Days of Love chronicles more than 700 LGBT couples throughout history, spanning 2000 years from Alexander the Great to the most recent winner of a Lambda Literary Award. Many of the contemporary couples share their stories on how they met and fell in love, as well as photos from when they married or of their families. Included are professional portraits by Robert Giard and Stathis Orphanos, paintings by John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldini, and photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnson, Arnold Genthe, and Carl Van Vechten among others. “It's wonderful. Laying it out chronologically is inspired, offering a solid GLBT history. I kept learning things. I love the decision to include couples broken by death. It makes clear how important love is, as well as showing what people have been through. The layout and photos look terrific.” Christopher Bram “I couldn’t resist clicking through every page. I never realized the scope of the book would cover centuries! I know that it will be hugely validating to young, newly-emerging LGBT kids and be reassured that they really can have a secure, respected place in the world as their futures unfold.” Howard Cruse “This international history-and-photo book, featuring 100s of detailed bios of some of the most forward-moving gay persons in history, is sure to be one of those bestsellers that gay folk will enjoy for years to come as reference and research that is filled with facts and fun.” Jack Fritscher
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