Billy Strayhorn was a collaborator of Duke Ellington, writing compositions identified with the Ellington Orchestra, most famously his theme song “Take the A-Train,” as well as impressionist-sounding instrumental numbers like “Chelsea Bridge” and “Rain Check.” If Ellington is one of the most prominent American composers of the twentieth century, then Strayhorn is as well, since many compositions associated with the better known band leader were actually collaborations between the two men.
After I turned in the final version of my book Apocryphal Lorca to the publishers, I began to prepare to teach a course on jazz for the Honors Program at the University of Kansas. Reading two biographies of Billy Strayhorn, I came across (to my delight and horror) story that should have been included in my book: Strayhorn had set to music texts for a production of Lorca’s Los amores de don Perlimplín y Belisa en su jardín, at the Artist’s Theatre in New York. I was horrified at my discovery, of course, for the simple reason that it was too late to include this information in my book. (I had other jazz references in my book, to Miles Davis and Ralph Ellison, but this anecdote had escaped my attention.) Delighted because this anecdote confirmed many of its central central themes: Strayhorn was an openly gay black man during the exact period at issue in my examination of Lorca’s impact on American culture, the 1950s. I had included sections on gay and African American responses to Lorca, along with two chapters on poets of the New York school of poetry, poets who were also involved in the Artist’s Theatre in which Don Perlimplín was produced. Frank O’Hara, the subject of one of my chapters, had also written a play for this small theater. The production of Don Perlimplín in question featured an all-black cast in 1953. Press reports were few and negative.
The New Historicism has taught us both the value and the limitation of the “suggestive anecdote” as a critical framing device. “Strayhorn’s Lorca” is typical in numerous ways of the American reception of Lorca. The problem is that Strayhorn’s music had very little resonance for the later—or even the contemporaneous—reception of Lorca’s work in the US. The music was mostly forgotten until a portion of it was rescued by a Dutch musicologist and biographer, from whom I learned of it, and recorded the Dutch Jazz Orchestra. It had a escaped the attention of a Lorca scholar with a fairly extensive amateur interest in all things Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.
Despite the obscurity of the anecdote, it does provide confirmation of my contention that Lorca is a kind of multi-cultural hero ...