Billy Strayhorn, jazz pioneer & Duke Ellington protégé, finally gets the spotlight in ‘Halfway to Dawn’

Billy Strayhorn was a groundbreaking composer-arranger during the American jazz movement of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s and protégé of Duke Ellington.

Strayhorn lived his life as an openly gay man who sidestepped the limelight and was largely unacknowledged for his pioneering musical achievements.

Choreographer-director-writer David Roussève wants Strayhorn to receive some of the long awaited attention he deserves.

In his dance-music piece “Halfway To Dawn,” Roussève blends dance, music, and abstract imagery to tell Strayhorn’s story.

“Halfway To Dawn” opens today and runs through Sunday at the Redcat theatre in downtown Los Angeles. Roussève will then take the production to the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in December.

Between 1939 and 1967, Strayhorn created up to 40 percent of the material for the Duke Ellington Orchestra, including the band’s signature song, “Take the A Train,” and “Lush Life.”

Strayhorn died of esophageal cancer at age 51 on May 31, 1967, in New York City in the arms of his boyfriend, Bill Grove.

In an interview with Q Voice News, Roussève, 58, talks about the inspiration for “Halfway To Dawn,” the personal impact Strayhorn had on Roussève, and why Roussève used an image of a clown in the production.

Here are some excerpts.

Billy Strayhorn

Billy Strayhorn, a composer-arranger and protégé of Duke Ellington, revolutionized the American jazz movement in the mid 20th century with his pioneering music skills. Strayhorn also lived his life as an openly gay man during an oppressive and homophobic era. Photo: William Gottlieb

‘Halfway’ to inspiration

The concept of “Halfway To Dawn” was born from a 1957 project written by Strayhorn and musician Luther Henderson that was meant for Broadway, but was never finished. A producer who had seen Roussève perform approached him about reviving the project. Three years of work and research later and the project never came to fruition, but Roussève wasn’t done with Strayhorn.

“I promised myself one day I was going to come back and work on this life of Billy Strayhorn, but on my own terms, for my own company,” Roussève says. “When I started my research, I fell head over heels in love not only with his music, but also with who he was as this out, gay, African-American man in Harlem in the 1940s and 50s, when it was not good for your mentality to be out, gay, and living anywhere in America. I just thought, This is a stupendous story that needs to be told.”

For Roussève, it was also personal

“As a gay man listening to music from a gay man from the 1940s and 50s, it was so quintessentially bittersweet,” Roussève says. “These deep, emotional textures. From my experience, as an African-American, queer man, I thought, How amazing that he’s writing those lines into his music. This is a figure in gay history that should be known.”

Ignored by the public

“If you check the gorgeous music pieces they wrote toward the end, it’s Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, equal crediting. But the public wouldn’t buy it. No one really cared about Billy Strayhorn,” Roussève says. “It says something really interesting about fame and publicity.

“Once the public had in their mind who and what Duke Ellington represents, there was very little room for this guy on the side.”

Tears of a clown

“The clown became really important to the piece. It’s the sad clown. That’s a metaphor for Billy Strayhorn,” Roussève says. “He was always known as being really chipper. His motto in life, was, Onward and upward.

“There’s this really great quote in Billy Strayhorn’s biography where he said, ‘It doesn’t bother me that Duke gets so much credit for the work. I’m legally credited.’ His friends would say that it was clearly eating him up because he was drinking and smoking so much. With the sad clown we were trying to find these images that would capture Strayhorn as presenting such a happy face on the outside, but this incredibly poignant resonance lived within him that you can hear in his music.”

Strayhorn’s story

Billy Strayhorn’s story is so vital to tell at this moment in time for a lot of different reasons,” Roussève says. “There’s this dialogue at the core of the piece around fame versus privacy versus personal truth. In Strayhorn’s era, he was this guy that said, ‘I don’t want to be famous. I’ll just sit in the back and do this work. It’s really about writing this exquisite body of work.’

“It’s really more about what you do than the fame that you get for doing it.”

Fame monster

“We live in this era of a reality television president and people who are famous for being famous,” Roussève says. “It’s a different world. Fame becomes the priority as opposed to the integrity of who you are or what you do. It was a great example of someone who chose a different path. I can’t imagine a more timely period for that conversation of integrity versus fame.”

About the author

Lauren Torres

Lauren Torres is a journalist who has watched enough "Investigation Discovery" to be obsessed with chasing investigations through writing for the rest of her life. When not chasing investigations or aliens, Torres writes non fiction, collects anything Spider-Man related, and eats copious amounts of Hot Cheetos while watching "The Office."

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