Humber’s musicians honour jazz legend Billy Strayhorn

by | Nov 13, 2015 | A&E

Jimmy Kakish
Arts and Entertainment Reporter

Most people have heard of jazz giant Duke Ellington, famed for compositions such as “Mood Indigo” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” which featured jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald.

However, many are unfamiliar with his innovative co-composer Billy ‘Swee’ Pea’ Strayhorn, responsible for co-composing one of Ellington’s best known tunes, “Take the ‘A’ Train.”

“‘Take the ‘A’ Train’ is pretty cool. I’m in a big band ensemble where we obviously play a lot of this type of swing music. I love it,” said Alex Lugli, 18, a musician and first year Humber Bachelor of Music student at Lakeshore campus.

Strayhorn’s skills are highly revered by composers and jazz aficionados and have been cited for influencing an entire generation of jazz musicians.

This evening, two weeks before the 100th anniversary of his birth, Strayhorn will be honoured by the Humber Studio Jazz ensemble and the Humber Faculty Quintet.

“I hope that we can introduce some people to Strayhorn’s music. I hope that when they hear it, they’re as captivated by it as those of us who play the music are,” said Nancy Walker, 58, an award-winning composer, pianist and adjunct professor in the music department at Humber Lakeshore campus.

“I also think that people who already know his music will be delighted to hear a few more obscure selections, along with the more familiar compositions,” she said.

“His compositions were groundbreaking at the time. No one else wrote songs in either pop music or jazz music [that were] as adventurous as [Strayhorn’s],” said Denny Christianson, Humber’s Director of Music at the School of Creative and Performing Arts.

It comes as no surprise that more people haven’t heard of Strayhorn, as Ellington took much of the credit for his work.
This vague lack of attribution didn’t appear to be malicious, though, as ‘Swee’ Pea’ was given credit verbally, as opposed to on the album itself.
Ellington would sometimes make jokes during his performances like: “Strayhorn does a lot of the work but I get to take the bows!”

‘Swee’ Pea’ died on May 31, 1967, of esophageal cancer in New York City.
For many Humber students, Billy Strayhorn is just another name associated with times past. However, members of the student body still recognize the importance of the tribute.

“It’s important to honour [artists like this] because most artists that become famous are famous for doing what they did in their own authentic way,” said Tyler Wood, 21, a musician and second year Humber College tourism management student.

“To me, anyone who does [music] for their own reasons is someone worth being praised for or looked up to,” he said.

 The tribute costs $5 for students and seniors and $10 for general admission and will be taking place in auditorium A128 at Lakeshore campus at 8 p.m.