'Sweetpea:' Billy Strayhorn, A Tribute To A Musical Icon

I couldn't believe I was going to a music festival honoring the famous Billy Strayhorn at the Auditorium Theater of Roosevelt University in Chicago -- "Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn." It felt as if I was attending a homecoming of sorts. He had been a part of my life even before I was born and I knew all about him from a "family" point of view. You see my father -- Rex Stewart -- played with the Duke Ellington Orchestra for more than 15 years and Billy Strayhorn was an integral part of the orchestra during my dad's entire tenure.

When my father talked about "Sweetpea" it was with reverence, awe, affection, humor and respect. He would tell me that Billy was the most creative person he ever met in the jazz world, and when he finished working with a musical piece it was better, fuller and richer than it was when he started. He was part of our "family." In fact, when my sister was about five dad had to take her to Carnegie Hall for an Ellington band rehearsal -- I guess my mom was not available to watch her and Ellington was a taskmaster about being on time. So off he went with my sister in her pretty yellow dress. The story goes that Billy was asked to "babysit" her while they rehearsed and he agreed. During the rehearsal he would hand my sister -- Helena -- handfuls of chocolates. She was happy and enjoyed the attention and the chocolates even if they melted in her hands. At the conclusion of the rehearsal when dad went to retrieve her, Helena's dress was streaked with multiple chocolate hand prints! Dad was not happy and knew he had some explaining to do to my mom. I was told that Billy wasn't upset at all and told him, how delightful my sister had been and that he did her job, as she didn't cause any problems during the rehearsal. To this day my sister remembers Billy as one of the nicest people she ever met.

Years later when telling this story dad laughed at the situation and also said Billy was a real gentleman and how grateful he was that he treated his young daughter with such kindness. This is the Billy Strayhorn I was aware of and dad said we were all "family."

When you are around music and the entertainment business from childhood you really accept the things going on around you as part of your normal everyday life. I met many jazz greats, hung out at jazz festivals, and absorbed the music around me as just part of my life. But my dad made sure I knew whom Billy Strayhorn was.

Darius deHaas, a well-regarded musical artist and Broadway actor was one of the major performers at the "Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn," salute, and spoke of this feeling of family too. He remembered at six hearing Billy's music in his home. His mom is Geraldine deHaas -- a jazz singer and founder of Chicago's South Shore Jazz Festival who played his music all the time. He also told us that he felt Billy made it possible for someone like himself to be successful in the world of music and performance today. Billy Strayhorn was active during the civil rights period and a strong champion of gay rights way before it was considered a topic to openly discuss.

However, at the Lush Life Festival and concert, it was the music that touched your soul and the performance of The Rookery Festival Choir, the exquisite Joel Hall Dancers, and listening to the beautiful, talented Joan Curto sing "Sweetpea's" songs, made it all come alive. Alan Broadbent on the piano played with such feeling and clearly conveyed his love for the music with his phrasings and deft touch. The Too Hot To Handel Orchestra, added to this magical, musical evening with their familiarity with how they played Strayhorn's music. My favorite pieces - deHaas' beautiful, seductive rendition of "Lush Life" and "Pretty Girl", Joan's "Satin Doll", and Alan's "Cashmere Cutie." "Take the 'A' Train" was the finale and the Joel Hall Dancers embodied the spirit and energy of the Harlem Renaissance - graceful, energetic, and colorful.

Thank you Auditorium Theater for presenting this one of a kind musical tribute to Billy Strayhorn. I was able to reconnect to my heritage, through music that meant so much to my family, Darius' family but the family of people who understood Billy Strayhorn's contribution to the music world -- Bravo!

Granny Regina Stewart Fraser

Thinking about that "A Train" to Harlem.

"Sweetea" Billy Strayhorn