Strayhorn connection was based on a telephone call I had with Ran Blake of the Third Stream Department at the New England Conservatory. Previously, Ran Blake had contacted me to be part of his departments end of the year concert with students and the feature subject at that time was Billie Holiday.
He invited Manny Williams and I to take part in the concert doing one of Billie’s premier selections, No More, which was a really difficult song to perform. In fact, many singers do not attempt to sing it even today. That Jordan Hall performance was a huge success and Ran called me to participate again only this time he wanted me to perform with several of his students and the song was Day Dream, and the end of the year subject matter was Billy Strayhorn.
When Ran introduced me to the musicians, one who was bassoonist, Janet Grice, it was obvious that it was going to be an interesting interplay, with guitar, harp, trombone and bassoon. The musicians and I discussed what they had planned to play, and the composition was already composed and rehearsed. I listened to their interpretation and immediately liked it. It was an instrumental interlude that fitted the concept perfectly as an introduction for the song. I told them that I was already intrigued and informed them that I had the perfect idea on how we should perform the piece. They were excited.
Ron Gill sings “Satin Doll”
My idea was to place them on stage in a semi-circle, with a dim lit stage, and with a spotlight focused down where I would stand when I was performing. The music they played was a feature for them, and near the end of their performance, I would walk into the center of the spotlight and start the song. The performance of the song was electrifying and the applause was almost deafening. The musicians were stunned at their performance and It was a stellar performance for me. Ran Blake was ecstatic, as he was at the Billie Holiday performance previously. When I walked off the stage that night, I said to myself, “Who the hell is Billy Strayhorn?” It took me 20 years to find out.
Billy Strayhorn was no stranger to me. I knew some of his songs associated with Ellington, Day Dream, being one of them. I also appreciated the instrumentals and recordings that he and Duke composed and recorded, andI was playing them on my radio show at WGBH. But, I now had a new experience that would take up my time. I was determined to search and find Billy’s material, and it was not easy. There were few recordings of his music. There basically was not any sheet music available, and I took on the search with a vengence, talking with all the people I knew and doing as much reading about what I was seeking at the time. I also found remnants from my own record collection, and over the years there was dribs and drabs of material that was finally released. It still was not enough for me in my investigation.
Finally, I had some luck. I found an LP recording of an unknown singer in New York who put together a personal collection of many of the songs that Billy composed. When I heard the songs it was apparent that this was the collection I was seeking, and the material that I already found made up the bulk of the songs that I had put together. From 1977 until 1997, I had finally completed my search so that I could plan a performance of the material.
In 1996 I spoke with several associates to induce them to join me in performing the songs and, in fact, recording the songs. I didn’t have any luck. One person, who was working at the Museum Of Fine Arts in Boston, Craig Bailey, who was a photographer, and a tenant in the building where I lived, was literally hounding me to call an associate in the Museum’s Education Department, Tamsen George. I told him that I knew her because she was a friend of my drummer, Reid Jorgensen. He insisted I call her. I called her finally, and set up a lunch meeting in the summer of 1996.
Tamsen and I had a good lunch, renewed our friendships, and discussed my project. Her comment finally was, let’s do it and let’s set a date. The date was set for March 19, 1997, two days after my birthday, and when I left our meeting, all my plans were forming in my head and it was full steam ahead.
There was much to do and plan, deciding on the musicians and instrumentation. Putting together dates for rehearsals, music sheets, concepts of the music and how it should be executed. One of the things that I realized was that it all came down to my responsibility on how to pull it off. I had no doubt about the execution of the project and I had no doubt about its success. All of the people who should be involved would come later. I knew exactly what I had to do to prepare for the event.
The band members I chose were from the musicians that I counted on for years and even though we were doing different projects at the time, I was sure that once I outlined this project to them, they would be more than interested to be part of it. Thus, the initial band members were Manny Williams, piano, Reid Jorgensen, drums and Ron Mahdi on bass. I needed two more musicians to complete the band that were important to how I performed the intended music and I introduced, Berklee musician and guitarist, John Stein, to the group, because I felt that John had the sensitivity and experience as a recording artist on his own, and an old friend, Billy Thompson, that I knew had the sound, experience and flexibility on his instruments, saxophones and flute, to complete the sound I wanted. Thus, the Strayhorn concert band was formed.
While I spent time discussing the music and the concept of the project, I spent much time laying out the musical concepts of the music. I had already established the songs that I wanted to sing, and I also wanted to find a way that I would determine how the songs were sung and delivered. That was very important to me. Through much discussion with the band members and counting on their tastes and experience playing the material, we finally decided the way it should be done.
Finally, the day was coming for the final rehearsals and we were ready as we could be.
Also, I had many discussions previously in the months preparing the program with Tamsen, and besides the music there were other important plans I had on how the final preperations would take place during the concert and how it looked in its final stages. It truly was an exciting time, and when the night came on the eve of the concert, a sold out crowd was in attendance, a recording session by radio station, WGBH, was ready, the guest speaker was in position, David Hajdu, to read an excerpt from his best selling book, Lush Life, on the Biography of Billy Strayhorn, and all the publicity we planned was also ready to go.
The concert was a huge success and we had critically acclaimed reviews. One of my delights of the evening was the attendance at the concert, to my surprise, of Billy Strayhorn’s uncle, Greg Morris and his daughter, which meant a lot to me. He was very happy to be there at the event, and he would later offer a review of that night’s performance in the family newsletter that he produced. I have a copy of that newsletter.
A few weeks later, savoring the outcome of the concert, I received a telephone call from John Voci at WGBH. John informed me that after much discussion in the aftermath of the concert, there was an interest to record the entire Strayhorn material in the WGBH recording studio with the outcome being the completion of a WGBH produced CD product. I was astonished and delighted at the same time, and in the months forthcoming we prepared for the recording date, especially performing other appearances doing the Strayhorn repertoire. An August date was set for the recording and the Strayhorn songs were finally recorded for the first time in its entirety to be distributed as a mainstream recording.