WASHINGTON — An original manuscript of “Take the A Train,” compositional sketches that were never completed and a revealing look at the royalty earnings of one of the 20th century’s most revered composers: These are a few of the 18,000 documents collected in Billy Strayhorn’s personal archive, which is now available to the public at the Library of Congress.
The library announced its acquisition of the papers on Thursday. Researchers must go in person to access the collection, the Billy Strayhorn Musical Manuscripts and Estate Papers, which have not been digitized, but the library has created a digital finding aid.
Many of the materials in the collection come from Strayhorn’s 25-year run as a member of Duke Ellington’s organization, where he was the bandleader’s closest collaborator and co-composer. But it also includes materials from Strayhorn’s youth — including an original handwritten manuscript of “Fantastic Rhythm,” the full-length musical he wrote while still in high school, and of “Something to Live For,” a now-classic piece composed before his years with Ellington — and from side projects throughout his life.
Of the collection, about 3,000 pieces are classified as music items, mostly sheet music. The rest are primarily royalty statements, business papers and letters Strayhorn received.
“One of the big messages of this archive is how distinct and unique and original a musical voice Strayhorn was,” said David Hajdu, the author of “Lush Life,” a landmark Strayhorn biography.
“It’s a testament not only to the depth of his contribution to the world of Duke Ellington, but a testament to the breadth of his work away from Ellington and apart from Ellington,” he said. “This archive is staggering.”
By placing Strayhorn’s papers at the Library of Congress, rather than at the nearby Smithsonian Institution, which houses Ellington’s papers, the estate is making a symbolic point about Strayhorn’s stand-alone genius.
“I wanted to make sure that Billy Strayhorn got credit for everything that he did, and didn’t get covered up by others,” said Gregory Morris, Strayhorn’s nephew and the executor of his estate. Dr. Morris had housed the collection in his basement for half a century, following Strayhorn’s death in 1967.
Strayhorn’s contributions to the orchestra sometimes went uncredited, and scholars such as Mr. Hajdu have spent years attempting to unravel the mystery of who truly wrote what. The archive, which includes royalty statements and some limited correspondence between Strayhorn and Ellington, offers some answers.
What the archive does not contain is a sizable paper trail of letters from Strayhorn: “He wasn’t a letter writer, he was a social creature,” Mr. Hajdu said. And it includes only one letter from Aaron Bridgers, the pianist who was Strayhorn’s longtime romantic companion.
But it also contains a handwritten Strayhorn essay on harmony, and a transcript of his speech to the New York Chapter of the Duke Ellington Society in 1962.
In that address, he talks almost cursorily about “Lush Life,” one of jazz’s great masterpieces. “I never intended for it to be published,” Strayhorn says of the song, which he composed in high school. “After it was finished, I had it, and I had no plans for it.”
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