Concert Marks 103rd Birthday Of Jazz Great Billy Strayhorn

Nov 23, 2018

Billy Strayhorn wasn’t born in Pittsburgh. But he largely grew up here and got much of his musical training in Pittsburgh, too. On Saturday, the theater that bears his name honors his birthday with its 11th annual tribute concert.

Suite Life: The Billy Strayhorn Birthday Bash features a band led by local legend Roger Humphries playing an hour’s worth of songs by the great composer and arranger, including “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Lush Life.” The event takes place at East Liberty’s Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, jointly named for Strayhorn and another guy who grew up right around the way, Gene Kelly.

Strayhorn was born in Dayton, Ohio, on Nov. 29, 1915. His family moved to Pittsburgh when he was young, and he grew up shuttling between Homewood and his grandmother’s home, in North Carolina. Strayhorn graduated from Westinghouse High School and also studied at the Pittsburgh Music Institute.

His big break came one night in 1938, when a friend who worked at downtown’s Stanley Theatre (now the Byham) brought Strayhorn backstage to meet Duke Ellington, who was on tour. Ellington was impressed with Strayhorn’s piano playing and arranging ideas. Thus began a quarter-century of deep collaboration between the two men.

Strayhorn -- who was openly gay decades before that was common -- composed classics including the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s theme song, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and others that Ellington took full or partial credit for, music historians say. But the partnership continued until Strayhorn’s death from cancer in 1967, at age 51.

Humphries is the Pittsburgh-based drummer who, in a career reaching to the early 1960s, has played with everyone from Ray Charles to Lionel Hampton and Stanley Turrentine. Humphries and his band The RH Factor are regulars at Suite Life. Saturday, he and his eight piece band will play a set of Strayhorn favorites including “Day Dream,” “Chelsea Bridge” and “Satin Doll.”

The band includes vocalist Dred “Perky” Scott, bassist Duane Dolphin, and pianist Max Leake.

Humphries says he’s honored to play the tribute. “You think about it, as a young man, the music that [Strayhorn] wrote … then to be able to be hooked up with the one and only Duke Ellington,” says Humphries. “Not only that, he comes from Pittsburgh, and he’s one of the great artist that comes from Pittsburgh.”

The concert is at 8 p.m.

Admission to the concert is “pay what makes you happy.”