The centennial of the inimitable jazz composer Billy Strayhorn doesn't come around until 2015, but, in a way, the festivities will begin this weekend in the Chicago area.
A three-day Billy Strayhorn Jazz Festival organized by the Music Institute of Chicago in association with Billy Strayhorn Songs Inc. – which manages the composer's published works – will cast a spotlight on rarely heard works and span multiple media. Film, performance and conversation on all things Strayhorn will converge at the Music Institute's Nichols Concert Hall, in Evanston, featuring such leading musicians as trumpeter Terell Stafford, reedist Victor Goines and vocalist Tammy McCann.
Among the attractions, the festival will include a screening of the documentary film "Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life," with discussion featuring filmmaker Robert Levi and author David Hajdu (Friday evening); the Terell Stafford Quintet performing "This Side of Strayhorn" (Saturday evening); and Goines, McCann, the Northwestern University Jazz Orchestra and others playing music of Strayhorn and compositions he wrote with Duke Ellington (Sunday afternoon).
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In addition, the Music Institute is establishing a Billy Strayhorn Scholarship in Jazz Studies, with "funds to be awarded annually to school age students from underserved communities throughout the greater metropolitan Chicago Area," according the festival's program book. And a Billy Strayhorn Song Writing Contest at the Music Institute of Chicago accepted entries until Oct. 15, with prizewinners to be announced during the festival.
Not that the folks at either the Music Institute or Billy Strayhorn Songs originally anticipated anything quite so ambitious.
"What happened was I had attended a number of events at the Music Institute – I'm into classical voice – and I noticed they had started a jazz program," says Alyce Claerbaut, a longtime Chicagoan who is Strayhorn's niece and president of Strayhorn Songs.
So Claerbaut introduced herself to Music Institute officials, who recognized a major opportunity when they heard one.
"When I met Alyce almost a year ago, I thought she was just a nice woman who attended our concerts and wanted to chat," says Music Institute president and CEO Mark George.
"When she casually revealed that she was Billy Strayhorn's niece, the hairs on my neck stood up. OK, I want to know about this. I knew exactly who Billy Strayhorn was, and I knew this was a big deal, and we started talking."
Before long, the screening of a documentary film evolved into a fuller exploration of a composer deeply admired by connoisseurs but not widely known by the general public. For though practically everyone is familiar with the name of Duke Ellington, who collaborated with Strayhorn but also also overshadowed him, few realize Strayhorn is the genius who penned everything from "Take the 'A' Train" to "Lush Life" to large chunks of Ellington's orchestral suites and stage works.
That the Music Institute, which for decades has championed classical repertory and education, should embrace Strayhorn makes a great deal of sense, for there are unmistakable classical elements to the composer's work (and to Ellington's, as well). The refinement and sophistication of Strayhorn's orchestral arrangements, the complexity of his chordal structures and the delicacy of much of his songwriting can be compared to that of Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky and other 20th century classical masters.
Certainly they're of comparable caliber, though they're steeped in jazz and blues sensibilities.
As of press time, the rarities planned for the weekend's music-making include Strayhorn's songs "Bittersweet" and "Your Love Has Faded," preceding Friday night's film screening; Strayhorn's "Lana Turner" and "Johnny Come Lately," among other works, performed by Stafford's quintet on Saturday evening; and piano interludes such as Strayhorn's "Valse" and "Cashmere Cutie" and the Strayhorn-Ellington "Strange Feeling" (the latter two from "The Perfume Suite"), during Sunday afternoon's concert.
All of which could be revelatory to casual listeners and of historic note to connoisseurs.
"When people encounter him," says Claerbaut of her uncle, who died in 1967 at age 51, "they are amazed that this person could be this great and not known better."
True enough, but if it comes off successfully, this weekend could represent an important step in illuminating Strayhorn's legacy.
"We want to use this kick-off as a model for other cities and organizations," says Claerbaut, who says she hopes to see these celebrations spreading around the world as the centennial approaches.
Considering the stature of Strayhorn's work, he deserves no less.
Following is the complete lineup for the Billy Strayhorn Jazz Festival:,
"Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life." Robert Levi's award-winning documentary recalibrates Strayhorn's position in American culture and unflinchingly illuminates his subordination to Duke Ellington. A panel discussion moderated by WBEZ's Richard Steele will feature Levi, Strayhorn biographer David Hajdu, trumpeter Terell Stafford and Chicagoan Alyce Claerbaut, president of Billy Strayhorn Songs. $10; 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Terell Stafford Quintet: "This Side of Strayhorn." The hard-hitting trumpeter plays music from his album of the same name, leading his quintet, with saxophonist Tim Warfield, pianist Bruce Barth, bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Dana Hall. $10-$30; 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Terell Stafford and Guests. The trumpeter shares the bill with reedist Victor Goines, vocalist Tammy McCann, trumpeter Victor Garcia, drummer Ernie Adams and the Northwestern University Jazz Orchestra; $10-$30; 3 p.m. Sunday.
All events are at the Music Institute of Chicago's Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston; a three-day pass for the entire series also is available. Phone 847-905-1500, ext. 108 or visit musicinstitute.org.
Also worth hearing:
Willie Pickens Quintet. The octogenarian pianist is playing with as much power and focus as ever, plus a degree of inventiveness and daring one does not expect from players who have nothing left to prove. He'll be joined by trumpeter Pharez Whitted, saxophonist Todd Herbert, bassist Dennis Carroll and drummer Robert Shy. 9 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $12; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com.
Bobby Lewis. One of the most lyrically inspired players in Chicago jazz, Lewis draws tones and silken phrases from the trumpet that elude most others. 5, 6 and 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Andy's Jazz Club, 11 E. Hubbard St.; $10 before 7:30 p.m.; $15 after 7:30 p.m.; 312-642-6805 or andysjazzclub.com.
Maggie Brown. The daughter of the magnificent singer-songwriter Oscar Brown Jr. has remained a steadfast champion of his work, as well as a charismatic presence in her own right. She appears under the auspices of the Hyde Park Jazz Society, which has enjoyed great success with these intimate, Sunday-evening sessions. 7:30 to 11:30 p.m. Sunday at Room 43, 1043 E. 43d St.; $10; hydeparkjazzsociety.com.