Imagine for a moment that you grew up in the slums outside of Pittsburg in the 1920’s. Two of your three older siblings died in infancy and no one expected you to make it, either. In fact, you weren’t even given a name until you were five years old, when the family stopped referring to you as Baby Boy and began to call you William.
Now imagine that you spent much of your childhood in the parlor of a brothel. There was a Victrola, stocked with music that young people rarely had the chance to hear. “Race records,” they were called. Early jazz. You couldn’t even read, but you memorized every song and could easily find a tune just by looking at the album covers. Imagine spending a summer teaching yourself to play the piano at your grandmother’s house in North Carolina, then taking a job in your teenage years just so you could buy your own.
Who knew that these and other events, including the fact that a radical music teacher would join the faculty of your high school at exactly the right time, would be so perfectly synchronized, so aptly timed as to poise you for becoming one of the greatest composers in jazz history?
Imagine that you are Billy Strayhorn. Like us, Billy struggled to be himself amidst what society was telling him he should be. Being a black man during an era rife with racial prejudice was tough enough, but to be a homosexual in a career dominated by straight men? That took courage. And Billy Strayhorn had courage; yet he chose to remain in the shadow of Duke Ellington, allowing him to take credit for much of his work simply because he didn’t want his private life in the public spotlight. In his later years, Billy became a highly respected friend of Dr. Martin Luther King. He knew Billy was gay and that he, like Bayard Rustin (King’s advisor on tactics for non-violent resistance), would further the fight for civil rights simply because he had the courage to come out.
Now imagine what Billy would think about a gay men’s chorus performing a tribute to his music 42 years after his death. Imagine that he knows the gay men’s choruses of New York and Los Angeles commissioned the greatest jazz arranger alive to score it. Imagine him knowing that the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus and Jazz Orchestra Atlanta are presenting it as part of something called the National Black Arts Festival. Imagine him knowing that the closest family friends to Dr. King, the Abernathy’s, are going to be present and that his own nephew will be here to celebrate.
Once again, we are poised for greatness. The stars have aligned, much as they did for Billy, and we are once again blessed to lift our voices together in celebration of who we are and what we stand for.
To pay tribute to Billy’s genius, to partner with the National Black Arts Festival, and to do it on holy ground seems an opportunity almost inconceivable, but here we are.
On Thursday night, we will begin rehearsals for one of the biggest concerts in AGMC history. And in the words of a recent audience member, we will do so with voices “strong, bold and fabulous.”
Ever up and onward.