Jazzed in Cleveland

Part Thirty-One
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Story filed November 11, 1997

Harry Herforth of Cleveland Heights has some very special memories of an artist who may have been one of the most important figures in jazz history. Harry Herforth grew up in Pittsburgh with Billy Strayhorn.

"We were in grade school together in the Homewood-Brushton area," says Herforth. "He was in my class in 1925. He was 11 and I was 10. It wasn’t until I became a trumpet student that our burning interest in music brought us together. We discovered we were simpatico."

Herforth became the boyhood best friend of Strayhorn who was born in Dayton in 1915 and later became a composer, arranger, pianist and alter ego to Duke Ellington. He wrote Ellington’s theme song, "Take the ‘A’ Train."

Herforth remembers, "Sometimes he would come to my house. Sometimes I would go to his house. His family lived in an alley. Had to go in a little alley to get to his home. We were both dirt poor. Our love of music and books brought us together."

While his family was struggling for money in the 1920s, young Strayhorn worked at number of odd jobs to save enough money to buy an old upright piano. Herforth recalls, "When I went to his home, sometimes I would have to wait for him in the house, there was nothing in the living room except the piano. Nothing! His father would come in covered with plaster dust because he was a plasterer. There was no exchange. The rest of the family were somewhere off in the distance. But, despite that environment, Billy, from the beginning, from my earliest recollection, had an elegance and a style. He was refined."

David Hajdu, in his biography of Strayhorn, Lush Live, said Billy’s father was a bitter man who all but ignored his quiet son. But, his mother, Lillian, had graduated from a two-year course at Shaw University, had an ear for elegant speech, and a reputation for formality. Herforth says she apparently instilled a love of books in young Billy Strayhorn.

"I was an avid reader and so was he," says Herforth. "He was far ahead of me. I remember he was telling me one time he had read a marvelous book by Faulkner, Sanctuary. I got Sanctuary and I couldn’t make head nor tail of it."

In their early teens, Herforth and Strayhorn took long walks together in Pittsburgh’s Frick Park and talked. "Mostly books and music," says Herforth. "I know we did not talk about girls. There was no sexual reference at all. We didn’t talk about race relationships. We just seemed to accept he was black; I was white. So what?"

Sometimes the two boys would walk to nearby clothing stores. "Billy and I both shared a love of fine clothes," says Herforth, "the clothes that we couldn’t afford. We used to go window shopping, look at high-priced, expensive shoes, expensive suits, expensive hats. And, each one of us promised the other, when we got where we were going to go financially and professionally, we were going to dress well."

But, more than anything else, Strayhorn and Herforth shared an interest in music. Billy was playing the piano and Harry the trumpet. "When I needed an accompanist," recalls the Cleveland Heights resident, "Billy was there and ready and played my piano accompanist for me to play in public."

Eventually, the two boyhood friends went to high school and played in the school orchestra together. In those days, in the early 1930s, Strayhorn and Herforth were not playing jazz; they were playing classical music. When Strayhorn graduated from Westinghouse High School in 1934, he soloed with the school orchestra. Their music teacher, Carl McViker, said more than 50 years later, "The orchestra may have been a group of students, but Billy Strayhorn was a professional artist."

Herforth recalls, "I was there in the orchestra when he played the Grieg Piano Concerto. A marvelous memory! This young, impoverished black young man, playing the Grieg Piano Concerto from memory in front of the whole audience. That memory still blows me away!"

After high school, Strayhorn was beginning to compose. "I was working and going to orchestra rehearsal on Wednesday night," remembers Herforth. "I stopped at the drug store where Billy was working. As we took a walk, he asked me, ‘What do you think about this?’ He sang the opening lines of a song he had composed called ‘Lush Life.’ I thought it was fantastic." Herforth may have been the first person to hear the song, written by the teenaged Strayhorn, that later became a jazz classic.

According to Herforth, Strayhorn "admitted a marvelous and undying admiration for the lyrics of Cole Porter, those super sophisticated things. That’s where he got his model, if he needed one. But Lush Life is as super sophisticated as anything Porter came up with." Even today, more than six decades later, Herforth becomes emotional when he hears the song his old childhood friend had written. "It brings me to the point of tears sometimes. It chokes me up that Bill could not be even more renowned, that Billy could not have lived long enough to see recognition come his way."

Herforth went to the New England Conservatory and eventually played trumpet with the Boston Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra.

When Herforth went home to Pittsburgh 1938, Strayhorn told him he had been listening to the music of Duke Ellington and shared a secret plan with his longtime friend. "He told me that Ellington was coming to Pittsburgh to play at the Stanley Theatre and he, Billy, would like to take a group of his compositions and show them to Ellington. And I remember saying, ‘Do it! Do it!’ I’m sure he would have done it without my encouraging, but that is what got Ellington and Strayhorn together."

A man Strayhorn had met at the drug store where he was working arranged for the young piano player to meet Ellington who immediately asked him to play. Strayhorn began playing "Sophisticated Lady" and said, "Mr. Ellington, this is the way you played this number in the show. Now, this is the way I would play it."

Three months later, Ellington made his first recording of a Strayhorn song. Within a year Ellington recorded a series of Strayhorn tunes, including one he adopted as his new theme song. "Take the ‘A’ Train" which has also become a jazz classic.

Strayhorn became an indispensable part of the Duke Ellington American jazz saga and a legend among musicians.

In June of 1961, the Ellington Orchestra came to Cleveland to play a joint concert with the Cleveland Orchestra. Playing trumpet with the Cleveland Orchestra at the time was Strayhorn’s old boyhood friend, Harry Herforth. "We had a joyful hug and a glad reunion," remembers Herforth.. I asked him if he could come out to the house for dinner and he said, ‘yes.’ "I drove downtown later in the afternoon, picked him up, and brought him out to our house on Berkshire Road in Cleveland Heights. We had dinner, this elegant young man, elegant in every aspect -- speech and dress, demeanor. I’m sure he charmed my whole family because my children, even as adults, remembered Billy."

Looking back on that family dinner with Strayhorn in Cleveland Heights, Herforth says Billy, who died seven years later, should have been much more appreciated by the general public. Herforth, who became an outstanding classical trumpeter and a teacher for more than 50 years, remembers his long friendship with jazz giant Billy Strayhorn as a highlight of his career.

CLICK HERE for the last installment of "Jazzed in Cleveland"

Copyright 1997 Joe Mosbrook

You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. Mosbrook's 1993 Cleveland Jazz History book, based on research for earlier broadcasts, is available from some Cleveland area bookstores, libraries, and the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society (216-397-9900).