Billy Strayhorn and Art from the Shadows

Billy StrayhornOn this day in 1803, the great physicist Christian Doppler was born. He is the man who explained the Doppler Effect. This is what you hear when a train passes by you. As it approaches, the frequency of the sound is high and while it moves away from you the frequency of the sound is lower. It’s really simple: as the train approaches you, the sound waves get bunched together and so they have a higher frequency. Think of a guy on top of a train throwing baseballs at you every second. They would hit you more than once a second as the train is approaching and less than once a sound as the train departed.

Doppler wasn’t looking at this problem at all. He was looking at stars. He noted that if a star was moving toward us, its color frequency would be higher and thus bluer; if it was moving away, it would be be redder. It would take Einstein’s work 52 years after Doppler’s death to fully work out the theory.

The great film director and choreographer Busby Berkeley was born in 1895. He created such iconic musicals that his name has become a descriptive term. I always assumed he was gay, but that was really silly. You can tell by the way he shoots women that he loves them. And plenty of them! He was married six times! Here is “We’re in the Money” from Gold Diggers of 1933:

The writer C S Lewis was born in 1898. He is best known for The Chronicles of Narnia. I’m not a big fan. But I’m really interested in his Christian apologetics. Some time ago, I came up with an idea, Jesus: God or Nut? The idea is that Jesus claimed (or at least heavily implied many times) that he was God. So he was either God or some deluded guy. Well, I later found out that Lewis made this exact same argument in favor of Jesus being God. I guess the idea is that no reasonable person could claim that Jesus was insane. Personally, a man who walks around telling people the end is nigh has more than a few screws loose.

Other birthdays: naturalist John Ray (1627); the first female physics professor at a European university Laura Bassi (1711); philosopher Andres Bello (1871); composer Gaetano Donizetti (1797); Russian Neoclassical painter Alexander Brullov (1798); neurology pioneer Jean-Martin Charcot (1825); Rocky’s crazy mother Jackie Stallone (92); the great musician John Mayall (80); actor Diane Ladd (79); musician Chuck Mangione (73); the great wrestler Jerry Lawler (64); comedian Garry Shandling (64); the great filmmaker Joel Coen (59); comedian Howie Mandel (58); actor Andrew McCarthy (52); actor Don Cheadle (49); and actor Tom Sizemore (49).

The day, however, belongs to the great jazz composer Billy Strayhorn who was born on this day in 1915. He is closely aligned with Duke Ellington and it is sometimes hard to decouple them. Strayhorn is the ultimate artist; he didn’t especially want recognition. And there are clearly times where he should have got full credit but only got partial or none at all. But there is no doubt that he needed Ellington who really did treat him well. Here is the man himself playing “Take the ‘A’ Train”:

Happy birthday Billy Strayhorn!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Billy Strayhorn and Art from the Shadows

  1. I haven’t read Lewis in two decades, but I remember that argument. I think it was in "Mere Christianity," but I could be wrong. Anyhoo, Lewis’s take was against those who regard Christ as "a useful moral teacher" but not divine. Correctly, IMO, Lewis responded that a man claiming the right to have followers and preach to thousands on the basis of his supposed divinity is either divine, or not a good moral example.

    However, this is assuming (as most everyone did back then, including most atheists) that the Gospel depictions of Jesus have some basis in reality. In fact they almost certainly have little if any basis in reality, even if such a person as Jesus existed, which we don’t know. So one can regard warmly whichever teachings of Jesus one admires, just as one would the morality of particular myths or legends.

    In fact Lewis does just this! His tract "The Abolition Of Man," an argument against relativism in education, dedicates the last section to quote after quote from philosophical traditions and sacred texts all over the globe. Lewis intends to show that there is in fact a universal morality, a universal right-‘n’-wrong, which should be taught to the young (and guess Who put that universal morality in us?)

    But surely Lewis would never suggest that his listeners/readers go out and become Muslims. He was an advocate for Christianity (ahead of his time, perhaps, in grouping together all Christians, regardless of denomination, as morally superior to all others.) Lewis would no doubt hold that Mohammed was insane. Why, then, does it make sense for Lewis to pick passages from the Koran he admires as useful moral teachings, but not for non-Christians to do the same with Christ?

  2. And, for fun . . .

    Just because, I went and read “The Governess” by Sarah Fielding. It’s mostly negligible (the 1987 introduction by Mary Cadogan is perhaps more useful than the novel.) But it has some curiosity value.

    The plot involves nine girls, ages 7-14, all badly in need of Moral Instruction, under the care of widowed headmistress Mrs. Teachum. After an initial display of rotten behavior in a squabble over treats, Mrs. Teachum uses the nicest, oldest girl to win over those disobedient younguns. This takes place through the use of stories (none, alas, very entertaining), which the oldest girl and Mrs. Teachum use to impart Virtue. In between the stories, the girls share their backgrounds in brief bios, describe how naughty they once were, and how much better they are now.

    The interesting thing is that while many of the moral lessons are harmless (be a good friend, but don’t enable a friend’s bad behavior; don’t be vain, don’t be cruel, standard fairy-tale stuff), at the bottom of most is Children Should Be Seen And Not Heard. (Oddly, Fielding describes the prettiness of each girl in detail — a redhead with freckles is ugly, for instance — although only the oldest could possibly be pubescent, and the prettiness or lack thereof isn’t used morally, say by having the prettiest be the most vain. The girls even meet a young unmarried lady who is not attractive but thinks she is, and THAT’s considered evil vanity.)

    It struck me that most children I know who behave like wild-eyed little brats are generally acting out from a lack of parental affection or an excess of parental fawning. Mrs. Teachum’s charges all seem to suffer from the same lousy parenting, which is really just treating a child as an annoyance or a trophy, rather than a person. Although it’s the parents at fault, Mrs. Teachum successfully turns their damaged goods into obedient little future marriage candidates. It’s like the first Charter School!

    Two little passages I enjoyed. One comes when the children are visiting the home of a local Nobleman, away on vacation, whose housekeeper extended the offer of a tour (with the Nobleman’s permission) to Mrs. Teachum. One child remarks at all the lavishly furnished rooms (called “apartments”); the eldest suggests that this is no guarantee of happiness, as “we may have more Pleasure in viewing those fine Things, than the Owners have in Possession of them.” The housekeeper responds that “my Lord and Lady have no Delight in all this Magnificence; for, by being so accustomed to it, they walk thro’ all these Apartments, and never so much as observe or amuse themselves with the Work, the Pictures, or any thing else; or if they observe them at all, it is rather with a Look that denotes a sort of Weariness, at seeing the same Things before them, than with any kind of Pleasure.” Now that’s almost a real moral!

    The other comes from Mrs. Teachum remarking on the virtues of a particular play (a preachy thing with lots of lucky coincidences and heirs restored to fortunes, etc.): “I have endeavored, my little Dears, to shew you, as clearly as I can, not only what Moral is to be drawn from this Play, but what is to be fought for in all others; and where that Moral is not to be found, the Writer will have it to answer for, that he has been guilty of one of the worst of Evils, namely, That he has clothed Vice in so beautiful a Dress, that, instead of deterring, it will allure and draw into its Snares the young and tender Mind.”

    So suck on that one and feel guilty, ye Corrupter of young and tender Minds . . .

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