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New Rochelle Exhibit Celebrates Life, Work Of Jazz Pioneer Billy Strayhorn

The panel for "Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life," an exhibit celebrating the life of jazz pioneer Billy Strayhorn, is displayed by, from left, designer Jesse Sanchez; co-curators Leslie Demus and Theresa Kump Leghorn; and art teacher Laura Heiss. Photo Credit: Provided
Jazz composer, lyricist and pianist Billy Strayhorn, who was openly gay, collaborated for decades with bandleader Duke Ellington. Photo Credit: Provided

NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. -- Pioneering African-American musician Billy Strayhorn was behind some of the most unforgettable tunes and arrangements in jazz. Now an exhibit at the Museum of Arts & Culture at New Rochelle High School aims to cast light on his work, life, and fight for civil rights.

Yet his decision to live openly as a gay man, and his three-decades-long collaboration with the more extroverted bandleader Duke Ellington, kept the composer of "Take the 'A' Train" and "Lush Life" mostly in fame's shadow.

“Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life” opened last weekend at the New Rochelle Council on the Arts' annual ArtsFest.

Director Robert Levi screened his award-winning documentary “Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life,” at the opening in the high school’s Linda Kelly Theater.

The exhibit -- which celebrates the centennial of the birth of the composer, lyricist, pianist, and arranger -- is based on a new book of the same title by A. Alyce Claerbaut and David Schlesinger. The book will be published by Agate Bolden in November.

It was curated by Leslie Demus and Theresa Kump Leghorn and designed by Jesse Sanchez.

Demus, a New Rochelle resident, is Strayhorn’s niece, and president of the Billy Strayhorn Foundation.

In addition to material taken from the book, the exhibit features some never-before-seen artifacts from Strayhorn's home, including artwork and personal items.

Demus said her uncle truly lived the “four freedoms: freedom from hate, freedom from self-pity, freedom from fear of doing something that would benefit someone else more than it would himself and freedom from the pride that could make him feel that he was better than others.”

Demus said she was thrilled to be able to bring Strayhorn’s story to New Rochelle students.

“Collaboration with organizations that promote the music and image of Billy Strayhorn to students from elementary school through college, and telling the Strayhorn story to a new generation, are important goals for the Billy Strayhorn Foundation,” she said.

The Strayhorn exhibit is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, through Nov. 5, and by special appointment.

The Museum of Arts & Culture, located in the new wing of New Rochelle High School, at 265 Clove Road, is the only Regents-chartered museum in a school in the state of New York.

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