Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was born in Washington, D.C., on April 29, 1899, and died in New York City on May 24, 1974. William Thomas Strayhorn was born November 29, 1915, in Dayton, Ohio, and died May 31, 1967. Strayhorn wrote the original version of Tonk for piano and ensemble in 1940; he and Ellington adapted it as a piano duet by the mid-1940s, recording it in 1946. Strayhorn took the top part. Tonk is about 3 minutes long.
Working with Duke Ellington from 1939 through the early 1960s, Billy Strayhorn collaborated with the great bandleader as pianist, composer, co-composer, and arranger on some of the best-known works of the American musical canon, including “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Satin Doll,” and “Lush Life,” along with such bigger projects as The Far East Suite and The Nutcracker Suite. Born in Ohio but raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Hillsborough, North Carolina, Strayhorn became interested in the piano while being brought up by his grandmother. In Pittsburgh he studied both classical and popular piano and wrote a musical while in high school. In 1938, he made a point of meeting Ellington when the bandleader played on tour in Pittsburgh. He was intrepid enough to show Ellington some compositions and Ellington, according to Strayhorn biographer Walter van de Leur, sent him home to write lyrics for one of Ellington’s numbers. In February 1939, Strayhorn moved to New York City to work for Ellington full-time.
The later Ellington hits “Lush Life” and “Something to Live For” were two of the songs Strayhorn brought with him to New York. As with many of his early contributions and those of other collaborators, Ellington, as bandleader, received most of the credit for their creation. Over time, Strayhorn began to receive equal billing more and more frequently. In all, he collaborated on more than 200 Ellington works.
A common feature of big band music was the solo number written or arranged to spotlight one of the orchestra’s players, such as the Ellington band’s Johnny Hodges or Ray Nance. Van de Leur writes that Strayhorn wrote Tonk, named after Ellington’s favorite card game, to highlight Ellington himself in 1940. The piece was neither played in public nor published for several years, but was transformed into a piano duet by 1946, when Ellington (playing the stride-piano bass parts) and Strayhorn began performing it as a high-energy showstopper. The opening foray seems like a musical depiction, onomatopoeically, of the piece title; it returns at the midpoint of the piece. The constantly moving lower part (Ellington’s role) keeps up the constant, impulsive drive, while the higher part (Strayhorn’s) is free to play a short, memorable tune or to conjure innovative textures and colors.
Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the BSO’s Director of Program Publications.