Erased: Billy & Bayard - Stephen Jackman-Torkoff and the inspiring queer black past
by DREW ROWSOME -
I live my day as if it was the last
Live my day as if there was no past
Doin' it all nite, all summer
Doin' it the way I wanna
Anyone who hears Billy Strayhorn's song "Lush Life" responds immediately to its unique and touching mix of melancholy and optimism. Queer listeners, those familiar with Strayhorn's history, get an extra layer. "He wrote "Lush Life" so young, he started writing at like 16 or 17. To think of whatever he was imagining, the kind of world he was imagining for himself, is sort of the same as we do now," says Stephen Jackman-Torkoff who is part of the Queer Songbook Orchestra's SummerWorks performance Erased: Billy & Bayard. "It was much harder for him to imagine a world when the whole country's telling him he can't go to half the places. He would do shows with bands that were mostly white and he'd have to stay in a separate place or at the back of the concert hall. And he did it anyway because music was the top priority. It's remarkable"
The Queer Songbook Orchestra's mandate is to bring lost, or deliberately erased, queer songwriters and musicians to their rightful place in the pantheon. And to celebrate their queerness. According to Jackman-Torkoff, Strayhorn was ahead of his time. "He was black and he was gay, and there were other black gay men around, but he talked about it openly. He never hid it. That's why he was so different. He'd say, 'It's not my problem. If they have a problem with me, that's their problem. They can figure it out.' And because he had Duke Ellington's umbrella around him, there was a bit of safety and freedom allowed him. But he was so brave."
And he paid for that bravery, Strayhorn is often a footnote in Duke Ellington's story. "Same with Bayard Rustin," says Jackman-Torkoff. "They didn't hide it. And at the time it was a problem, a detriment to the work and they didn't become as famous because of that. The press didn't want to talk about it. Billy and Bayard did so much work but no-one really knew who they were, they didn't get the platform that they would now because of their sexuality. It kind of undercut their work. Now you realize how important it is that they were out and open, even if they didn't have the careers they could have had I think it's way better to live true. They both said they lived for the truth. And that's pretty amazing, it's like they were from the future."
It is easy to see how a musical could be constructed around Strayhorn and his extensive back catalogue but Bayard Rustin, who was also the subject of the Fringe Festival hit The Seat Next to the King, is known for his political organizing, specifically with Martin Luther King. "Most of the music will be Billy's music and we've weave the stories together using that," says Jackman-Torkoff. "But Bayard did a lot of singing and music growing, and he did some performing on Broadway. He was into spirituals and gospel music so we're going to be picking a spiritual song for him, a Christian gospel song but there are other options. He really loved music so we're going with that."
There is inevitable condensing that has to happen to fit SummerWorks tight schedule. "Telling their stories, it's not a long show, and to fit two such remarkable grandiose people into such a short time with music, we had to find what hit us in a certain way," says Jackman-Torkoff. "I was inspired by Duke Ellington saying to Billy that there are a hundred ways things can be done. There are a hundred ways we could do this show but we had to find the way we can do it. When I'm reading Billy's story, whatever stands out and hits my heart and soul in a certain way, and I think I can be the conduit to the audience, the that's the story. Not much else is needed than to tell their story and play their music, because their stories are so remarkable. We're kind of the middleman, honouring them, it's a sharing, and I think that's how we'll express our admiration."
Jackman-Torkoff is bringing his theatrical skills - Black Boys, Boticelli in the Fire/Sunday in Sodom - to the Queer Songbook Orchestra's musical virtuosity. "My role, I won't be singing, but the other narrator Andrew Broderick will be singing, and with the Queer Songbook Orchestra we have singers that are always with the group at every show so they'll be singing. I'm writing a poem that will go with the show as well as telling the story. A poem that reflects how their legacy lives within me, me and Andrew. Obviously we continue the work they did and we're indebted to the work they did in the past."