Q&A with Phat Man Dee About Her Pride Month Tribute to Billy Strayhorn

Name: Phat Man Dee
Pronouns: she / her 

How do you describe your identity?
Cis gender female 

You are celebrating Pride Month with a tribute to Billy Strayhorn. Why?

I was inspired to produce this concert because his music and life have always been such a great source of inspiration to myself and so many creative souls whom I love and admire. He lived his truth, as a openly Gay and Black man and his entire existence was completely illegal. With this event I hope we honor him by celebrating his existence and his beauty as an artist, activist, and a creative craftsman. I want the Queer and activist communities to be as proud of him as we are in the Jazz and musical community. 

We all are who we are because we were all created in the image of divinity and Strayhorn understood his gift and he dedicated his life to sharing it and living in his truth. May we all be inspired by his work and his life to see who we are, and be free enough to go for it with passion and purpose, no matter what this world may tell is should or should not be. May we all use our gifts to help make this world a better more just place for those around us and those yet to come. 

Was he a musician? Songwriter? Did he work outside of the jazz world? 

He was trained as a classical musician and worked in the jazz world where we helped write the American soundtrack as Duke Ellington’s right hand man. 

What songs would the typical person associate with Billy Strayhorn?

Take The A Train is his most widely known work 

What songs should we associate with him? 

Lush Life, Isfahan, My Little Brown Book, Something to Live For, a Flower is a Lovesome Thing, UMMG 

Pittsburgh helped raise this young artist but he fled here as soon as he could and I hope that the new Pittsburgh we have been building is a friendlier and kinder place to all of our artists and celebrate them for who they are and not in spite of who they are.

What should we know about the realities of his life as an openly gay Black man in that era? What did the music world say? 

He lived with his partner Aaron Briggers in Harlem and their home is currently in NYC LBGT history sites projecthttps://www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/billy-strayhorn-aaron-bridgers-residence/

We’ve been re-introduced recently to so many Black creative artists who happened to be queer – James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin, Ma Rainey, Billie Holiday, Billy Porter, Miss Major, Marsha P. Johnson, etc – and been reintroduced to their creations be they musical, written word, or creating community. Would you support telling Strayhorn’s story via film, television, or in some other format? What would stand out in his story? 

I would be thrilled to see his life on tv or in a film. There is a new book out about his life called “Lush Life” which I need to read. He wrote the tune Lush Life when he was just 16, and his poetry was so poignant, and his music so delicate and sensitive. His later work continued to develop a power and nuance that many of us can only hope to emulate. 

Do you remember how you were introduced to Strayhorn? What impact has he had on your career? 

I learned about him because someone told me Lush Life was the hardest song in the jazz repetoire and so I committed to learning to sing it. It has taken me 25 years and I wouldn’t say I know it now. Hopefully that isn’t obvious as I sing it tonight! I think it’s one of those tunes you just keep working on and hope to someday get enough of what he was sharing to pass the story on as you play it. 

it’s important to know who went before and how influential our ancestors have been in helping us get to where we are today.

Tell us about your lineup. 

Musicians include Don Aliquo Sr, sax, Max Leake, piano, Lars Swanson, bass, Brian E Edwards, drums and Reggie Watkins, trombone. Or vocalists are Patrick Arena, an openly gay activist and jazz singer, Fred Pugh who is a well know jazz artist here in Pittsburgh as well as youth artists Esai Aliquo – Varela age 14, Gabriella Salvucci age 16, Windafire age 18 

You have the debut performance as a duo of a grandfather and granddaughter. That feels like an extra special element both for them and honoring the intergenerational power of jazz?

Don is grandfather to young Esai who is openly trans youth who performs professionally as E The Dragnificent. She has been studying jazz theory from her grandfather and her rendition of “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” is going to be spectacular. 

Why is the fusion of jazz and Pride Month honoring a Black man timely? 

As we are living in a time when I HOPE we are experiencing a true national reckoning with our history as a white supremacy, and we are collectively working towards justice and freedom, it’s important to know who went before and how influential our ancestors have been in helping us get to where we are today. Pittsburgh helped raise this young artist but he fled here as soon as he could and I hope that the new Pittsburgh we have been building is a friendlier and kinder place to all of our artists and celebrate them for who they are and not in spite of who they are. Black and Gay people are beautiful and we must celebrate the gifts we have been given. 

You are hosted by Carnegie Stage in Carnegie. What are the things you value about this venue? 

I chose Carnegie Stage because Reggie Watkins had been doing live streams there all pandemic and it looked good and sounded good. They had lots of pride rainbow flags on their production website and so I felt safe taking my artists there. And they gave me a great rate to be there and made it possible for me afford renting it. 

Will this be livestreamed? 

Yes tickets are $15 and still available right now!PhatManDeeMusic.com

Pick a Strayhorn song from YouTube to take us out of this Q&A. 

https://youtu.be/K7bGtR_ETJE

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7bGtR_ETJE

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