Billy Strayhorn Songs Inc. and the Billy Strayhorn Foundation are honored to recognize our 2024 recipient from Temple University, Ray Kaneko. Read some of Ray’s bio below:

Saxophonist, composer, and arranger Ray Kaneko is inspired by jazz icons like Sonny Stitt, Charlie Parker, Donald Harrison, and Tim Green, blending bebop and modern classic saxophone elements into his music. He grew up in Tokyo, Japan. He studied classical saxophone at the Tokyo Metropolitan Senior High School of Fine and Performing Arts. At the same time, he was a winner of the 15th Kurashiki International Saxophone Competition for high school students and the 27th Japan Classical Music Competition in saxophone for high school students. Furthermore, he received the second prize in the Japan Junior Brass and Percussion Competition of Saxophone for high school students. In addition, he was recognized with the Most Improved Student Award at Seiko Summer Jazz Camp 2016. Since then, he has participated in Jazz Port Townsend 2017 and 2018. After graduating from Tokyo Metropolitan Senior High School of Fine and Performing Arts, he received his Bachelor of Music Degree from Kunitachi College of Music. In 2021, he moved to Philadelphia, PA. Also he went on to receive his Bachelor of Music Degree from Temple University. Throughout his journey, he has had the privilege of being mentored by esteemed jazz musicians, including Dick Oatts, Terell Stafford, Tim Green, and Tim Warfield. Building on this foundation, he now focuses on sharing his music with audiences worldwide, performing at various venues, and cultivating his compositions and arrangements.

Congratulation to Ray and the outstanding jazz program at Temple for providing a musical platform for musicians like Ray to shine. Ever Up and Onward!

On April 10th Galen Demus, Jazz Education Coordinator and nephew of composer, arranger, lyricist and pianist Billy Strayhorn, presented to a class of graduate students in jazz studies an hour long presentation focusing on the life and contributions of Strayhorn in his collaboration with Duke Ellington and his orchestra, as well as his singular genius towards contributing to the jazz canon. Special thanks for the invitation from Professor Ansyn Banks, who teaches a semester long class on Duke Ellington using the 1993 book written by John Hasse: “Beyond Category-The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington”. The U of L class was both attentive and inquisitive, especially when gaining knowledge about Billy Strayhorn’s musical accomplishments before his collaborative years with Ellington. Pictured: Professor Ansyn Banks jazz studies grad class with Galen Demus (far left).

The first annual Billy Strayhorn Scholarship Concert celebrates the 2023 and 2024 winners of the Billy Strayhorn Jazz Education Scholarship for Piano and Composition, Kyle Takata and Mariia Kovalenko. Watch both these very talented student musicians perform as part of the Berklee College of Music 2024 Keys Fest.

Berklee College of Music

On February 26th, the prestigious Berklee College of Music held the inaugural Strayhorn Scholarship event as part of their 2024 Keys Fest. Keys Fest is the Berklee Piano Department’s annual festival of everything that can be done with a musical keyboard. 2024 included the Billy Strayhorn Scholarship winners for piano and composition, Kyle Takata (2023) and Mariia Kovalenko (2024). Kyle opened his set with a jazzy version of ‘A Flower is Lovesome Thing’, followed by a wonderful version of ‘Chelsea Bridge’, and ended with a collaboration of Kyle on piano and the 2024 recipient Mariia Kovalenko singing the Strayhorn classic, ‘Your Love Has Faded’. Mariia opened her set with a beautiful rendition of ‘Day Dream’, then closing out with a nice up tempo version of ‘Upper Manhattan Medical Group’ (UMMG). Both Kyle and Mariia treated the audience to versions of their own written material that proved to be unique and crowd pleasing. They were masterfully accompanied by band mates from Berklee.

Special thanks to the Assistant Professor of Piano Jason Yeager for collaborating with the Billy Strayhorn Foundation to provide this scholarship opportunity. Kudos also to the Berklee College of Music Piano Department for highlighting Billy Strayhorn at such a first class event. Known as one of the premier destinations for the study of contemporary music and the performing arts, Berklee is consistently rated as one of the top 5 music schools. You can find more information on Berklee at berklee.edu.

Winners have been announced for the 2023 BroadwayWorld Pittsburgh Awards! The 2023 Regional Awards honor regional productions, touring shows, and more which had their first performance between October 1, 2022 through September 30, 2023. This year the BroadwayWorld Regional Awards were bigger and better than ever, including over 100 cities across America, Canada, Central and South America, Europe, and Asia! Billy Strayhorn: ‘Something To Live For’, took top honors for best new play or musical.

Something to Live For had its world premier at Pittsburgh’s historic O’Reilly Theater September 19th thru October 11th, 2023. STLF illuminated the classically trained, Homewood-raised Billy Strayhorn’s life as an out, gay Black man, from his impoverished childhood to Westinghouse High School to his career as an innovator in the world of jazz along with his longtime collaborator, another iconic figure, Duke Ellington. They would go on to create some of the world’s most beloved jazz works, with Strayhorn taking the lead as arranger and composer. Those include Lush Life, written when Billy was a teenager, Satin Doll, Something to Live For and the song that became Ellington’s signature, Take the ‘A’ Train.

Channeling Strayhorn’s jazz genius, Broadway veteran Darius de Haas kicked off a tour-de-force performance and an immediate opening of the floodgates pouring out songs, dance and history by an exuberant and celebratory cast that was nothing short of outstanding. Congratulations to all for this major world premier achievement. We will certainly be hearing more of just where this 1st class production lands…

Mariia Kovalenko is a freshman who came to Boston from her home in Moscow, Russia to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music. While she wants to major in piano composition, hoping to work behind the scenes and writing her own music, Mariia was the winner among 11 participants at Berklee of the Billy Strayhorn Jazz Education Scholarship for excellence in piano and jazz composition. The inspiration for participating in the competition was that she loves Strayhorn’s music. “His music is very original. I love what he does with harmonization. It’s like things I never heard before.” Besides Strayhorn, Mariia is a fan of music written by Bill Evans and the classical composer Ravel (who Strayhorn also loved). When asked for advice she would give younger, aspiring musicians, Mariia said…”when I was 12 years old, I was about to stop. I had to learn not to feel so stressed, not to be so nervous. You have to learn to grow and put your heart into the music. Show yourself and just learn to be you.” Mariia is obviously a rising star we will hear more from. Sincere congratulations to Mariia and all of the competition participants. The future of Jazz shines bright.

2024 started off the15th annual Jazz Education Network Conference (JEN) in the great city of New Orleans. Billy Strayhorn Songs Inc. and the Billy Strayhorn Foundation participated for the 12th year as an exhibitor in the JEN conference. Attended by 3,000 plus students, jazz artists and jazz educators, the 2024 JEN conference proved to be a memorable experience, filled with opportunities for learning, fellowship with old friends and network opportunities with new ones. The conference was assembled with a stellar lineup of world class clinics, research presentations and exclusive concert performances. Among those performing were New Orleans legends The Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the Preservation Hall Legacy Band, trumpeters Terell Stafford and Sean Jones, Saxophonists Tia Fuller and Don Braden, bassists John Clayton and Kris Monson, singers Carmen Bradford and Dee Daniels plus many more…

The Strayhorn exhibitor booth was again well received, providing great in depth information on the music, life and legacy of Billy Strayhorn, as well as providing a suggested list of materials to help with having a robust Billy Strayhorn curriculum for your jazz studies program. A nice raffle of items that are available at the online merchandising store on the website were given away to several lucky recipients. We are already looking forward to the 2025 JEN conference, which will be held in Atlanta. See you there!

(A review by theatre critic Bill Esler at Chicago’s Buzz Center Stage) …“Sugar Hill: The Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker,” is a revelation, an absolutely delightful spectacle that may open for you a world of riches in music, choreography, and costumes—it did for me.

Just as the 1892 Tchaikovsky “Nutcracker Ballet” is a holiday dream told in dance, so is this new Americanized (and to me, much more accessible) version, having its world premiere at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre through December 30th,2023. It is rooted in a 1960 holiday jazz album by Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington, whose reinterpretation of Tchaikovsky’s ballet classic is filtered powerfully through bluesy and swinging jazz, while holding substantial elements of the Russian composer’s original.

The libretto and concept is by Jessica Swan, who has created a work for this century, and the ages—with direction and choreography by Tony nominees Joshua Bergasse and Jade Hale-Christofi. “Sugar Hill” features more than 30 dances in four scenes, each distinctive and substantial, expressing the music while advancing the adventurous story. The Ellington/Strayhorn 1960 “Nutcracker Suite” had just nine numbers, so “Sugar Hill” has infused the work with many other Ellington and Strayhorn pieces, including Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train,” which receives a show-stopping performance in dance. The whole production is wonderfully backed by a seventeen-piece jazz orchestra, conducted by Harold O’Neal and associate conductor Rob Cookman, both of whom also play piano during the show.

Like the original “Nutcracker Ballet” the story of “Sugar Hill” centers on a poor little rich girl dreaming of adventures beyond the straight-laced confines of her home. But this little girl is Lena Stall, whose wealthy Black parents live on the Upper West Side; and her dreams take her to the 1930s Sugar Hill district in Harlem, where she experiences exciting music and characters. Nutcracker traditionalists will feel at home with the fine balletic performances by some of the greatest dancers, and mice, cats, dogs and the Nutcracker are all there.

Producers David Garfinkle and Dr. Ron Simons intended to preview the show in New York City in November. Instead, Chicago is blessed to enjoy this world premiere at the historic Auditorium, a perfect setting for what I am certain will prove to be a ravishing cultural event of great import. “Sugar Hill” runs through December 30th at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre. Go to auditoriumtheatre.org for more information about tickets available for the remaining shows. (Photo: Brenda Braxton as Mother Sugar with her cat butlers).

The Auditorium Theatre in Chicago lost its holiday staple when the Joffrey Ballet moved to the Lyric Opera House in 2021. But that beautiful, gold-trimmed venue in Chicago’s Loop may have a new winner with “Sugar Hill,” a brand-new “Nutcracker” ballet with a glitzy twist. Jazz masters Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn broke barriers with their 1960 interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s 1892 “Nutcracker Suite.” Enter “Sugar Hill,” Tony Award-winning producers David Garfinkle and Ron Simons’ attempt to capture that same genre-defying magic-making by fitting the sweet Ellington / Strayhorn suite over a new libretto from author Jessica Swan.

The original “Nutcracker” ballet is based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 short story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” And those who know “The Nutcracker” will find clever parallels between “Sugar Hill” and the popular ballet: An imaginative young girl (named Lena Stall, riffing off the Stahlbaum family’s surname in the traditional ballet) gets a special doll at her family’s holiday party, falls asleep and is whisked away to the magical land of her dreams, battling a gaggle of mice and a snowstorm along the way. Swan moves Lena, her nutcracker and an international troupe of fantastical figures from a 19th century German living room to 1930s New York. Rather than a candy-coated Kingdom of the Sweets, Lena’s dreamland is Sugar Hill, the storied Manhattan neighborhood that flourished in the ‘30s — its notable residents including W.E.B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Her prince (danced by the fantastic Jinhao Zhang) is a dispirited jazz musician who finds his passion again as a passenger on Lena’s journey. Those who know Ellington and Strayhorn will be whisked away, too. Conductor and pianist Harold O’Neal leads a terrific big band through their “Nutcracker,” supplemented by more than 20 additional selections from the two composers’ catalogs. Rather than relegate them to the orchestra pit, the band gobbles up nearly half the Auditorium Theatre’s stage on a platform behind the dancers — as they should. Lena (danced wonderfully by Alicia Mae Holloway from The Dance Theatre of Harlem) sneaks out of her affluent parents Upper West Side home and “Takes the A Train” to Harlem — thanks to an angelic jazz singer (Jennifer Jade Ledesna) voicing Billy Strayhorn’s most popular tune. Lena finds herself in a jazz club, plunged into an intoxicating world of music and dance at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. It’s here that “Sugar Hill’s” magic gets turned all the way up. Director and choreographer Joshua Bergasse (who won an Emmy for NBC’s “Smash”) recruited additional moves from Jon Boogz, Jade Hale-Christofi and Caleb Teicher. It all comes together in a Savoy-like scene that morphs into a battle with beer-bellied rats resembling some ruffians Lena encountered en route to Harlem, and through a foggy snowstorm on her way to the treetops above Lenox Avenue for some light entertainment from a carnival of dancing animals.

 “Sugar Hill” has so much to admire, as a full Auditorium Theatre audience made clear. (Parts of this stage review were taken from a review of ‘Sugar Hill’ done by Chicago Tribune contributing writer Lauren Warnecke). Photo: Olivia Tang-Mifsud, Ayaka Kamei, Alicia Mae Holloway and Jinhao Zhang in “Sugar Hill: The Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker” in Chicago at the Auditorium Theatre. (Michelle Reid/HANDOUT).

Get ready for a musical journey like never before as Tony Award winning producers David Garfinkle and Ron Simons unveil the World Premiere of “SUGAR HILL: The Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker.” This extraordinary production, a jazz-steeped reimagining of The Nutcracker, pays homage to the genre-defying collaboration of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. The enchanting melodies of Ellington and Strayhorn set the stage for a mesmerizing performance, and it’s all happening at Chicago’s historic Auditorium Theatre, from December 20th through December 30th.

The world renowned newspaper publication, The Chicago Defender, got an exclusive interview with A. Alyce Claerbaut, executive producer of ‘Sugar Hill’ and the niece of Billy Strayhorn. She is also the President of Billy Strayhorn Songs Inc. The Defender talks with Alyce as they delve deeper into the making of this groundbreaking production. Read more by going to: chicagodefender.com/a-alyce-claerbaut-talks-sugar-hill-the-elligton-strayhorn-nutcracker/