In 1940 the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) proposed an increase in the fees that radio stations paid for broadcasting the music of its members. The stations formed their own organization, Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) and announced that at the first of the year they would not play music licensed by ASCAP. That meant that none of Duke Ellington’s music could be aired.
He called for his son Mercer and Billy Strayhorn, who were in Chicago where Strayhorn was recording with altoist Johnny Hodges, and asked them to join him in California to write new material for the band since they were unaffiliated with ASCAP. Strayhorn biographer David Hajdu in Lush Life quotes Mercer as saying, “‘Strayhorn and I got this big break at the same time. Overnight, literally, we got a chance to write a whole new book for the band....He needed us to write music, and it had to be in our names.’”
Among the songs that Strayhorn wrote during this period were “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” “Rain Check,” “Passion Flower,” and “Chelsea Bridge.” Additionally Mercer pulled a piece out of the trash where Strayhorn had tossed it because it was an old piece that just wasn’t working out. It turned out to be “Take the ‘A’ Train” which became the band’s new theme song and a huge hit.
Hajdu describes “Chelsea Bridge” as “more Debussy than Ellington...an impressionistic miniature composed, Strayhorn said, with a painting by James McNeill Whistler in mind. Unlike conventional tune-based pop and jazz numbers of the day, ‘Chelsea Bridge’ is ‘classical’ in its integration of melody and harmony as an organic whole.”
In his book Duke Ellington James Lincoln Collier says, “Strayhorn took his inspiration, not from the bridge itself, which he had never seen, but from a Turner painting that actually depicted Battersea Bridge, a little farther west.”
Ellington trombonist Lawrence Brown is quoted by Stuart Nicholson in Reminiscing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington as saying, “If you stretch your imagination a little bit you can almost see Chelsea Bridge in his music the same way you can see the Grand Canyon when you hear the ‘Grand Canyon Suite.’ All of his tunes have a deep feeling behind them.”
Francis Davis in Jazz and Its Discontents refers to the recording by Duke’s Blanton-Webster band of the 1940s which featured Jimmy Blanton on bass and Ben Webster on tenor sax, saying, “The most evocative Strayhorn piece here is ‘Chelsea Bridge,’ with its lordly Webster solo--as a successful jazz appropriation of Ravel and Debussy, this remains unsurpassed even by Ellington, a master impressionist in his own right.”
In 2007, as part of the PBS series Independent Lens, filmmaker Robert Levi created Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life to showcase Strayhorn’s work. During his almost life-long association with Duke Ellington the self-effacing Strayhorn was greatly overshadowed by Ellington, some say of his own volition and need for privacy. A companion soundtrack with liner notes by David Hajdu was produced by Ron Gill in conjunction with radio station WBGO. On it “Chelsea Bridge” is performed by saxophonist Joe Lovano with pianist Hank Jones.
Ella Fitzgerald wordlessly vocalized “Chelsea Bridge” for the Duke Ellington Songbook which was supervised by Strayhorn in 1957. The following year The Four Freshmen recorded the song for their Voices in Latin album with Afro-Cuban percussion and an uncredited lyric that longingly recalls Chelsea Bridge as the trysting place of a once great love.
According to Mike McCoy, representative of the Wisconsin Four Freshmen Society, the lyric was written by Bill Comstock, who at the time of the recording in 1958 was not yet a member of the quartet. Comstock’s long-standing personal and professional relationship with Freshman Ken Albers predates his joining the vocal group in 1960 and even Albers joining the group in 1956. Original Freshman Ross Barbour in his book, Now You Know: The Story of the Four Freshmen, notes that the 1959 album Four Freshmen and Five Guitars includes a number, “Oh Lonely Winter,” which was written by Albers and Comstock when they were together in a vocal group called the Stuarts.
Strayhorn recorded “Chelsea Bridge” for The Peaceful Side in 1961. Since 1999 it has been recorded by pianists Keith Jarrett and Andy LaVerne, drummers Cecil Brooks III and Louis Hayes, saxophonists Scott Hamilton and Anton Schwartz, and trumpeter Valery Ponomarev. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis is featured on an instrumental version on vocalist Tony Bennett’s 1999 CD.