While the Duke Ellington Orchestra was on a European tour in 1939-40, Billy Strayhorn (whom Ellington frequently referred to as his ‘alter ego’) and Duke’s son Mercer were at the Ellington home in New York City. In Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn, David Hajdu quotes Strayhorn as saying, “I stayed home and wrote a few things like ‘Day Dream.’” Mercer, who was playing with a band of classmates at Julliard, was granted permission by Strayhorn to premiere his new work in rehearsal performances where it was featured as an instrumental.
However, composer credits for “Day Dream” were ultimately shared with Ellington. The mystery surrounding many of the Ellington/Strayhorn collaborations will probably never be clarified. The publishing and copywriting business was a complex web at the time, and Hajdu delves into this in his book. Ellington himself had shared credit for many of his compositions with his earlier publisher Irving Mills.
In 1941 Ellington established his own company to publish the band’s new repertoire during the recording ban. Although Strayhorn never expressed any public dismay, Mercer Ellington claims in Hajdu’s book that Strayhorn did raise the question of composer credit with Duke; however, Duke had given Strayhorn stock in Tempo Music, which, in effect, gave him a share of royalties for compositions that he had nothing to do with. It was not about money, according to Hajdu, “The actual source of his frustration was artistic.”
Strayhorn wrote the piece specifically for alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges who first recorded it in a small band session in 1941 with Strayhorn on piano, and it is Hodges who is inextricably linked to the tune. They recorded it again in 1961 with Strayhorn leading the Ellington band in a Hodges session. Strayhorn, who supervised Ella Fitzgerald’s recording of the Duke Ellington Songbook in 1957, wrote a new arrangement of the song for that session and recorded the song on piano himself on The Peaceful Side in 1961.
The melody of “Day Dream” is lush and haunting. The lyric by John Latouche describes the hazy dream world of one in love:
Day dream, why do you haunt me so
Deep in a rosy glow
The face of my love you show
Latouche, a successful composer, lyricist, and librettist who worked mainly on Broadway and in opera, later worked with Ellington on the critically acclaimed but financially unsuccessful musical Beggar’s Holiday, based on John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. The unwillingness of audiences in 1946 to accept the interracial relationship portrayed in the Broadway show no doubt contributed to its short run.
Shortly after Strayhorn’s death in 1967, Ellington recorded a touching tribute, And His Mother Called Him Bill, to the young man he fondly nicknamed “Swea’ Pea” and whom he loved like a son. Hodges is featured on “Day Dream” in this Grammy-winning album.
Other artists who have recorded “Day Dream” include pianists Bill Mays, Marian McPartland, John Hicks, and Fred Hersch; saxophonists Joe Henderson and Thomas Chapin; trombonist Steve Davis; the Dutch Jazz Orchestra Group; vocalists Sarah Vaughan, Helen Merrill, Andy Bey, Tony Bennett, and, in 2006, Stephanie Nakasian. Trumpeter Gustavo Bergalli, saxophonist Archie Shepp, and vocalist Karrin Allyson have all recorded CD’s entitled Day Dream.
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 of the PBS show is available on Blue Note Records. On it “Day Dream” is performed by vocalist Dianne Reeves with guitarist Russell Malone.