“Piano in the Background”

Guest Writer: Bishop Hartsel Clifton Shirley

Aaron Bridgers was once called one of the “last remaining links with the sophisticated, elegant musical world of Duke Ellington and his collaborator Billy Strayhorn.”  Sophisticated and elegant he was.

Born January 10, 1918, in Winston-Salem, Bridgers grew up studying classical piano, having an affinity for French composers. He had no intention of playing piano for a living, but a chance meeting would change his life. He experienced Art Tatum playing the jazz piano; and while working as an elevator operator, became a student of the Tatum’s.

It was 1939 when Bridgers met Duke Ellington. By this time, Duke’s early dreams of being a painter had given way to music; and by 1924, he was leading his band. Bridgers met in Winston-Salem with Ellington and Mercer, his son.  Mercer introduced pianist/songwriter Billy Strayhorn to Bridgers, hoping to foster a romance.

And before the year ended, Aaron and Billy lived together as lovers in a row house apartment in Harlem at 315 Covenant Avenue. Their relationship was not a secret to anyone around them. Ruth Ellington is quoted as saying, “We accepted it. Aaron was a new member of the family because he was with Billy.”

Ruth Ellington continued, “They were together, and that’s how it was. They didn’t go through the motions of any kind of pretense.” The two were known as an openly affectionate couple.  In Bridgers’ own words, “We became close right away.” Both shared a love for France and spoke French fluently. They also adored French classical composers.

The two men were together from 1939 until 1948 when Bridgers decided to move to Paris to further his career.  As a virtuoso jazz pianist, he attained his first professional engagement, which began a long career playing in numerous well-known venues. In 1950, he recorded his only album. It was made of mostly Gershwin songs and included one by Duke Ellington and one by his former lover, Strayhorn.

In Paris, the musician embarked on a long residence playing in the chicest bars and musician hangouts, including the Ringside, Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit, the Living Room, and the Mars Club, where he was among numerous Black American artists who found the atmosphere more welcoming than in the States.  Bridgers performed in various locales, including Copenhagen, Venice, and Capri.

As well, the artist appeared on radio and television and in a handful of films, notably 1961’s Paris Blues (for which Ellington and Strayhorn wrote the score). Every time Strayhorn stayed in Paris, he and Bridgers were lovers anew.  In 1974, Bridgers became a true French citizen.

As happens in the arts, musical tastes change.  As a result, opportunities for Bridgers to share his work shrank. Therefore, he finally retired in 1995.

These days, hearing Bridgers’ style is a rarity.  His last performance was in 1999, as part of a volume featuring eleven musicians on Ellington Moods, a tribute CD.  His selection was dedicated to Strayhorn, in memory of a philodendron he once gave him.

Bridgers had planned on writing an autobiography called, Piano in the Background,” but publishers wanted him to tell a more sensational story.  However, Bridgers was too much of a gentleman to be salacious, cheap, or scandalous.

On November 3, 2003, the musician and performer died at the age of 85.

In a time when the social elite was shunning Black gay love, Aaron Bridgers was proof that…

Aaron Bridgers playing piano in the 1961 movie “Paris Blues:”


LGBQT Gay Wyatt Evans

Bishop Hartsel Clifton Shirley is an author, writer, singer/songwriter, and bishop from Waterloo, Iowa. He received his master’s degree in business from the International Business Management Institute based in Berlin, Germany.

Currently residing in Atlanta, Mr. Shirley is a bishop of National and International Social Action, part of New Direction Overcomers’ International Fellowship (based in Richmond, Virginia).

A multi-faceted talent, Hartsel is a writer, author, and singer/songwriter.  A bronze prize winner of the International Society of Poets, he has penned editorials for the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier. His best-selling novel is entitled Three Words, Four Letters, published by Ishai Books.  Additionally, Hartsel has charted at #1 several times on the ReverbNation pop music charts.  

Inspired by Langston Hughes, Bishop Shirley states, “I write what moves me.  There is nothing I can’t write. I just have to care about it so I can write truthfully.”

According to Hartsel, his current book, The Night Eddie Sallis Died, is based on factual information he uncovered in 2002 about a 1966 jail cell “suicide” in Waterloo, Iowa (his place of birth).  This revealing and riveting book pulls back the curtain on racism and police brutality. The author emphasizes, “These truths make Iowa a state not to be taken lightly–nor forget.”