William Thomas “Billy” Strayhorn (November 29, 1915 – May 31, 1967) was an American jazz composer, pianist, lyricist, and arranger, best known for his successful collaboration with bandleader and composer Duke Ellington, lasting nearly three decades, whose compositions include “Take the ‘A’ Train”, “Chelsea Bridge”, and “Lush Life”. Strayhorn was born on November 29, 1915, in Dayton, OH, the fourth of nine children. In 1923 Billy entered the first grade in a little wooden school house, since destroyed, but his family soon moved to the Homewood section of Pittsburgh, PA, where Charlotte Catlin began to give Billy private piano lessons. However, his mother’s family was from Hillsborough, NC, and she sent him there to protect him from his father’s drunken sprees. Strayhorn spent many months of his childhood at his grandparents’ house in Hillsborough where he first became interested in music, playing hymns on their piano, and playing records on the Victrola.
Strayhorn returned to Pittsburgh. While still in grade school, he worked odd jobs to earn enough money to buy his first piano. He attended Westinghouse High School where he played in the school band, and studied under the same teacher, Carl McVicker, who had also instructed jazz pianists Erroll Garner and Mary Lou Williams. In Pittsburgh, he began his musical career, studying classical music for a time at the Pittsburgh Music Institute, writing a high school musical, forming a musical trio that played daily on a local radio station, and, while still in his teens, composing (with lyrics) the songs “Life Is Lonely” (later renamed “Lush Life”), “My Little Brown Book”, and “Something to Live For”. By age 19, he was writing for a professional musical, Fantastic Rhythm. Though classical music was Strayhorn’s first love, his ambition to become a classical composer was shot down by the harsh reality of a black man trying to make it in the then almost completely white classical world. Strayhorn was then introduced to the music of pianists like Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson at age 19.
At the age of 23, Strayhorn met the 39-year-old Duke Ellington in December of 1938, after an Ellington performance in Pittsburgh’s Crawford Grill. Here he first told, and then showed, the band leader how he would have arranged one of Duke’s own pieces. Ellington was impressed enough to invite other band members to hear Strayhorn. He also submitted a composition to Duke Ellington, who was so impressed by the young man’s talent that three months later he recorded Strayhorn’s Something to Live For with the composer as pianist. At the end of the visit, he arranged for Strayhorn to meet him when the band returned to New York. Shortly before Ellington went on his second European tour with his orchestra, from March to May 1939, Ellington announced to his sister Ruth and son Mercer Ellington that Strayhorn “is staying with us.” Four more of Strayhorn’s pieces were recorded during 1939 including I’m Checkin’ Out, Goo’m Bye and Grievin’ by Ellington, and Barney Goin’ Easy and Lost in Two Flats by Barney Bigard, as well as a work by Ellington written as a tribute, Weely (a Portrait of Billy Strayhorn).
Strayhorn worked for Ellington for the next quarter century as an arranger, composer, occasional pianist, and collaborator until his early death from cancer. During the next 29 years, Strayhorn made an inestimable contribution to American songwriting and culture. Billy was a gifted composer and arranger who seemed to flourish in Duke’s shadow. Ellington was arguably a father figure and the band was affectionately protective of the diminutive, mild-mannered, unselfish Strayhorn, nicknamed by the band “Strays”, “Weely”, and “Swee’ Pea”. Strayhorn composed the band’s best known theme, “Take the ‘A’ Train”, and a number of other pieces that became part of the band’s repertoire. Taking advantage of Strayhorn’s feel for musical theater, Ellington and Strayhorn co-wrote the groundbreaking musical, Jump for Joy, which opened in Los Angeles in 1941. In 1946, Strayhorn received the Esquire Silver Award for outstanding arranger.
Strayhorn also arranged many of Ellington’s band-within-band recordings and provided harmonic clarity, taste, and polish to Duke’s compositions, and often sat in on the piano with the Ellington Orchestra, both live and in the studio. In the early 1950s, tired of his secondary role, Strayhorn left Ellington to pursue his own interests but rejoined Ellington several years later. In 1960 the two collaborated on the album The Nutcracker Suite, recorded for the Columbia label and featuring jazz interpretations of “The Nutcracker” by Tchaikovsky, arranged by the two. Strayhorn participated in many civil rights causes. As a committed friend to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he arranged and conducted “King Fit the Battle of Alabama'” for the Ellington Orchestra in 1963 for the historical revue and album My People, dedicated to King.
Strayhorn’s strong character left an impression on many people who met him. He had a major influence on the career of Lena Horne, who wanted to marry Strayhorn and considered him to have been the love of her life. Strayhorn used his classical background to improve Horne’s singing technique. They eventually recorded songs together. Strayhorn was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 1964, which eventually caused his death. In 1965, the Duke Ellington Jazz Society asked him to present a concert at New York’s New School of Social Research. It consisted entirely of his own work performed by him and his quintet. While in the hospital, he submitted his final composition to Ellington. “Blood Count” was used as the third track to Ellington’s memorial album for Strayhorn, …And His Mother Called Him Bill, which was recorded several months after Strayhorn’s death. This composition was initially referred to simply as “Manuscript,” receiving its more familiar title after the fact. Strayhorn finally succumbed in the early morning on May 31, 1967
My collection includes the following works by Billy Strayhorn:
Take the “A” Train (1941).
You’re the One (1955).
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources