William Thomas Strayhorn (November 29, 1915 – May 31, 1967)[1] was an American jazz composer, pianist, lyricist, and arranger who collaborated with bandleader and composer Duke Ellington for nearly three decades. His compositions include "Take the 'A' Train", "Chelsea Bridge", "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing", and "Lush Life".

Billy Strayhorn
Strayhorn c. 1947
Strayhorn c. 1947
Background information
Birth nameWilliam Thomas Strayhorn
Born(1915-11-29)November 29, 1915
Dayton, Ohio, U.S.
DiedMay 31, 1967(1967-05-31) (aged 51)
New York City, U.S.
  • Musician
  • composer
  • lyricist
  • arranger
Years active1934–1964

Early life edit

Strayhorn was born in Dayton, Ohio, United States.[1] His family then moved to the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His mother's family came from Hillsborough, North Carolina, and she sent him there to protect him from his father's drunken rages. Strayhorn spent many months of his childhood at his grandparents' house in Hillsborough. In an interview, Strayhorn said that his grandmother was his primary influence during the first ten years of his life. He became interested in music while living with her, playing hymns on her piano and listening to records on her Victrola record player.[2]

Return to Pittsburgh and meeting Ellington edit

Strayhorn returned to Pittsburgh while still in grade school. He worked odd jobs to earn enough money to buy his first piano, and took lessons from Charlotte Enty Catlin.[3] He attended Westinghouse High School, later also attended by jazz pianists Erroll Garner and Ahmad Jamal. He played in the school band, and studied under Carl McVicker, who had also instructed Erroll Garner and Mary Lou Williams. He studied classical music for a time at the Pittsburgh Music Institute, writing a musical, forming a trio that played daily on a local radio station, and writing/composing 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.

Strayhorn's original ambition to become a classical composer was foiled by the harsh reality of a black man trying to make it in the classical world, which at that time was almost completely dominated by white people. Strayhorn was introduced to the music of pianists like Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson at age 19. The artistic influence of these musicians guided him into the realm of jazz where he remained for the rest of his life. His first jazz exposure was in a combo called the Mad Hatters that played around Pittsburgh. Strayhorn's fellow students, guitarist Bill Esch and drummer Mickey Scrima, also influenced his transition to jazz, and he began writing arrangements for Buddy Malone's Pittsburgh dance band after 1937.[4]

Strayhorn saw Duke Ellington play in Pittsburgh in 1933, then met him in December 1938 after Ellington performed there again. He first explained, and then showed the bandleader how he would have arranged one of Ellington's own pieces. Ellington was impressed enough to invite other band members to hear Strayhorn. At the end of the visit, he arranged for Strayhorn to meet him when the band returned to New York. Strayhorn worked for Ellington for the next 25 years as an arranger, composer, occasional pianist and collaborator until his death from cancer. As Ellington described him, "Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine."[5]

Working with Ellington edit

Strayhorn (seated at piano) and (left to right) Duke Ellington, Leonard Feather, and Louis Armstrong in 1947

Strayhorn 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 and mild-mannered Strayhorn, nicknamed by the band "Strays", "Weely", and "Swee' Pea". Ellington used Strayhorn to complete his thoughts and introduce new musical ideas (and sometimes it worked the other way around),[6] while giving him the freedom to write on his own and enjoy at least some credit. Though Duke Ellington took credit for much of Strayhorn's work, he did not maliciously drown out his partner. Ellington would make jokes onstage like, "Strayhorn does a lot of the work but I get to take the bows!"[7] On the other hand, Ellington did not oppose his publicists frequently crediting him without any mention of Strayhorn, and, despite the latter's attempts to hide his dissatisfaction, "Strayhorn revealed", at least to his friends, "a deepening well of unease about his lack of public recognition as Ellington's prominence grew."[8]

Strayhorn composed the Duke Ellington orchestra's signature song, "Take the 'A' Train", and a number of other pieces that became part of the band's repertoire.[1] In some cases Strayhorn received attribution for his work such as "Lotus Blossom", "Chelsea Bridge", and "Rain Check", while others, such as "Day Dream" and "Something to Live For", were listed as collaborations with Ellington or, in the case of "Satin Doll" and "Sugar Hill Penthouse", were credited to Ellington alone. Strayhorn also arranged many of Ellington's band-within-a-band recordings and provided harmonic clarity and polish to Duke's compositions. Ellington gave Strayhorn full credit as his collaborator on later, larger works such as Such Sweet Thunder, A Drum Is a Woman, The Perfume Suite, and Far East Suite, where Strayhorn and Ellington worked closely together.[9] Strayhorn often played the piano with the Ellington orchestra, both live and in the studio.

Detroit Free Press music critic Mark Stryker concludes that the work of Strayhorn and Ellington in the score of the 1959 Hollywood film Anatomy of a Murder is "indispensable, [although] ... too sketchy to rank in the top echelon among Ellington-Strayhorn masterpiece suites like Such Sweet Thunder and Far East Suite, but its most inspired moments are their equal."[10] Film historians have recognized the soundtrack "as a landmark—the first significant Hollywood film music by African Americans comprising non-diegetic music, that is, music whose source is not visible or implied by action in the film, like an on-screen band." The score "avoided the cultural stereotypes that previously characterized jazz scores and rejected a strict adherence to visuals in ways that presaged the New Wave cinema of the '60s."[11]

Photo by Carl Van Vechten (August 14, 1958)

In 1960, the two collaborated on arrangements for the album The Nutcracker Suite, recorded for Columbia Records and featuring jazz interpretations of "The Nutcracker" by Tchaikovsky.[12] The original album cover is notable for the inclusion of Strayhorn's name and picture along with Ellington's on the front.

Personal life edit

Shortly before going 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."[13] Through Mercer, Strayhorn met his first partner, African-American musician Aaron Bridgers, with whom Strayhorn lived until Bridgers moved to Paris in 1947.[14]

As an adult, Strayhorn was openly gay to his friends and the members of the Ellington band.[15][16] He participated in the civil rights movement, and as a friend to Martin Luther King Jr., he arranged and conducted "King Fit the Battle of Alabam'" for the Ellington orchestra in 1963 for the historical revue (and album) My People, dedicated to King.

Strayhorn had a major influence on the career of Lena Horne, who wanted to marry Strayhorn and considered him the love of her life.[17] Strayhorn used his classical background to improve Horne's singing technique, and they recorded songs together. In the 1950s, Strayhorn left Duke Ellington for a few years to pursue a solo career of his own. He released a few solo albums and revues for the Original Copasetics and took on theater productions with his friend Luther Henderson.

Illness and death edit

In 1964, Strayhorn was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, which took his life in the early morning of May 31, 1967, when he was with his partner, Bill Grove, not in Lena Horne's arms as has often been falsely reported. By her own account, she was touring in Europe when she received the news of Strayhorn's death.[18] His ashes were scattered in the Hudson River by a gathering of his closest friends.[19]

While in the hospital, he submitted his final composition to Ellington; "Blood Count" was used as the third track in Ellington's memorial album for Strayhorn, ...And His Mother Called Him Bill, which was recorded several months after Strayhorn's death.[1] The last track of the album is a solo version of "Lotus Blossom" performed by Ellington, who sat at the piano and played it while the band (who can be heard in the background) were packing up after the formal end of the recording session.[20]

Legacy edit

A Pennsylvania state historical marker highlighting Strayhorn's accomplishments was placed at Westinghouse High School in Pittsburgh, from which he graduated.[21] In North Carolina, a highway historical marker honoring Strayhorn is located in downtown Hillsborough, near his childhood home. Strayhorn is also memorialized in a mural in Downtown Hillsborough.[22]

The former Regent Theatre in Pittsburgh's East Liberty neighborhood was renamed the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in honor of Strayhorn and fellow Pittsburgh resident Gene Kelly in 2000. It is a community-based performing arts theater.[23]

In 2015, Strayhorn was inducted into the Legacy Walk.[24]

In his autobiography and in a spoken word passage in his Second Sacred Concert, Ellington listed what he considered Strayhorn's "four major moral freedoms": "freedom from hate, unconditionally; freedom from self-pity (even through all the pain and bad news); freedom from fear of possibly doing something that might possibly help another more than it might himself and freedom from the kind of pride that might make a man think that he was better than his brother or his neighbor."[25]

Discography edit

For albums where Strayhorn arranged or performed with the Duke Ellington Orchestra see Duke Ellington discography

As leader/co-leader edit

As arranger edit

As sideman edit

With Johnny Hodges

With Joya Sherrill

With Ben Webster

See also edit

Notes edit

  1. ^ a b c d Colin Larkin, ed. (1992). The Guinness Who's Who of Jazz (First ed.). Guinness Publishing. p. 378/9. ISBN 0-85112-580-8.
  2. ^ Sanford, Mary P. "Strayhorn, William (Billy) Thomas". Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, Vol. 5, 1994, p. 460
  3. ^ Whitaker, Mark (January 30, 2018). Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance. Simon and Schuster. pp. 127–129. ISBN 978-1-5011-2243-9.
  4. ^ Hajdu, pp. 21–44
  5. ^ Ellington, p. 156
  6. ^ Teachout, pp. 196–99
  7. ^ "Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life". Independent Lens.
  8. ^ Hajdu, pp. 171–72
  9. ^ Stone, Sonjia (1983). "Biography". Billy Strayhorn Songs, Inc. Archived from the original on October 5, 2006. Retrieved December 29, 2006.
  10. ^ Stryker, Mark (January 20, 2009). "Ellington's score still celebrated". Detroit Free Press. Archived from the original on February 12, 2009. Retrieved February 23, 2013.
  11. ^ Cooke, Mervyn, History of Film Music (Cambridge University Press, 2008). Cited in Stryker, Mark (January 20, 2009). "Ellington's score still celebrated". Detroit Free Press. Archived from the original on February 12, 2009. Retrieved February 23, 2013.
  12. ^ MacHare, Peter. "A Duke Ellington Panorama". Archived from the original on September 9, 2017. Retrieved November 13, 2023.
  13. ^ Nicholson, p. 201
  14. ^ Hajdu, p. 65; Van de Leur, p. 118
  15. ^ Hajdu, p. xii
  16. ^ Mohamed, Suraya (November 3, 2016). "The Lush Life of Billy Strayhorn". NPR.
  17. ^ Hajdu, pp. 94–96
  18. ^ Hajdu, p. 254
  19. ^ Wilson, Scott. Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3d ed.: 2 (Kindle Locations 45470-45471). McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. Kindle Edition
  20. ^ Hajdu, pp. 260–61
  21. ^ "Billy Strayhorn Takes the A Train - Pennsylvania Historical Markers on Waymarking.com". Waymarking.com. Retrieved February 15, 2017.
  22. ^ "Marker: G-125". NC Highway Historical Marker Program. Retrieved November 13, 2023.
  23. ^ Blank, Ed (September 9, 2001). "Reopening of East Liberty theater set for Nov. 11". TribLive.com.
  24. ^ Wasserman, Melissa (October 14, 2015). "Legacy Walk unveils five new bronze memorial plaques". Windy City Times. Retrieved November 13, 2023.
  25. ^ Cohen, Harvey G. (May 15, 2010). Duke Ellington's America. University of Chicago Press. p. 485. ISBN 9780226112657.

References edit

External links edit