Composer, arranger, pianist
Billy Strayhorn spent his entire career writing music, but his name is unknown to many of those who love his work. As a composer, arranger, and sometime pianist with the Duke Ellington orchestra from 1939 until his death in 1967, he spent most of his life in Ellington’s shadow, apparently content to remain behind the scenes.
Although Strayhorn composed many works for the Ellington band on his own, he never wanted his voice to be distinct. Instead, he strove for what he called the “Ellington Effect”: to achieve the kind of sound that was right for the band. Ellington, for his part, did not let Strayhorn’s efforts go unrecognized; in his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, he wrote that Strayhorn “was not, as he was often referred to by many, my alter ego. Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, and the eyes in the back of my head.” Strayhorn was also credited on recordings, even though the appearance of his name did not bring him much notice among the band’s many listeners.
William Strayhorn was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1915; his family soon moved to Hillsborough, North Carolina, and then to Pittsburgh, where Strayhorn attended Westinghouse High School and studied at the Pittsburgh Musical Institute. His training in classical music is evident in his compositional style, which at times displays the influence of French composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.
Strayhorn played piano in small groups in the Pittsburgh area and wrote “Something to Live For” and “Lush Life,” among other pieces, while still in his early twenties. Interested in having his work performed widely—at that time he was not considering a career as a composer—he showed some of his compositions to bandleader Duke Ellington when Ellington’s orchestra played in Pittsburgh in 1938. As the story is generally related, Ellington was at first impressed primarily with Strayhorn’s lyrics. A second meeting, this time in Newark, New Jersey, prompted Ellington to request Strayhorn’s services as an arranger of some pieces for the band. In a retelling of the event, the Village Voice reported: “One detail remains consistent.… Ellington wrapped his arms around Strayhorn and announced, ‘You are with me for life.’”
The next 29 years of Strayhorn’s life were spent as part of the Ellington organization—writing, arranging, and sitting in on piano. A particularly notable period occurred during a strike by the American Society of
For the Record…
Born William Strayhorn, November 19, 1915, in Dayton, OH; died of cancer of the esophagus, May 31, 1967, in New York City; son of James N. Taylor and Lillian Margo Young. Education: Attended Pittsburgh Musical Institute, Pittsburgh, PA.
Played in and around Pittsburgh with small groups in the 1930s; became arranger and second pianist with Ellington orchestra, 1939; later composed for the orchestra with Ellington and on his own. Compositions include “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Rain Check,” and “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing.” President of the Copasetics, a group of entertainers who put on shows for charity.
Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) in 1941. As an ASCAP member, Ellington was not allowed to have his own compositions performed on the radio. Strayhorn, not a member of ASCAP, was given the opportunity to write his own pieces. The most famous of these, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” was inspired by two subway trains that went to Harlem: the “D” and the “A.” The “A” went straight to Harlem, but the “D” veered off, ending up in the Bronx. As Strayhorn was quoted as saying in Stanley Dance’s book, The World of Duke Ellington: “I said I was writing directions—take the ‘A’ Train to Sugar Hill. The ‘D’ Train was really messing up everybody.”
Strayhorn composed many other pieces alone, but because they were recorded by the Ellington orchestra, they were often thought of as Ellington’s own works. These include “Rain Check,” “Passion Flower,” and “Chelsea Bridge,” all from 1941, and 1949’s “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing.” Each of these compositions became standards in the band’s repertory.
Strayhorn’s musical collaborations with Ellington from the 1950s and 1960s are numerous and include such classic compositions as A Drum Is a Woman; Such Sweet Thunder; adaptations of Russian composer Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite; and The Far East Suite. Jazz performers, critics, and scholars differ over whether it is possible to determine which portions of these pieces were written by Strayhorn and which by Ellington. In his book The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945, Gunther Schuller points out four distinct characteristics that mark the music as Strayhorn’s, and some of Ellington’s players have said that they could always tell what Strayhorn had written.
Others observers feel that it is impossible to determine whose writing is whose—and believe it worthless to try. The most important thing to remember is that both composers had the same end in mind. As Strayhorn told Bill Coss in an interview for Down Beat magazine in 1962: “I’m sure the fact that [Ellington and I are] both looking for a certain character, a certain way of presenting a composition, makes us write to the whole, toward the same feeling. That’s why it comes together—for that reason.”
Strayhorn was small and sedate—and a homosexual at a time in America’s history when it was especially difficult to be a gay man, particularly in the very heterosexual jazz world. He was adored and protected by Ellington and by the members of the band, who had several affectionate nicknames for him, among them “Strays,” “Weely,” and “Swee’ Pea.” The last, by far the most widely used, was given him by alto saxophonist Toby Hardwick, who had picked up the name from the infant in the Popeye comics.
Strayhorn’s death in 1967 from cancer of the esophagus affected Ellington deeply. As Hardwick told Dance in The World of Duke Ellington, it was “the one thing I know of that really touched Duke. The one thing … that hit him hard.” Upon accepting the Medal of Freedom at the White House in 1969, Ellington recited the four freedoms by which Strayhorn lived. As recorded by Dance, they were: “Freedom from hate unconditionally; freedom from self-pity; freedom from the fear of doing something that would help someone else more than it would help me; and freedom from the kind of pride that makes me feel I am better than my brother.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, Strayhorn’s music became more familiar to listeners, thanks to performances and recordings of his compositions by individual artists. Tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson and trumpeter Art Farmer have each devoted albums to Strayhorn’s work. After Strayhorn’s death, Ellington released a tribute album to him, And His Mother Called Him Bill.
“Something to Live For,” 1938.
“Lush Life,” 1938.
“I’m Checkin’ Out, Goo’m Bye,” 1939.
“Lost in Two Flats,” 1939.
“Day Dream,” 1940.
“Take the ‘A’ Train,” 1941.
“Chelsea Bridge,” 1941.
“Passion Flower,” 1941.
“Rain Check,” 1941.
“Johnny Come Lately,” 1942.
“A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” 1949.
“Lotus Blossom,” 1962.
“Blood Count,” 1967.
With Duke Ellington
The Perfume Suite, 1944.
The Newport Jazz Festival Suite, 1956.
A Drum Is a Woman, 1957.
Such Sweet Thunder, 1957.
Toot Suite, 1958.
The Nutcracker Suite, 1960.
The Peer Gynt Suite, 1960.
Paris Blues, 1960.
Suite Thursday, 1960.
Pousse Cafe, 1962.
The Far East Suite, 1964.
The Concert of Sacred Music, 1965.
With the Duke Ellington Orchestra
Duke Ellington: The Blanton-Webster Band, Bluebird, c. 1942, reissued, 1986.
Such Sweet Thunder, Columbia, 1957.
Billy Strayhorn: Cue for Saxophone, Master Jazz Recordings, 1959.
The Far East Suite, RCA, 1966, reissued, Bluebird, 1988.
Side by Side (recorded 1958-59), Verve, 1986.
Caravan (recorded 1947 and 1951), Prestige, 1992.
Lush Life (reissue), Red Baron, 1992.
A Drum Is a Woman, Columbia.
Duke Ellington: The Ellington Era, 1927-1940 (two volumes), Columbia/CBS.
Ella at Duke’s Place, Verve.
Great Times!, Fantasy/OJC.
Art Farmer, Something to Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn, Contemporary, 1987.
Joe Henderson, Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn, Red Baron, 1992.
Collier, James Lincoln, Duke Ellington, Oxford University Press, 1987.
Dance, Stanley, The World of Duke Ellington, Scribner’s, 1970.
The Duke Ellington Reader, edited by Mark Tucker, Oxford University Press, 1993.
Ellington, Duke, Music Is My Mistress, Doubleday, 1973.
Jewell, Derek, Duke: A Portrait of Duke Ellington, Norton, 1977.
Schuller, Gunther, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945, Oxford University Press, 1989.
Ulanov, Barry, Duke Ellington, Creative Age Press, 1946.
Down Beat, June 7, 1962; February 23, 1967; July 13, 1967.
Village Voice, June 23, 1992.
Strayhorn, Billy 1915–1967
Billy Strayhorn 1915–1967
Called “a nearly invisible genius” by Scott Yanow of the All Music Guide but an immensely important figure in jazz history, Billy Strayhorn spent much of his career as an associate of jazz composer and bandleader Duke Ellington. Strayhorn was the composer of several vocal numbers performed and recorded by Ellington’s band, including “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Lush Life,” that went on to become familiar jazz standards widely known to pop fans as well; he was also a classically trained musician who was a crucial contributor to the large concert compositions that Ellington undertook later in his career.
Ellington, for his part, wrote in his autobiography Music Is My Mistress that Strayhorn was “my right arm, my left arm, and the eyes in the back of my head.” Strayhorn further enjoyed a career apart from Ellington’s group, and on top of all this he might be viewed as a pioneer in the emergence of gay culture in the United States. Among the most important of the many behind-the-scenes figures who have lubricated the musical interactions of the intensely collaborative jazz genre, Billy Strayhorn was one of jazz’s most sophisticated musical thinkers.
Born William Strayhorn in Dayton, Ohio, on November 29, 1915, Billy Strayhorn was known simply as Bill during his years as a serious student of classical music in school. His father was an industrial worker and sometime janitor, and his family bounced around under difficult circumstances for much of Strayhorn’s early childhood. In 1920 they landed outside Pittsburgh, attracted by the employment possibilities of the steel mills there. Strayhorn was often sent to Hillsborough, North Carolina, to visit his maternal grandmother, a church pianist who introduced him to music.
But it was in high school in Pittsburgh that Strayhorn’s musical talents really began to blossom. Attending Westinghouse High School, Strayhorn at first studied classical music exclusively. “Billy was about as serious as they get,” recalled Westinghouse music teacher Carl McVicker (who later taught jazz keyboardist Ahmad Jamal) to Strayhorn biographer David Hadju. “Earnest, hardworking, wanted to get ahead in music… He was an intellectual…. He was a serious pianist and concentrated strictly on the concert repertoire.”
Toward the end of his high school years, Strayhorn performed two piano concertos with full symphony orchestra, and his classical training perhaps shows through
Born William Strayhorn November 19, 1915, in Dayton, OH; died of esophageal cancer May 31, 1967, in New York; son of James Strayhorn, a factory worker, and Lillian Young Strayhorn, Education; Westinghouse High School, Pittsburgh; attended Pittsburgh Musical Institute.
Career: Jazz composer, arranger, and pianist. Composer and small-group jazz player, Pittsburgh, mid-1930s; composed song “Lush Life,” 1936; hired as arranger, lyricist, and pianist, Duke Ellington Orchestra, 1939; composed numerous songs for Ellington Orchestra during ASCAP strike, early 1940s; compositions include “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Rain Check,” and “Passion Flower”; collaborated with Ellington on orchestral compositions including Far East Suite, 1950s and 1960s.
in the complex harmonies found in some of his compositions. In the 1930s, however, the doors of the classical music world were largely closed to black musicians. Strayhorn persisted, taking courses at the Pittsburgh Musical Institute, but soon it became clear that more promise lay in a different direction. He composed a musical revue called Fantastic Rhythm, which had its beginnings in a high school senior-class presentation but expanded into a full-fledged professional show, and around the same time friends introduced him to the serious-minded jazz of pianist Art Tatum and other artists who saw jazz as a complex art music, rather than simply as accompaniment for dancers.
Strayhorn’s talents as a jazz composer and arranger grew quickly, and one of his most famous songs, “Lush Life,” was completed in 1936. Although the song is generally identified with Duke Ellington, that was well before Strayhorn joined Ellington’s organization. By December of 1938, when Ellington visited Pittsburgh, Strayhorn was ready to make the most of the opportunity of meeting him. Impressing the bandleader with letter-perfect renditions of (and even suggestions for improvement upon) some of his piano solos, Strayhorn was hired at first, early in 1939, as a lyricist and arranger. Ellington accurately predicted that the partnership would last a lifetime.
A 1941 power struggle between U.S. radio broadcasters and the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) had the side effect of inaugurating one of Strayhorn’s most fertile periods as a songwriter; the songs of Ellington himself, an ASCAP member, were withheld from radio, so Ellington turned to the non-member Strayhorn for new vocal compositions. Several of the pieces Strayhorn produced in 1941 and 1942 became pop standards, including “Rain Check, “Chelsea Bridge,” and “Passion Flower,” but the most famous of all, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” was initially discarded by Strayhorn as too similar to the style of rival bandleader Fletcher Henderson. Ellington’s brother Mercer retrieved the song from a trash can, and it went on, in both vocal and instrumental arrangements, to become the Ellington Orchestra’s signature. Many of Strayhorn’s more than 100 songs were extremely sophisticated and complex, well suited to the treatment they later received from avant-garde jazz artists such as John Coltrane.
In the years after World War II, as the interests of young American dancers shifted from big-band swing toward rhythm-and-blues and rock and roll, Ellington aimed more often to create large concert works of a semi-classical nature—an enterprise that was of course very comfortable for the classically oriented Strayhorn. The two composers worked together on adaptations for the Ellington Orchestra of such classical works as Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and on original compositions in the same vein, such as the acclaimed Far East Suite. Part of the impetus for the interest in Strayhorn’s work that grew in the decades after his death was the realization that Ellington was more than just a jazz artist; he was one of the most significant American composers for orchestra, and Strayhorn contributed a great deal to what Ellington accomplished.
Despite his long association with Ellington, Strayhorn maintained an independent career. He recorded several albums as a jazz pianist, composed a series of musical shows for a benevolent association in New York’s Harlem neighborhood that were major events in the uptown social season, and wrote songs for vocalist Lena Home. Home had a romantic interest in Strayhorn, but got nowhere owing to Strayhorn’s homosexuality—which was, unlike that of almost every other creative artist of his day, openly practiced. Some have speculated that Strayhorn was willing to stay largely behind the scenes with Ellington because his secure place in Ellington’s organization gave him the chance to be honest about his sexual orientation. Late in life Strayhorn contributed music to a never-realized theatrical presentation based on the works of the gay Spanish playwright, Federico Garcia Lorca.
Stricken with cancer of the esophagus, Strayhorn died on May 31, 1967. A deeply shaken Ellington wrote (as quoted by Strayhorn biographer David Hadju) that “the legacy he leaves, his oeuvre, will never be less than the ultimate, on the highest plateau of culture.” Although at the time Strayhorn was rarely numbered among the pantheon of jazz greats, fellow musicians were well aware of his importance and had paid tributes to him by recording albums of his compositions even before his death. Ellington’s own tribute, entitled And His Mother Called Him Bill, was released as a memorial to Strayhorn’s career and is considered one of his finest pieces of work by jazz critics.
Historically Speaking: The Duke, Bethlehem, 1956.
The Billy Strayhorn Septet, Felsted, 1958.
Live!, Roulette, 1958.
Billy Strayhorn/Johnny Dankworth, Roulette, 1958.
Cue for Saxophone, Verve, 1959.
The Peaceful Side, United Artists, 1961.
Lush Life, Red Baron, 1964.
The Billy Strayhorn Songbook, Concord Jazz, 1997
Collier, James Lincoln, Duke Ellington, Oxford University Press, 1997.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 13, Gale, 1995.
Hadju, David, Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996.
Tucker, Mark, ed., The Duke Ellington Reader, Oxford University Press, 1993.
Down Beat, September 1996, p. 10.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com.
—James M. Manheim