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Miles Davis circa 1955; Duke Ellington; Louis Armstrong; Cover of Sheet Music by Fats Waller
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Billy Strayhorn

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William; Swee'Pea (1915- 1967) Composer, arranger, and pianist

NPR Audio Feature The NPR 100: "Take the 'A' Train
Brooke Gladstone has the story of composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn and his enduring jazz classic, a selection from National Public Radio's list of the 100 most important American musical recordings of the 20th Century.

Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn
Image courtesy of Sony Music, Photo by Don Hunstein
As a youth in Hillsborough, North Carolina, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Billy Strayhorn received an extensive training in music. In December 1938, he 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.

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). After serving briefly as a pianist in Mercer Ellington's orchestra, Strayhorn joined Duke Ellington's band as associate arranger and second pianist, and for nearly three decades worked in close collaboration with the leader. The two men were so attuned to one another musically, and Strayhorn's work was such a perfect complement to Ellington's, that it is now impossible to establish the exact extent of the former's contribution to Ellington's oeuvre. Their relationship was described in flattering terms by Ellington in his autobiography (1973). Strayhorn collaborated on more than 200 items in Ellington's repertory, including such standards as Take the "A" Train (one of the band's theme tunes) and Satin Doll. His ballads, including Lush Life, Something to Live For, Day Dream, After All, Passion Flower, Chelsea Bridge, Lotus Blossom, and Blood Count, are harmonically and structurally among the most sophisticated in jazz.

NPR Audio Feature NPR'S Weekend Edition: Billy Strayhorn
Korva Coleman speaks with writer David Hajdu about his book Lush Life, a biography of Strayhorn published in 1996. She also interviews with jazz pianist Fred Hirsch.

Strayhorn was a technically fluent pianist and made a notable contribution to several small-group recordings by various of Ellington's sidemen, including Cootie Williams (1939), Bigard (1939-40), Johnny Hodges (1939,1947, 1956-8), the Ellingtonians (1950), the Coronets (1950-51), Louie Bellson (1952), Ben Webster (1954), and Clark Terry (1957). He also recorded a number of titles in a trio with Ellington and either Wendell Marshall or Joe Shulman, which were issued on an album under his own name (Billy Strayhorn Trio, 1950, Mercer 1001).

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For personal, non-commercial use only. Copying or other reproduction is prohibited.
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