The Music

The cover of Lush Life by Billy Strayhorn, a red and white image of a martini glass and several rectangular objects that could resemble dominos or high buildings

The cover of Take the A Train by Billy Strayhorn, a blue and white image of a subway car with people inside

Billy Strayhorn’s compositions include some of the most beloved and iconic songs in jazz history. As Duke Ellington’s under-credited collaborator, Strayhorn mastered the classic “Ellington style,” penning and arranging many of the Duke Ellington Band’s greatest hits. Strayhorn’s musical career was prolific in other ways as well—he coached singer Lena Horne, played jazz piano with classical training and wrote long-form compositions that centered on themes such as African American history.

Although Strayhorn’s talents were rarely lauded during his lifetime, when he worked primarily in Ellington’s shadow, jazz fans and scholars have since elevated the composer into his long-deserved spot in the musical pantheon. Today, musicians around the world continue to perform Strayhorn’s compositions, demonstrating his music’s timelessness and reach.

View video clips of performances of Strayhorn classics and find out more about his music below.

Elvis Costello, in brown sunglasses and bright green shirt, sings into a microphone.  Inset: Video icon link “My Flame Burns Blue”
with Elvis Costello, Joe Lovano and Bill Charlap (2:10)
Originally included on the 1967 album …and His Mother Called Him Bill (RCA), a tribute album by Duke Ellington to Billy Strayhorn released shortly after Strayhorn’s death, the song “Blood Count” was Strayhorn’s final composition. Strayhorn wrote the song, initially titled “Blue Cloud,” in the hospital, while dying from cancer of the esophagus. Singer-songwriter Elvis Costello retitled it again on his 2006 album, My Flame Burns Blue, which contains re-arranged live recordings of some jazz favorites. This version also features prolific tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and jazz pianist Bill Charlap.

Hank Jones, in a brown suit, plays the piano.  Inset: Video icon link “Satin Doll”
with Hank Jones (1:15)
This jazz staple was first released by the Duke Ellington Band in 1953. Composed by Strayhorn and Ellington—although Strayhorn was often left unaccredited—with lyrics penned by Capitol Records co-founder Johnny Mercer, “Satin Doll” includes such recognizable lines as “Cigarette holder, which wigs me/Over her shoulder, she digs me/Out cattin’, that satin doll.” The song has been recorded countless times by celebrated singers including Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. This performance features pianist and bebop pioneer Hank Jones.

A man plays the upright bass as another man plays the drums behind him.  Inset: Video icon link “Lotus Blossom”
with Hank Jones (2:28)
Duke Ellington claimed that “Lotus Blossom” was the song that Billy Strayhorn most liked to hear him play. This Strayhorn composition was included on the … and His Mother Called Him Bill collection, which was recorded a few months after Strayhorn passed away. While the Ellington Band recording of “Lotus Blossom” featured a haunting solo performance with Ellington on piano, this version features legendary jazz pianist Hank Jones.

The performances featured here are available, along with 13 other Strayhorn compositions performed by several of today’s jazz stars, on the BILLY STRAYHORN: LUSH LIFE soundtrack on Blue Note Records.


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