Billy Strayhorn

Billy Strayhorn, dressed in a dark turtleneck shirt, sits and plays a drum that he holds between his knees

Something inside me changed when I saw Ellington onstage—like I hadn’t been living life 'til then.  
—Billy Strayhorn

Born on November 29, 1915, in Dayton, Ohio, Billy Strayhorn was the fourth of nine children. Gravely ill at birth and born into an impoverished family, he wasn't expected to survive. Four of his siblings did not. As a child, he was shielded from an abusive father by his mother, Lillian, who bought him books and sheet music from her earnings as a domestic. Lillian also sent her gifted son for extended visits to North Carolina, where his grandmother taught him to play piano. He was largely self-educated and so interested in intellectual pursuits that one of his childhood nicknames was “Dictionary.” As a young man, Strayhorn had his own newspaper route and worked as a soda jerk and delivery boy for the local drugstore, finally saving up enough money to buy his own piano.

On March 1, 1934, the diminutive Strayhorn, then a barely five-foot-tall teenager, took center stage at the Westinghouse High School auditorium. The featured soloist in Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A Minor,” Strayhorn was also the only black musician in a 25-player orchestra. The following year, Strayhorn wrote music, skits and lyrics for a sophisticated Cole Porter-style musical revue at his high school, which he called Fantastic Rhythm. The ambitious musical played at black theaters throughout western Pennsylvania for several years, attracting top-notch talent, including singer Billy Eckstine and pianist Errol Garner.

In 1938, at the age of 23, Billy Strayhorn met the 39-year-old Duke Ellington, who was performing in Pittsburgh's Crawford Grill. An impromptu backstage audition showcased Strayhorn's stunning talent at the piano, and Ellington contemplated hiring him on the spot—although, at the time, there was no real job to fill. A few months later, Strayhorn was writing arrangements for Ellington's orchestral music and living relatively openly as a gay man, a rare feat for an African American man during that time.

Billy Strayhorn, in a zip-up jacket, talks and points at someone in a crowded room

During the next 29 years, Strayhorn made an inestimable contribution to American songwriting and culture—all while working without a contract. His presence allowed Ellington to increase his workload and expand his artistic palette. Strayhorn worked as a composer and collaborator, and also served as Ellington's "guarantor," assuring that the Ellington Orchestra’s music was top notch. But it took a bitter music industry battle to allow Strayhorn’s genius to emerge.

In a highly publicized dispute over composing royalties in late 1940, ASCAP, the music licensing organization, forbid its members from broadcasting any songs over the radio. One of ASCAP’S most celebrated composers, Duke Ellington needed radio broadcasts to promote record sales, which in turn paid his orchestra’s salaries. But as of January 1, 1941, Ellington’s music was banned from the air, even as he was about to broadcast live from a Los Angeles nightclub.

During a hurried cross-country train ride to join Ellington in Los Angeles, Strayhorn, not a member of ASCAP, got almost no sleep for six straight days, writing song after song after song. Strayhorn’s prolific, engaging new work kept the Ellington Orchestra afloat for months. And when it was time for a new radio theme—Ellington’s own “Sepia Panorama” was still forbidden on the airwaves—Ellington chose Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” premiering it in early 1941.

“Take the ‘A’ Train” was the Holy Grail. It identifies a population, it identifies a lifestyle because it’s the Harlem Renaissance. It’s unbelievable. It covers everything—and it says it all in 32 bars.  
—Quincy Jones

Billy Strayhorn, in a suit and tie, kisses Lena Horne, dressed in a white dress with a white bow-like object in her hair

Remarkably, while Ellington and Strayhorn were expanding the orchestra’s musical vocabulary and composing a string of hit songs, they also embarked on a pioneering musical event. 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. A daring and risky venture for the times, the show masqueraded as a musical review and featured an all-black cast. Jump for Joy was, in fact, a social satire that fiercely attacked racism.

Ellington’s hiring of Strayhorn launched an impressively productive recording period, regarded by many critics as the most significant and creative phase of Ellington's career. And, from the early 1940s on, Strayhorn's training in classical and long-form music became central and indispensable to the orchestra. Together, the collaborators began to write longer, more complex suites and, in 1943, they performed the first of these works, “Black, Brown and Beige,” an unprecedented 43-minute jazz work, in Carnegie Hall. Most assume that Ellington was responsible for these long-form innovations, but Strayhorn was, at the very least, co-composer of many of these ambitious new works. Recently discovered Strayhorn compositions reveal much about his role, as he kept pushing both himself and Ellington in ambitious new directions.

Ellington did publicly note the importance of Strayhorn’s talent. He liked to joke onstage, “Strayhorn does a lot of the work but I get to take the bows!” This formulation was rather nearer to the truth than many suspected. Certainly, Strayhorn was considerably more than a humorous aside or a musical footnote. Not only was he the sole composer of Ellington's signature piece, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” but he also wrote other defining works, including “Passion Flower,” “Lush Life,” and “Chelsea Bridge,” and co-wrote “Satin Doll” and “Such Sweet Thunder.”

In the early 1950s, tired of his secondary role, Strayhorn left Ellington to pursue his own interests. Even after rejoining Ellington several years later, Strayhorn concluded that his musical contributions were still not sufficiently acknowledged in public.

A man of passionate beliefs, Strayhorn became a committed civil rights advocate and was a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1963, he arranged and conducted the Ellington Orchestra in “King Fought the Battle of 'Bam” for the historical revue My People, dedicated to Dr. King.

Although Billy Strayhorn’s distinguished songs, arrangements and virtuosity at the piano gave him status among musicians, few others realized what he had achieved for Ellington as his tireless co-writer and arranger. Fewer still appreciated that this generous, deferential man had created some of the most important and enduring American music of the 20th century.

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