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Billy Strayhorn

An extravagantly gifted composer, arranger, and pianist -- some considered him a genius -- Billy Strayhorn toiled throughout most of his maturity in the gaudy shadow of his employer, collaborator, and friend, Duke Ellington. Only in the last decade has Strayhorn's profile been lifted to a level approaching that of Ellington, where diligent searching of the Strayhorn archives (mainly by David Hajdu, author of the excellent Strayhorn bio Lush Life) revealed that Strayhorn's contribution to the Ellington legacy was far more extensive and complex than once thought. There are several instances where Strayhorn compositions were registered as Ellington/Strayhorn pieces ("Day Dream," "Something to Live For"), where collaborations between the two were listed only under Ellington's name ("Satin Doll," "Sugar Hill Penthouse," "C-Jam Blues"), where Strayhorn pieces were copyrighted under Ellington's name or no name at all. Even tunes that were listed as Strayhorn's alone have suffered; the proverbial man on the street is likely to tell you that "Take the 'A' Train" -- perhaps Strayhorn's most famous tune -- is a Duke Ellington song.

Still, among musicians and jazz fans, Strayhorn is renowned for acknowledged classics like "Lotus Blossom," "Lush Life," "Rain Check," "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing," and "Mid-Riff." While tailored for the Ellington idiom, Strayhorn's pieces often have their own bittersweet flavor, and his larger works have coherent, classically influenced designs quite apart from those of Ellington. Strayhorn was alternately content with and frustrated by his second-fiddle status, and he was also one of the few openly gay figures in jazz, which probably added more stress to his life.

Classical music was Strayhorn's first and life-long musical love. He started out as a child prodigy, gravitating toward Victrolas as a child, and working odd jobs in order to buy a used upright piano while in grade school. He studied harmony and piano in high school, writing the music for a professional musical, Fantastic Rhythm, at 19. But the realities of a black man trying to make it in the then-lily-white classical world, plus exposure to pianists like Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson, led Strayhorn toward jazz. He gigged around Pittsburgh with a combo called the Mad Hatters. Through a friend of a friend, Strayhorn gained an introduction to Duke Ellington when the latter's band stopped in Pittsburgh in 1938. After hearing Strayhorn play, Ellington immediately gave him an assignment, and in January 1939, Strayhorn moved to New York to join Ellington as an arranger, composer, occasional pianist, and collaborator without so much as any kind of contract or verbal agreement. "I don't have any position for you," Ellington allegedly said. "You'll do whatever you feel like doing."

A 1940-1941 dispute with ASCAP that kept Ellington's compositions off the radio gave Strayhorn his big chance to contribute several tunes to the Ellington band book, among them "After All," "Chelsea Bridge," "Johnny Come Lately," and "Passion Flower." Over the years, Strayhorn would collaborate (and be given credit) with Ellington in many of his large-scale suites, like "Such Sweet Thunder," "A Drum Is a Woman," "The Perfume Suite," and "The Far East Suite," as well as musicals like Jump for Joy and Saturday Laughter, and the score for the film Anatomy of a Murder. Beginning in the '50s, Strayhorn also took on some projects of his own away from Ellington, including a few solo albums, revues for a New York society called the Copasetics, theater collaborations with Luther Henderson, and songs for his friend Lena Horne. In 1964, Strayhorn was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus, aggravated by years of smoking and drinking, and he submitted his last composition, "Blood Count," to the Ellington band while in the hospital. Shortly after Strayhorn's death in May 1967, Ellington recorded one of his finest albums and the best introduction to Strayhorn's work, And His Mother Called Him Bill (RCA), in memory of his friend. ~ Richard S. Ginell, Rovi
full bio

Comments

Wow
Interestingl y , on Ellington's And His Mother Called Him Bill, which Richard Gineil calls one of his finest albums, there are none of the great Strayhorn's tunes.
wilbudge
Tres bonito!
Strayhorn = GENUIS!!
tamrahiggs
Nice vibe.
tamrahiggs
Nie vibe.
Billy was an "Old Soul" whose arrangements came out in Duke's music and punctuated with Johnny Hodges sax. Couldn't ask for a better grouping; and for the record, Duke loved Billy and locked himself in his apartment after Billy died.
This man's musical contribution s were not known to me....not until I read his bio......... . . l i k e his musical style and arrangements . . . . w i l l sweek other compositions written by him.
ageorge3371
COOL DUDE!!!
rhtidwell05
Strayhorn, with out a doubt a genius. Google the PBS show about him, I think you can still buy a copy of the program. Worth every penny.
lyrilist without par. The Duke suffocated him.
Genius - applied to many but in the case of Billy Strayhorn, accurate.
dodeg
INCREDIBLE
The world should be forever greatful to Billy Strayhorn contribution to the the art form. I know that many of us musicians appreciate his music. He was truly a genius in his own right.
giannata
Strayhorn is part of 20th century music, truly a genius...lik e Bernstein as far as depth and feeling, but in many ways more soulful. It is a stain on the music industry that full credit and reward was not given to him for the "Ellington" songs. I perform Lush Life at a club at least 2xs a week and people ask after the song, where did that song come from...I rest my case.
suziquzi
This guy is pathetic. He can't carry a tune.
(part 2, continues from below):
It glosses over the historical realities of the time. Racism and homophobia (& sexism to an extent) intersected in the life of a leading US musician, and he suffered for it. Taking credit for his work was too risky.
A genius hid his love life within an insular community because to do otherwise risked his health or his life. I don't think I'm mischaracter i z i n g or sensationali z i n g . The situation was much different from today, too different to use the same terms.
I adore Billy Strayhorn's songs, his compositions and accomplishme n t s . But I'm uncertain at best, indignant at worst, when folks call him openly gay, even couched as the rare and brave thing it was as in the All Music Guide entry above.

As an Out Gay man of 49 in 2008, I think we're retroactivel y seeing history through inaccurate contemporary filters when we say Strayhorn was openly gay in the 40s and 50s in the US.

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