Celebrating Billy Strayhorn

Jazz88 celebrates the birthday of legendary jazz artist Billy Strayhorn, born this day in 1915 in Dayton, Ohio and raised in Pittsburgh. Strayhorn was a gifted composer, pianist and lyricist who worked closely with Duke Ellington for decades. Strayhorn’s first contribution to the Ellington book was “Take the A Train” which the band used as its theme song. Over the ensuing decades, Strayhorn compositions like “Chelsea Bridge,” “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” “My Little Brown Book,” “Main Stem,” and “Something to Live for” became essential parts of Ellington’s repertoire.

Strayhorn and Ellington worked so closely together neither composer could say definitively who wrote what. Strayhorn’s imprint is undeniable in classic albums like the soundtrack to Anatomy of a MurderEllington’s Nutcracker Suite, and Far East Suite.

One of Strayhorn’s most beloved works was a torch song called “Lush Life”. A complicated piece of music written in the key of D Flat, it features lyrics that seem incredibly sophisticated given that Strayhorn was only 21 when he wrote it. Strayhorn introduced the song with Ellington at a Carnegie Hall concert in 1948 with vocalist Kay Davis but the most enduring version of the tune was recorded by John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman in 1963.

In 1964 Strayhorn was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, which he died from on May 31, 1967. Ellington recorded a loving and eloquent tribute to his former musical partner called “And His Mother Called Him Bill.” He said of Strayhorn “Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.”[5]

Strayhorn was openly gay at a time when it was not universally accepted. He was especially close with Lena Horne and exerted a big influence on her singing. You can read up on Strayhorn’s fascinating life in David Hajdu’s acclaimed biography Lush Life.

Here’s a great video of Strayhorn performing his composition Take the A Train live with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

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