Composer’s Spotlight: Billy Strayhorn

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Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head, and his in mine.” – Duke Ellington

Whenever one is asked to define jazz, it is tempting to cite great jazz improvisers, such as Bird, Trane, Hawk, Brecker, and countless others, yet such a view would seem to be shortsighted. Developing out of Western harmony and African rhythms, jazz reached the peak of its popularity in the 1920s and ‘30s with the advent of the jazz orchestra, known know as the big band. In this genre, many great arrangers and composers (borrowing from the classical tradition) ushered in a tradition of extended forms, orchestration, and solo sections that helped to shape the sound of jazz. One of the greatest of these composers was the legendary Billy Strayhorn.


The life of Billy Strayhorn was, in many ways, a tragic one. Born a sickly child into a family ridden with poverty and abuse, Strayhorn entered the world on November 29, 1915, in Dayton, Ohio. Strayhorn was a studious child and devoured the sheet music and books that his mother purchased for him. After spending many years working as a newspaper boy, soda jerk, and delivery boy, Strayhorn saved up enough money to buy his own piano. At the age of 18, Strayhorn was the featured soloist — and only African American musician — in a performance of Edvard Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A Minor.”  At 19, Strayhorn wrote a musical revue, Fantastic Rhythm, which was performed around Pennsylvania for the next several years, featuring legendary vocalist Billy Eckstine and pianist Errol Garner.

When Strayhorn was 23, he met Duke Ellington for the first time when Ellington was playing at the Crawford Grill in Pittsburgh, PA. Says Strayhorn, “Something inside me changed when I saw Ellington onstage — like I hadn’t been living life ‘til then.” He impressed Ellington with an impromptu performance of an Ellington standard; Strayhorn played it the first time with Duke’s original arrangement, and then played a reharmonization. The impressed Ellington then invited Strayhorn to his house. Strayhorn used the directions given to him by Ellington, along with the few days between these two meetings, to compose the tune, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” in an effort to impress Ellington. Needless to say, Ellington was impressed; “Take the ‘A’ Train” became the band’s theme song and one of their top hits.

Ellington hired Strayhorn as a composer, arranger, and second pianist in 1938; Strayhorn would stay with Ellington for the better part of the next 29 years, until Strayhorn’s

Billy Strayhorn (R) demonstrating a passage to Duke Ellington (L)

death in 1967. With their working relationship being as close as it was, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate Strayhorn’s writing from Ellington’s. Compositions that are credited exclusively to Strayhorn include “Lush Life,” (written when Strayhorn was only 19), “Chelsea Bridge,” “Lotus Blossom,” and “Take the ‘A’ Train,” but he collaborated with Ellington on hits such as “Satin Doll,” “Day Dream,” and “Something to Live For.” Ellington and Strayhorn also collaborated on a jazz version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, the musical Jump for Joy, and film music for Anatomy of a Murder.

Strayhorn was known as a bit of an introvert, a foil to Ellington’s showman personality. Nevertheless, Strayhorn was admired for his impeccable character and was part of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s circle of personal friends. Strayhorn was plagued by struggle his entire life, both as an openly gay man in the mid-20th century and as a sickly man who was often in a great deal of physical pain. Strayhorn died in 1967 after a three-year bout with esophageal cancer, during which time he composed the tune “Blood Count,” which was played by the Duke Ellington Orchestra only once — on the posthumous tribute album …And His Mother Called Him Bill.

Musically Speaking

Strayhorn was a genius in many ways.  In addition to the heart-wrenching lyrics, the strong melody, and the incredible use of modal interchange, the subtle modulations help to make “Lush Life” one of the most beautiful standards ever written. The recording below, featuring John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, is now considered one of the most legendary jazz recordings in history.

“Blood Count” shows a somewhat different side of Strayhorn’s musical genius. In this piece, his skillful orchestration and knowledge of his players’ strengths are exceedingly important. Written to feature alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, this piece constitutes the last words that Billy Strayhorn spoke to the world; they are bitter, painful, and spoken by a gentle and kind soul who, true to the turmoil of his life, his last great work unresolved.


          February 10, 2018