BILLY STRAYHORN, American musician and composer born (d. 1967); American composer, pianist and arranger, best known for his seminal collaboration with bandleader and composer Duke Ellington lasting two decades. The composition most closely associated with Strayhorn is Lush Life.
His first jazz exposure was a combo called the “Mad Hatters” who played around Pittsburgh, until he met Duke Ellington in December, 1938, after an Ellington performance in Pittsburgh in late 1938. Here he first told, and then showed, the band leader how he would have arranged one of Duke’s own pieces. Ellington was impressed enough to invite other band members to hear Strayhorn. At the end of the visit he arranged for Strayhorn to meet him when the band returned to New York. Strayhorn worked for Ellington for the next quarter century as an arranger, composer, occasional pianist and collaborator until his early death from cancer. As Ellington described him, “my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back if my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine”. Some have suggested that Ellington and Strayhorn were, actually lovers.
His relationship with Ellington was always difficult to pin down: Strayhorn was a gifted composer and arranger who seemed to flourish in Duke’s shadow. Ellington was somewhat of a father figure and the band, by and large, was affectionately protective of the diminutive, mild-mannered, unselfish Strayhorn, nicknamed by the band “Strays”, “Weely”, and “Swee’ Pea”. Ellington may have taken advantage of him, but not in the mercenary way that others had taken advantage of Ellington; instead, he used Strayhorn to complete his thoughts, while giving Strayhorn the freedom to write on his own and enjoy at least some of the credit he deserved. Strayhorn, for his part, may have preferred to stay out of the limelight, since that also allowed him to be out of the closet in an era and a community intolerant of Gay artists.
Though Duke Ellington took credit for much of Strayhorn’s work, he did not maliciously drown out his partner. Ellington would make jokes onstage like, “Strayhorn does a lot of the work but I get to take the bows!” In addition to Strayhorn being naturally shy, society made it hard for a black homosexual to get any recognition at all.
Strayhorn composed the band’s theme, Take the A Train and a number of other pieces that became part of the band’s repertoire. In some cases Strayhorn received attribution for his work such as, Lotus Blossom, Chelsea Bridge, and Rain Check, while other such as Day Dream and Something to Live For, were listed as collaborations with Ellington or in the case of Satin Doll and Sugar Hill Penthouse were credited to Ellington alone. Strayhorn also arranged many of Ellington’s band-within-band recordings and provided harmonic clarity, taste, and polish to Duke’s compositions. On the other hand, Ellington gave Strayhorn full credit as his collaborator on later, larger works such as Such Sweet Thunder, A Drum Is a Woman, The Perfume Suite and The Far East Suite, where Strayhorn and Ellington worked closely together.
Openly Gay during an extremely homophobic era, Strayhorn participated in many civil rights acts trying to correct this societal flaw before the movement gained momentum. As a committed friend to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he arranged and conducted King Fought the Battle of ‘Bam’ for the Ellington Orchestra in 1963 for the historical revue My People, dedicated to Dr. King. Critics agree that his dedication to the gay movement was a contributing factor to him being so overlooked as an important musician. People concentrated more on the fact that he was Gay and black then his genius as a pianist, composer, and arranger. For this reason, he hid behind Duke Ellington for so long, letting him take credit for much of his work. Billy Strayhorn had a reputation for having an impact on many people he met because he had such a strong character. He had a major influence on the career of Lena Horne.