Billy Strayhorn

He was an extraordinary composer, arranger, pianist, and musician. Some considered him a genius. However, Billy Strayhorn spent most of his adult life in the shadow of Duke Ellington, his friend and collaborator. Only recently has Strayhorn’s profile been elevated to that of Ellington. David Hajdu, the author of Lush Life, diligently searched the Strayhorn archives and discovered that Strayhorn had a far greater contribution to the Ellington legacy than previously thought. Many Strayhorn compositions were recorded as Ellington/Strayhorn (“Day Dream,” “Something to Live For”), and collaborations between them were only listed under Ellington’s name (“Satin Doll,” Sugar Hill Penthouse,” C-Jam Blues”), in which Strayhorn pieces were copiedrighted under Ellington’s or no name at all. Even songs that were originally listed as Strayhorn’s have been affected. The street man will likely tell you that “Take ‘A’ Train”, perhaps Strayhorn’s most well-known tune, is a Duke Ellington tune. Despite this, Strayhorn’s classics are still well-known among jazz musicians and fans. Although Strayhorn’s pieces are based on the Ellington style, they often have a bittersweet flavor. His larger pieces have consistent, classically inspired designs that differ from Ellington’s. Strayhorn was both content and frustrated with his second-fiddle status. He was also one the few jazz musicians who was openly gay, which added stress to his life. Classical music was Strayhorn’s first and most important musical love. As a child prodigy, he gravitated toward Victrolas and worked odd jobs to purchase an upright piano. In high school, he studied harmony and piano, and he wrote the music for Fantastic Rhythm at 19. Strayhorn’s experiences as a black man trying his luck in the classical world at the time, and exposure to pianists such as Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum, led him to jazz. The Mad Hatters were a group that he played with around Pittsburgh. Strayhorn was introduced to Duke Ellington by a friend. Ellington’s band had stopped in Pittsburgh in 1938. Ellington gave Strayhorn an assignment immediately after hearing him play. In January 1939, Strayhorn arrived in New York to become an arranger, composer and occasional pianist. Ellington claimed that he said, “I don’t have any job for you.” “You can do what you want.” Strayhorn was able to contribute many tunes to Ellington’s band book after a 1940-1941 dispute between ASCAP and Ellington. Strayhorn would work with Ellington on many of his large-scale suites. These included “Such Sweet Thunder,” A Drum Is a Woman,” and “The Perfume Suite.” As well as musicals such as Jump for Joy, Saturday Laughter, as well as the score for Anatomy of a Murder. In the 1950s, Strayhorn began to take on his own projects, such as solo albums, revues for the Copasetics in New York, theater collaborations with Luther Henderson and songs for Lena Horne. Strayhorn was diagnosed in 1964 with cancer of the esophagus. This was aggravated by years spent smoking and drinking. He submitted “Blood Count” to Ellington while in hospital. In memory of Strayhorn, Ellington recorded And His Mother Called Him Bill (RCA) shortly after his death. Allmusic

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