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Billy Strayhorn: Powerful Behind-the-Scene Arranger and Composer

William Thomas Strayhorn or Billy Strayhorn is a familiar name in the world of Jazz, mostly for his collaborations with Duke Ellington. The American was an arranger, lyricist, pianist, and composer who worked with Ellington for nearly thirty years.

Billy Stayhorn working on music at a piano

Early Life

William was born on the 29th of November, 1915, in Dayton, Ohio. The Strayhorn’s soon shifted to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, settling in Homewood. However, the young William was sent over to live with his maternal grandparents in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His grandmother was the primary influence of music during his entire childhood, as he ended up learning and playing piano from her. He would play her hymns and records growing up.

Musical Journey

William joined grade school, returning to his hometown in Pittsburgh. He bought his first piano after earning through odd jobs. He joined the Westinghouse High School and enrolled in piano lessons under Charlotte Enty Catlin. He also became a part of the school band, further learning piano under Carl McVicker. He then joined the Pittsburgh Music Institute to pursue classical music. Strayhorn soon crafted a “high school musical,” formed his own musical trio, and started playing regularly at the local radio. He had composed the lyrics and music for the song “Life Is Lonely,” which was later titled “Lush Life.” His other teenage compositions include “Something to Live For” and “My Little Brown Book.”

Strayhorn adored classical music, but he also faced the realities of a colored man trying to carve his own niche in the harsh world of classical music. An industry that was predominantly white was also responsible for foiling his ambitions. However, William also had the fortune of listening to the music of legendary pianists like Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum as a teenager. These artists were big influencers in introducing him to the world of jazz, a realm that was made for his talents. He first listened to jazz when the rock band called “The Mad Hatters” came to Pittsburgh. His piano classmates Mickey Scrima and Bill Esch cajoled him to the show, and young William soon fell in love. In 1937, he was already composing arrangements for Buddy Malone's dance band.

Strayhorn met Duke Ellington in 1938. He had previously watched his idol play, and this was a dream opportunity for him. The dream soon turned into reality when he explained and later exhibited how he would have personally arranged one of Duke’s own compositions. It clearly left a mark on Ellington, who also invited his band members to hear the young Billy. He also scheduled a future meetup in New York City. Soon, Billy joined Ellington’s band as a collaborator, music composer, and arranger. He also played the piano occasionally and held the role until his demise.

Shortly before the European tour of Ellington and his band, Billy started living with Duke’s family, which also comprised Ruth Ellington and her son Mercer. Billy was introduced to Aaron Bridgers, another African-American musician by Mercer. They connected instantly, and the couple soon started living together. Billy Strayhorn was a proud member of the LGBTQ community. He was openly gay. He was also a civil rights activist and a close friend of the legendary Martin Luther King Jr. In 1963, he also arranged and conducted a special piece for the Ellington Orchestra, titled “King Fit the Battle of Alabama,” dedicating it to King. At that time, he had already cut his ties with the Ellington band and was pursuing a solo career. He went on to release multiple solo albums for a New York-based show-business society called “Copasetics” and then collaborated with Luther Henderson to concentrate on theatre productions.

A Father Figure 

Duke Ellington’s relationship with Billy can be a tad difficult to dissect. Duke was the father figure under whose shadow Strayhorn weaved his magic. The whole band affectionately protected Billy, giving him multiple nicknames like “Swee’ Pea,” “Weely,” and “Strays.” Ellington undoubtedly took advantage of Billy’s musical prowess, but it was much more delicate. He utilized Billy for introducing new musical ideas, also providing him with ample freedom to create his own music. Ellington always got the lion’s share of credit, but he also acknowledged that fact publicly. However, he also never ensured that Billy got his fair share of the publicity, which he deserved. Strayhorn did his best to hide his disappointments, but he did reveal his annoyance among his close friends. He was particularly skeptical about his contributions largely going uncompensated and unattributed.

Billy crafted “Take the ‘A’ Train,” the band's most famous theme, "Take the 'A' Train", while several of his other compositions became a crucial part of the group’s repertoire. He did receive attribution for some of his compositions like - “Rain Check,” “Chelsea Bridge,” and “Lotus Blossom.” Some tracks like “Something to Live For” and “Day Dream” were credited as joint collaborations of Strayhorn and Ellington, while the plaudits for “Sugar Hill Penthouse” and “Satin Doll” went solely to Ellington. Billy was also responsible for the majority of the band’s in-house sessions, offering a touch of polish, clarity, and magic to Ellington’s compositions. This was later appreciated by Ellington, who gave him full credit for their bigger collaborations like “The Far East Suite,” “The Perfume Suite,” “A Drum Is a Woman,” and “Such Sweet Thunder.” Billy also became a frequent piano player for both studio and live performances.

The duo’s claim to fame clearly came from their work on the famous Hollywood movie “Anatomy of a Murder.” The album wouldn’t generally rank among the top echelons of their collaboration, but it did offer some stiff competition. It received both critical plaudits and commercial success and was considered a cultural landmark - the first instance where an African-American duo had composed non-diegetic music for a Hollywood blockbuster. The composers completely bypassed the cultural stereotypes, offering very little of “conventional jazz” while concentrating more on the visual effects of their music. In 1960, they again worked together on “The Nutcracker Suite,” an album that featured jazz interpretations of Tchaikovsky’s famous “The Nutcracker.” The cover of the original album featured both Strayhorn and Ellington’s pictures.

Blood Count 

In early 1967, Billy Strayhorn composed “Blood Count,” which was initially meant as a three-piece work for Duke Ellington. It was originally titled “Blue Cloud.” However, Billy was already diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and the effects of his radiation treatment soon landed him at the Hospital for Joint Diseases. He continued composing the movements but soon realized his health might prove detrimental in the completion of this extended piece. So, he shared the score with Ellington and had parts extracted as a safety measure. He also changed the title as a testament to his time at the hospital. The lead sheet of the original document has records of this title in the composer’s own handwriting. In March, Ellington and his band toured Italy and Germany where they performed this piece in front of a live audience. Subsequently, another performance was held at “Theatre Des Champs Elysees” in the French capital. The band again performed it live upon their return to New York City. This Carnegie Hall concert was recorded as part of an album “The Greatest Jazz Concert in the World,” - a multi-disc set. Five days later, Billy Strayhorn passed away on the 31st of May, 1967. In August, Duke Ellington included the tune of “Blood Count” in his tribute album, titled “And His Mother Called Him Bill.” Other artists who have also recorded the track were - Bobby Watson, Joe Henderson, Jimmy Rowles, and Stan Getz.


Billy Strayhorn was a gifted pianist. Racism stopped him from making it in classical music but couldn’t stop his trajectory in jazz. He had, in some form, emulated his childhood icon Duke Ellington through his music - as the years went by, he strode in the opposite direction from the conventional strata of jazz. His rhythms, harmonies, musical structures, and orchestrations became more on point with the Broadway and Swing era he himself was a part of. He established distinct functions to his music - they withered, illustrated, or accompanied a storyline or made people groove. His big orchestrations utilized polyphonic voices for backgrounds, albeit with counterpoints. This enabled him to sway the spotlight on the adjacent sections of the melody. His approach to tonality was horizontal and gave him more freedom to utilize his tonal aspects.

Strayhorn’s usage of temporary modulation points to increase his control over harmony is laudable. His music formulated internal cohesion that unified his work, setting him apart from Ellington. There is specific and detailed usage of textures, instrumentation, chords, and dissonance that display a mature and complex style, one which also portrays an unrivaled emotional quotient. His writing was clearly influenced by the emergence of fresh styles like modal jazz, cool jazz, and bebop. The effect worked both ways. Billy Strayhorn incorporated a unique stylistic wing to the monument named Duke Ellington building, one for which he wasn’t credited enough. This was a person who acted behind the scenes, rarely exhibiting himself even in show business. A bohemian homosexual black man who stood firm in the flamboyant jazz scene of New York City. An icon.


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