Monday, November 30, 2015

Billy Strayhorn at 100

Annamaria on Monday

William Thomas “Billy” Strayhorn was born on 29th of November 1915.  He was the greatest composer of American jazz music ever.  Many of you will not recognize his name.  Spellcheck doesn’t even know it.  It recognizes Ellington, Armstrong, Gillespie, Basie, Gershwin, certainly—but not Strayhorn.  But Billy is the one who gave jazz its greatest measure of elegance and emotional subtlety.  He wrote songs that told stories of regret, resignation, temptation, loneliness—with melodies, rhythms, and lyrics that communicated with perfect unity of effect.  All beautiful, urbane, restrained, stylish, refined.  Yet exciting.

Billy was born in Dayton, spent his early years falling in love with music at his grandmother’s house in North Carolina and, back with his mother, went to Westinghouse High School in Pittsburgh, an institution that also gave us Erroll Garner and Ahmad Jamal.  By age nineteen, Billy was a professional musician.  With no hope of making it in the white world of classical music, he was brought to jazz by Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson.  Fate had done jazz a favor.

And an even greater act of serendipity occurred in December of 1938, one that brought together Billy and Duke Ellington.  Billy Strayhorn had a hand in, was a moving force in all the greatest songs we now associate with the Duke: “Take the A Train,” “Chelsea Bridge,” “Lush Life” are all Strayhorn compositions.

Some people accuse Ellington of hogging all the credit for Billy’s genius.  That’s a complicated subject.  It is true that Strayhorn never received royalties for the songs that he wrote that Ellington published.  On the other hand, Ellington gave Billy a musical home par excellence.  And at a time, in the 40’s and 50’s when Billy, who was openly gay, would have had a hard time making it on his own.  Strayhorn got to write for and work with the greatest jazz musicians of his era.

And the Duke did credit him.  Saying things like “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.”  And “Strayhorn does a lot of the work, but I get to take the bows.”

Next time you watch “Anatomy of a Murder,” listen carefully to the soundtrack.  Strayhorn and Ellington composed it, and it was a landmark of film music composition.

Billy Strayhorn was an early civil rights activist, with close ties to Dr. Martin Luther King.  He was Lena Horne’s best friend.

Now I’ll let his work speak for itself:

I am writing this on Sunday, the hundredth anniversary of Strayhorn’s birth.  He died in 1967, an early death of cancer at the age of only fifty-one.

But he is immortal.  


  1. In the neighborhood where I grew up in Pittsburgh--where I am at this moment--you either went to Westinghouse or Peabody. The House got Strayhorn, we got Gene Kelly.

    1. Thank, Bor. Is anyone in Pittsburg doing anything to laud Billy's 100the anniversary? It KILLS me that he is not lauded as his work deserves. People hear his music. They love it. But he gets so little recognition.

    2. I'm sure they did, Pittsburgh is quite celebratory of its native sons and daughters. Though there is one exception, my poor great aunt and uncle have never gotten the recognition they deserved, for you see they owned the apartment (behind their grocery store) in which August Wilson grew up and used as the scene for his plays...though he did mention Bella (my great aunt) a times--with affection, as I feel for you. :)

  2. I had heard his name before, but didn't know anything about him. Now I know a little more. Thanks.

  3. I hadn't ever heard his name, even though I've listened to a lot of jazz over the years. Thank you for sharing his story--and I'll definitely be listening and looking out for him from now on!

  4. Jono and Susan, Yours are exactly the responses I had hoped for. I knew there was work to be done, but when I saw that spellcheck did not know his name, I knew there were a lot of lists of important American musicians that had ignored his contribution.