Music Memories: Billy Strayhorn

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Billy Strayhorn is a jazz composer, pianist, lyricist and arranger.

Billy Strayhorn was born on November 29, 1915. Strayhorn was a jazz composer and arranger who spent most of his career as Duke Ellington’s creative partner.

Strayhorn began to consider music as a career while he was in high school. He wrote the high school musical and performed regularly with a trio on local radio. He began composing and songwriting, and did most of the work on one of his signature songs, “Lush Life,” while still in his teens. (Strayhorn’s own piano performance of “Lush Life” can be heard on his 1961 album The Peaceful Side; the song has been recorded by a wide variety of performers.)

He had hoped to be a classical pianist, but the world of classical music was not welcoming to black musicians in the 1930s. Strayhorn discovered jazz in his late teens and was writing arrangements for Pittsburgh’s jazz bands within a few years.

He was confident in his skills, so much so that when Strayhorn met Duke Ellington in 1938, he had no hesitation about offering his opinion about how the arrangement of one of Ellington’s pieces might have been improved. Ellington was impressed by Strayhorn’s talent and confidence and hired him as a composer and arranger.

It can be difficult to untangle which songs in the Ellington/Strayhorn collaboration were written by which man. Ellington’s willingness to share credit was inconsistent. Some pieces that we now know to have been written by Strayhorn were originally credited as collaborations, or as the sole work of Ellington. It is also true that Ellington’s public statements about Strayhorn were usually very generous; "Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine,” Ellington wrote in his memoir.

3 albums of Billy Strayhorn

In 1941, an odd set of legal circumstances led to Strayhorn getting all of the credit he deserved for some of his work. The American Society of Composers, Artists, and Publishers (ASCAP) is one of the major performing rights organizations; they make sure that composers and performers are paid when their music is performed. In 1941, ASCAP raised the rates that radio stations were charged to play music by ASCAP members, and many radio stations boycotted that music.

Ellington was an ASCAP member, which meant that he was in the position of being unable to play his own music on radio broadcasts because the stations didn’t want to pay the fees for it. Ellington needed new music that wasn’t controlled by ASCAP, and Strayhorn was a member of BMI, a different performing rights organization whose fees were lower. So for ten months, music written by—and credited to—Strayhorn took center stage with Ellington’s orchestra.

Among the music Strayhorn wrote during the ASCAP boycott was the song that because the signature tune for Ellington’s band—“Take the A Train.” Lyrics were added a few years later by singer Joya Sherrill, who was hired by Ellington after he heard her sing the song.

Strayhorn was usually receiving full credit as a composer or collaborator by the time of Ellington’s album-length suites in the 1950s and 1960s. He is given credit, for instance, on the 1967 Far East Suite and the 1957 Shakespeare-inspired Such Sweet Thunder.

Strayhorn was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 1964 and died of that illness on May 31, 1967. Several months later, Ellington released...And His Mother Called Him Bill, an album in tribute to Strayhorn; it includes Strayhorn’s final composition, “Blood Count.”

Strayhorn and Ellington were both pianists, so Strayhorn rarely had the chance to perform as part of Ellington’s orchestra, though he frequently served as a rehearsal pianist. He did record a few solo albums as a pianist, and the best of that work is collected on Piano Passion. Strayhorn and Ellington recorded an album of piano duets called Great Times! Strayhorn can also be heard as the pianist in some small ensemble albums led by Ellington’s saxophonist, Johnny Hodges, including Duke’s in Bed and Blues-a-Plenty; his work as bandleader and arranger can be heard on Johnny Hodges with Billy Strayhorn and the Orchestra.

And Strayhorn’s music can be hard on many “songbook” albums devoted to Strayhorn, Strayhorn/Ellington, or Ellington. Such songbooks have been recorded by (among others) Art Farmer, Joe Henderson, Fred Hersch, Ella Fitzgerald, Darius de Haas, and the Dutch Jazz Orchestra.

David Hajdu’s biography of Strayhorn is Lush Life (e-book | print).