William Thomas “Billy” Strayhorn (November 29, 1915 – May 31, 1967) was an American composer, pianist and arranger, best known for his successful collaboration with bandleader and composer Duke Ellington lasting nearly three decades. His compositions include “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Chelsea Bridge,” and “Lush Life.” Strayhorn was born in Dayton, Ohio. His family soon moved to the Homewood section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. However, his mother’s family was from Hillsborough, North Carolina, and she sent him there to protect him from his father’s drunken sprees. Strayhorn spent many months of his childhood at his grandparents’ house in Hillsborough. In an interview, Strayhorn said that his grandmother was his primary influence during the first ten years of his life. He first became interested in music while living with her, playing hymns on her piano, and playing records on her Victrola record player.Strayhorn returned to Pittsburgh, and attended Westinghouse High School, later attended by Erroll Garner and Ahmad Jamal. In Pittsburgh, he began his musical career, studying classical music for a time at the Pittsburgh Music Institute, writing a high school musical, forming a musical trio that played daily on a local radio station, and, while still in his teens, composing (with lyrics) the songs “Life Is Lonely” (later renamed “Lush Life”), “My Little Brown Book”, and “Something to Live For”. While still in grade school, he worked odd jobs to earn enough money to buy his first piano. While in high school, he played in the school band, and studied under the same teacher who had also instructed jazz pianists Erroll Garner and Mary Lou Williams. By age 19, he was writing for a professional musical, Fantastic Rhythm. Though classical music was Strayhorn’s first love, his ambition to become a classical composer was shot down by the harsh reality of a black man trying to make it in the then almost completely white classical world. Strayhorn was then introduced to the music of pianists like Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson at age 19. These musicians guided him into the realm of jazz where he remained for the rest of his life. His first jazz exposure was in a combo called the Mad Hatters who played around Pittsburgh. He met Duke Ellington in December 1938, after an Ellington performance in Pittsburgh (he had first seen Ellington play in Pittsburgh in 1933). 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, “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. Billy Strayhorn, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948. Strayhorn’s 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. 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!” Strayhorn composed the band’s best known 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 others, 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. Shortly before Ellington went on his second European tour with his orchestra, from March to May 1939, Ellington announced to his sister Ruth and son Mercer Ellington that Strayhorn “is staying with us.” Through Mercer, Strayhorn met his first partner, African-American musician Aaron Bridgers, with whom Strayhorn lived until Bridgers moved to Paris in 1947. Strayhorn was openly gay. He participated in many civil rights causes. 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. Billy Strayhorn’s strong character left an impression on many people who met him. He had a major influence on the career of Lena Horne, who wanted to marry Strayhorn and considers him to have been the love of her life. Strayhorn used his classical background in guiding Horne’s singing technique toward improvement. They eventually recorded songs together. In the 1950s, Strayhorn left his musical partner Duke Ellington for a few years to pursue a solo career of his own. He came out with a few solo albums and revues for the Copasetics (a New York show-business society), and took on theater productions with his friend Luther Henderson. Strayhorn’s compositions are known for the bittersweet sentiment and classically infused designs that set him apart from Ellington. Strayhorn was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 1964, which eventually caused his death in 1967. Strayhorn finally succumbed in the early morning on May 31, 1967, in the company of his partner, Bill Grove. (It has often been falsely reported that Strayhorn died in Lena Horne’s arms. By her own account, Horne was touring in Europe when she received the news of Strayhorn’s death.) His ashes were scattered in the Hudson River by a gathering of his closest friends. While in the hospital, he had submitted his final composition to Ellington. “Blood Count”, which was used as the first track to Ellington’s memorial album for Strayhorn, …And His Mother Called Him Bill, was recorded several months after Strayhorn’s death. The last track of the album is a spontaneous solo version of “Lotus Blossom” performed by Ellington, who sat at the piano and played for his friend while the band (who can be heard in the background) packed up after the formal end of the recording session.
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