Billy Strayhorn penned some of the world's most definitive jazz standards and most enduring American music of the 20th century. Dr. Billy Taylor credits Strayhorn for expanding the swing vocabulary of chord voicings in his compositions that include the classics Lush Life, Take the A Train, Day Dream, Lotus Blossom, and Something to Live For. Billy collaborated with Duke Ellington over a thirty year period writing and arranging music for Duke's band and trio. He also worked with Lena Horne, Johnny Hodges, and others.
Billy “Swee’ pea” Strayhorn was born in 1915 in Dayton, Ohio. His family moved to Pittsburgh in 1920 and he grew up in Homewood. Billy began playing his grandmother's piano when he was tall enough to reach the keys. He worked several odd jobs and saved up to buy a second-hand piano, sheet music and take private classical music lessons from Charlotte Catlin at Volkweins Music Store. He attended Westinghouse High School where he studied piano and harmony with Jane Patton Alexander. He did so well in Alexander's course she let him teach the class. Working his way up he became the first pianist for the orchestra and performed piano concertos. His orchestra director Carl McVickers said that Billy was an accomplished professional in high school.
Strayhorn's great desire was to become a classical concert pianist. Facing discrimination in the classical music world and lacking finances, he was unable to attend music school after high school graduation. He worked for several years as drug store soda jerk and as a pianist/arranger to save money for his education. In 1935 Strayhorn wrote the music, lyrics, and skits for a Cole Porter-style musical called Fantastic Rhythm that was first performed by Westinghouse high school. It was such a success, two businessmen financed the show. Fantastic Rhythm was a hit that played at black theaters throughout western Pennsylvania for several years. The cast included singer Billy Eckstine and pianist Errol Garner. The show featured the song "My Little Brown Book" that was later recorded by Duke Ellington. At this time Billy also composed his classic song Lush Life.
In 1936 upon saving up enough money for tuition, Billy enrolled in the Pittsburgh Music Institute to continue his classical music studies. When his teacher and the school founder Charles Boyd died suddenly in 1937 Billy left school. Strayhorn formed a trio with clarinetist Jerry Eisner and drummer Calvin Dort in 1937 that became known at the Mad Hatters. They played Billy's original music, such as his song "Something to Live For" and his arrangements of popular jazz tunes. They got their first gig at Billy Ray's club in East Liberty and played there every weekend for a year. They became a quartet in 1938 and played the summer at the Rakuen Lake resort. Strayhorn also took a regular gig playing piano at Woogie Harris's club in the Hill. As his reputation grew he began arranging music for several Pittsburgh bands.
In 1938, Duke Ellington was in Pittsburgh doing a week of shows at the Stanley Theater. George Greenlee, whose uncle Gus Greenlee owned the Crawford grill and was a friend of the Duke, was classmate of Billy's friend David Pearlman. Pearlman convinced George to ask Duke to hear Strayhorn play. George went to the Crawford Grill to speak to the Duke, who agreed to hear Billy play. The next afternoon Strayhorn and George went to Duke's dressing room at the Stanley. Billy played Ellington’s music and some of his own tunes including the song “Something to Live For”. Ellington called in other members of his band saying "Listen to this kid play." Ellington gave Billy the music for a new song and ask to return the next day with lyrics for it. Three days later the Duke asked him to do an arrangement of the song "Two Sleepy People". The band performed the arrangement unrehearsed on their last night at the Stanley. After the show Ellington told Billy that he wanted him in his organization, paid him $20 for the arrangement, and gave him subway directions to his apartment in Harlem.
Billy used Duke's subway directions, wrote a song called "Take the A Train" and took it with him to New York.
You must take the A train
To go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem
If you miss the A train
You'll find you missed the quickest way to Harlem
Hurry, get on, now it's coming
Listen to those rails a-humming
All aboard, get on the A train
Soon you will be on Sugar Hill in Harlem
In January of 1939 at the age of 22 Strayhorn moved to Harlem to work with Ellington. Billy moved into Ellington's apartment and began doing arrangements and compositions. The Duke Ellington Orchestra recorded and released Strayhorn's "Something to Live" in March of 1939. Strayhorn and Duke Ellington worked together over the next thirty years. Strayhorn and Ellington collaborated on over five hundred recorded compositions and arrangements. Billy worked with Duke as an arranger, composer, occasional pianist and collaborator until his early death from cancer.
Ellington described Strayhorn as
“my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head, and his in mine.”
In 1941 Billy went to California with Duke Ellington's band. There Duke introduced him to a young singer from Pittsburgh who was just starting her career: Lena Horne. They became very close and Lena feel in love with Billy. Billy worked with Lena to teach her music, refine her singing style, and put her repertoire together. He took her to auditions accompanying her on piano. She landed a gig at the Little Troc club and the show became a must-see in Hollywood. Her movie career was launched from that success.
In 1948 the Downbeat Readers poll named Strayhorn the best music arranger. Nat King Cole released the first recording of Lush Life in 1949. During the 50's and 60's, Strayhorn recorded several solo albums, worked on recordings for Johnny Danksworth, did theatrical productions, and wrote songs for his close friend Lena Horne. His solo recordings include "Billy Strayhorn Septet" (1958), "Live" (1958), Peaceful Side (1961), and Billy Strayhorn and the Orchestra LP (1961). His theatrical collaborations with Ellington were the 1957 "Such Sweet Thunder," an instrumental suite inspired by Shakespeare at performed at New York's Town Hall and the national television broadcast of "A Drum is a Woman," an allegorical history of jazz music and dance.
In 1964, Strayhorn was diagnosed with esophagus cancer that he fought for several years. He died at age 51 in 1967. In honor of his friendship with Billy Ellington release the album "...and His Mother Called Him Bill", which was a collection of Strayhorn’s compositions. The Duke also established the Billy Strayhorn scholarship fund at the Juilliard School of Music.
"Billy Strayhorn wrote Multicolored Blue. Billy to me is the boss of the arrangers." - Quincy Jones