On this day in 1915, the great jazz composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn was born. He is best remembered for his work with Duke Ellington. Of course, he largely isn’t remembered at all. Even people who don’t like jazz at all know who Ellington was. But Strayhorn worked in the shadows, and he seemed to have liked it that way.
He was a phenomenon at an early age. While still in high school, he wrote a musical. He also formed his own trio that played on local radio every day. And he wrote a number of great songs, including “Lush Life.” Here he is in 1964, performing it live:
Strayhorn wanted to be a classical composer, but he had the wrong skin color. His introduction to Art Tatum — a classical composer in his own way — pushed Strayhorn into jazz. And at the age of 23, he met and began collaborating with Duke Ellington. It is hard to say where one starts and the other ends. Ellington said, “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.” But being the established great man, Ellington took credit for much of Strayhorn’s work. Generally speaking, if you see a tune composed by Strayhorn and Ellington, it is Strayhorn’s. And Strayhorn is probably even more important as an arranger in creating what we now think of as the Duke Ellington sound.
That’s not to say that Ellington took advantage of the younger man. They had a symbiotic relationship. It is doubtful that Strayhorn would have accomplished so much without the protection and encouragement of Ellington. And Strayhorn got sole writing credit for the most famous song of the Duke Ellington orchestra, “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Here he is performing the song on piano with the orchestra. At the end, Ellington lists some of Strayhorn’s other compositions.
Sadly, in 1964 — at the same time he recorded “Lush Life” above, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, which seemed to ended his career. He died three years later.
Happy birthday Billy Strayhorn!