Anniversary Post: a Century of Billy Strayhorn

[Under normal circumstances, I would write about the Whitman massacre. It provides a good opportunity to discuss violence that I disagree with, but at a distance to allow an honest discussion of the causes. Regardless, I really don’t like the whole missionary business. You know, if it were all about helping the poor and hoping by the example of your good works that you would convince them that your ways were the best, great. But that isn’t the way it works. And that certainly wasn’t the way it worked with the Whitmans. But I don’t have the time, so I’m going to reprint last year’s anniversary post, because it is about a very great man. -FM]

Billy StrayhornOn 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!

6 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: a Century of Billy Strayhorn

  1. Jazz buffs like myself know about Strayhorn very well. His song Blood Count was about his disease. Stan Getz who died of leukemia identified with this song and I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about Strayhorn or Getz. Strayhorn was a giant but as you say was obscured by his association with the Duke.

  2. In my unhumble opinion, Jazz is no different then any other kind of classical music at this point. Commander Riker certainly was correct about that.

    • There is much to that. And certainly a lot of jazz musicians can be considered classical in their approach to music. Also, just as classical music has shattered into a million different types over the last 50 years, so has jazz. And often, it isn’t clear where a piece of music fits. That’s even true of pop music. What, for example, is Philip Glass?

  3. My son Ryan lives in Denver which is a hotbed of bluegrass and other types of wonderful folk music. He sends me youtube videos of many young musicians who are classically trained at one famous music conservatory or another. So many of these folks choose to play bluegrass, jazz or a variety of musical styles. Its all good.

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