BILLY STRAYHORN Biography - Theater, Opera and Movie personalities


Biography » theater opera and movie personalities » billy strayhorn


Name: William Thomas Strayhorn                                                           
Born: 29 November 1915 Dayton, Ohio, USA                                                 
Died: 31 May 1967 New York City, New York, USA                                           
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 two decades.           
His compositions include "Chelsea Bridge", "Take the "A" Train" and "Lush Life".         
William "Billy" Thomas Strayhorn was born in Dayton, Ohio, November 29, 1915.           
His family was from Hillsborough, North Carolina, and he spent many months of           
his childhood at his grandparents' house there. In an interview, Strayhorn said         
that his grandmother was his primary influence during the first ten years of his         
life, and where he first became interested in music, playing hymns on her piano         
and playing records on her Victrola record player. He began his musical                 
career in Pittsburgh, where he studied classical music for a time at the                 
Pittsburgh Music Institute, wrote a high school musical, formed a musical trio           
that played daily on a local radio station, and, while still in his teens,               
composed (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         
earlier instructed jazz pianists Errol 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 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 stayed creating               
masterpieces for the rest of his life. His first jazz exposure was a combo               
called the "Mad Hatters" who played around Pittsburgh, until 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, "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".       
His 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. Strayhorn, for his part, may have preferred to stay           
out of the limelight, since that also allowed him to be out of the closet in an         
era and a community intolerant of gay artists. 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!” In addition to Strayhorn being naturally shy, society           
made it hard for a black homosexual to get any recognition at all.                       
Strayhorn composed the band's 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 other 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.                                   
Openly gay during an extremely homophobic era, Strayhorn participated in many           
civil rights causes, trying to correct this societal flaw before the movement           
gained momentum. 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.             
Critics agree that his dedication to the gay movement was a contributing factor         
to him being so overlooked as an important musician. People concentrated more on         
the fact that he was gay and black then his genius as a pianist, composer, and           
arranger. For this reason, he hid behind Duke Ellington for so long, letting him         
take credit for much of his work.                                                       
Billy Strayhorn had a reputation for having an impact on many people he met             
because he had such a strong character. He had a major influence on the career           
of Lena Horne. He was well versed in classical music, and used his knowledge to         
improve her technique as a singer. They eventually recorded songs together. In           
the 1950s, Strayhorn strayed from 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,           
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 cancer of the esophagus in 1964, which eventually           
lead to his death in 1967. While in the hospital, he submitted his final                 
composition to his longtime friend, Duke Ellington. Blood Count was produced by         
Ellington after Strayhorn's death and used as the first track to Strayhorn’s           
tribute CD, …And His Mother Called Him Bill. The recording is known as one of         
Ellington’s finest albums. Strayhorn finally succumbed in the early morning on         
May 31st, 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 accounts,         
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