BILLY STRAYHORN (1915 - 1967)
Billy Strayhorn was privileged to enjoy a classical musical education despite his disadvantaged childhood. While still in high school he wrote a revue that became a full-blown touring production starring the yet unknown Billy Eckstine.
In 1938 Strayhorn met Duke Ellington who immediately hired him. The following year they recorded their first collaboration, “Something to Live For,” with Strayhorn on piano. In 1941, following Duke’s written subway directions to his house, Strayhorn composed and wrote the lyrics to “Take the A Train” which became the band’s theme song. He worked as arranger, composer and second pianist for Ellington until his death, which left Ellington devastated. Their telepathic relationship makes it difficult to decipher where one begins and the other ends in their collaborations. “Swee’ Pea,” as Ellington called him, thrived in the Duke’s shadow where he found the security to vent his musical gifts and cultivate his artistic interests.
While still in his teens Strayhorn composed “Lush Life,” a sophisticated work with mature, world-weary lyrics. He played it for friends but did not publish it until 1949. Among Strayhorn’s other gems are “Chelsea Bridge” (1941), “Rain Check” (1942), “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing” (1944), and “Lotus Blossom” (1947). His collaborations with Ellington produced “Day Dream” (1941), “Something to Live For” (1939), “Satin Doll” (1958) and many larger works.
Strayhorn participated in the civil rights movement, making a 1963 trip to a large NAACP rally in the South with his good friend Lena Horne. When Ellington was honored at the White House on his 70th birthday in 1969, he read Billy’s four articles of moral freedom to the embarrassment of President Nixon.
Strayhorn continued to write while hospitalized and turned out “UMMG” and a work which Ellington recorded as “Blood Count” in his 1967 tribute album to Strayhorn, And His Mother Called Him Bill.
-- Sandra Burlingame
Courtesy of JazzStandards.com