William Thomas (“Billy” professionally) Strayhorn, Duke Ellington’s longtime collaborator was among the most influential figures in American jazz. A versatile composer, arranger, and pianist, Strayhorn joined Ellington’s orchestra at age 22 in 1939 and worked with the bandleader the rest of his life.
Strayhorn was a formative influence on an entire generation of musicians. Living in New York City most of his adult life, he was actively involved in the civil rights movement and was a personal friend of Martin Luther King Jr. Although Strayhorn was born in Dayton, Ohio, his roots ran deep in Orange County and, importantly, his frequent stays in Hillsborough as a boy were essential to his musical development.
Biographer David Hajdu contends that North Carolina became the young man’s spiritual home, the place Strayhorn was introduced to music. His father and grandfather both worked at the Eno Mill. His grandparents, who owned a piano, lived in a house (now gone) at the corner of Margaret Lane and Hillsborough Avenue. Initially gospel tunes drew him to the piano. Returning with his mother and siblings to North Carolina from Ohio regularly from age five, Strayhorn attended his first year of school while in Hillsborough. A classmate remembered him as “small and bright.” He spent breaks and summers in North Carolina through his early teenage years (by then the family had moved to Pittsburgh) and often took the train to visit an uncle in Durham.
At Strayhorn’s death at age 52 in 1967, Ellington said his friend “had no aspirations to enter into any kind of competition, yet the legacy he leaves, his oeuvre, will never be less than the ultimate on the highest plateau of culture.” In 2007, Strayhorn was the subject of a PBS documentary.
When William Thomas Strayhorn came into the world, the fourth of Lillian and James Strayhorn’s nine children, not much was expected of his life. Born November 29, 1915, in Dayton, Ohio, Billy was small and ill. His family was poor, and four of his siblings died young.
Lillian Strayhorn recognized a musical talent in her son. She bought him sheet music and books, and in the summers sent him to stay with his grandparents in Hillsborough, North Carolina. It was at the home of Elizabeth and Jobe Strayhorn that Billy discovered the piano. His grandmother taught him to play as soon as he could reach the keys on her upright piano, and even as a child, his playing drew crowds. As a young man he worked several jobs, earning the money to purchase his own piano.
Living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Billy Strayhorn pursued piano and composition, both in private lessons and at Westinghouse High School. At age 18, he performed Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A Minor” on the school’s stage. He also composed Fantastic Rhythm, a Cole Porter-style revue that debuted at Westinghouse. The show ran for years at black theaters throughout Western Pennsylvania.
Following high school, Strayhorn continued to perform and compose, forming jazz combo “The Madhatters,” and composing "Lush Life.” He also attended Pittsburgh Musical Institute for a year, until the death of a favorite teacher. His life changed in December 1938, when he met Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington. At an impromptu backstage audition in Pittsburgh, Strayhorn impressed Ellington so much that Ellington offered him a job. In 1939, Billy Strayhorn moved to Harlem and began writing arrangements and playing piano for Ellington’s orchestra. He was 23 years old.
Strayhorn collaborated with Ellington for more than a decade. While the duo created hit songs, they also pushed against the social restrictions of the time.They co-wrote Jump for Joy, a musical that opened in Los Angeles in 1941. The show masqueraded as a musical revue featuring an all-black cast, but was really a social satire that fiercely attacked America’s racism.
Billy Strayhorn composed his best-known piece in 1941. In late 1940, ASCAP, the music licensing organization, forbade its members from broadcasting their songs over the radio. This affected Duke Ellington, an ASCAP member who relied on radio broadcasts to sell records. Ellington, with a live broadcast in Los Angeles upcoming, brought Strayhorn in from New York. Strayhorn’s compositions, unlike Ellington’s, could go on the radio, as he was not an ASCAP member. During a sleepless six-day train ride across the country, Strayhorn wrote song after song for Ellington. The infusion of new pieces kept the orchestra on the air for months, and when Ellington needed a new radio theme, he used Strayhorn’s “Taking the ‘A’ Train.” It became Ellington’s signature piece.
Sweet Pea’s Sound
Billy Strayhorn’s music was a unique sound for American ears. He combined his classical training in piano and musical theory to change the art form. Billy, known also as “Sweet Pea,” was largely responsible for the development of longer and more complex jazz suites. In 1943, Ellington and Strayhorn performed "Black, Brown and Beige,” an unprecedented 43-minute jazz piece in Carnegie Hall. His ballads, including “Lush Life,” “Something to Live For,” “After All,” “Passion Flower,” ”Chelsea Bridge,” and “Blood Count,” are harmonically and structurally among the most sophisticated in jazz.
Billy’s Strayhorn’s personal life was often difficult, and his struggle to achieve personal acceptance and public recognition for his music was compounded by society’s attitudes on race and sexual orientation. His struggles began early, as he was growing up in an impoverished and sometimes abusive home.
A sensitive, intellectual child, Billy was sent to his grandparents’ home in Hillsborough to escape the abuse of his father. There he was free to be the soft-spoken musician his mother wanted him to be.
As a young man Strayhorn did not discuss his sexuality, but by the 1940s he was living relatively openly as a homosexual. It was a rare feat for any man at that time. It was not without problems, though, and Strayhorn did experience losing at least one job because of his sexuality. Strayhorn had several long-term relationships with men, but his most intimate friendship was with singer Lena Horne. The two considered each other “soul mates.”
As a teenager, he was often the only black member of his musical ensembles. As a professional, some of the best clubs in Pittsburgh and New York were off-limits to him as a performer because they were for whites only. A close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Strayhorn joined the struggle for Civil Rights, and in 1963, he arranged and conducted the Ellington Orchestra in the piece “King Fought the Battle of ‘Bam,” dedicated to Dr. King.
Duke Ellington often remarked on stage “Strayhorn does a lot of the work but I get to take the bows!” In Strayhorn’s life, few recognized him as the creator of some of the 20th century’s most enduring music. After his death from cancer in 1967, jazz fans and scholars have elevated the composer into his long-deserved spot in the musical pantheon. Today, musicians around the world continue to perform Strayhorn’s compositions, demonstrating his music’s timelessness and reach.