November 29th, 1915 in Dayton, Ohio
May 31st, 1967 in New York, New York
Composer, Pianist, Arranger, Lyricist
Billy Strayhorn is best known for being Duke Ellington’s musical collaborator. He composed some of Ellington’s best known songs, such as “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Lotus Blossom,” “Chelsea Bridge,” and “Satin Doll.” Strayhorn’s taste for harmonic intricacies added a unique lushness to Ellington’s songbook, and was crucial in earning the Ellington band its unmatched prestige.
As a teenager, Strayhorn aspired to be a classical pianist and composer, but also wrote lyrics and music for local theater houses. He turned to jazz when it became clear that the obstacles standing in the way of a black man trying to enter the classical music world were nearly unsurpassable.
That year, Ellington hired Strayhorn to be his staff arranger. This sparked the beginning of a decades-long friendship and collaborative partnership, and it brought Strayhorn to New York City in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance.
In Harlem, Strayhorn met numerous black musicians, writers, and artists, one of whom was the rising star Lena Horne. Strayhorn and Horne became close friends, and Strayhorn mentored her as she studied classical music in the hopes of expanding her musical scope.
By being a prominent member of the arts community in Harlem during the 1940s, Strayhorn became a civil rights figure, and primarily an advocate for blacks in the arts. He was also openly gay, which was extremely rare at the time and therefore a bold stance for anyone in the public eye.
Billy Strayhorn spent his entire career under the shadow of Ellington, and despite leaving and then rejoining the band, he never felt that he had shaken his secondary status, or that he was given the acknowledgment he deserved. Strayhorn died in 1967 of esophageal cancer. His arrangements for Duke Ellington are some of the most memorable pieces from the bandleader’s songbook, and are just as fresh today as they were decades ago.