On Nov. 29th, composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn – who died in 1967 at age 51 – would have celebrated his 100th birthday. In his absence, friends, family, and fans celebrated for him, remembering his remarkable gift for composition, arrangement, and piano performance. As a child, Strayhorn studied Classical piano, and his fondness for the music would bear influence on the rest of his career. At 20 years old, he met and performed for Duke Ellington, who immediately invited the young composer to New York, “scribbling down directions to his home [way up] in Harlem” (NPR 2015). As any Ellingtonite can tell you, the rest is history…
“Take the ‘A’ Train” – the composition that Ellington’s directions inspired – quickly became Duke’s theme song, and solidified a partnership that would span the remainder of Strayhorn’s career and life. While the relationship turned out to be incredibly fruitful and led to the co-creation of more than 100 songs, there was much discrepancy about accrediting the correct tunes to the correct authors. While Ellington was a musical mastermind in his own right, there are many cases in which Strayhorn’s contributions were listed under Ellington’s name or Strayhorn was overlooked as a co-creator despite sharing the credits. Many say that he struggled to emerge from the monumental shadow that Ellington cast, and only began to find rightful success in the later years of his life. But don’t be quick to assume that Strayhorn resented Ellington for this shady business: their relationship was tightly-knit, for each revered the other for his mind and skill, and greatly valued their partnership. In his biography, Music is My Mistress, Ellington describes Strayhorn as “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” (1973).
Sunday, musicians in New York City gathered on the A train to perform Strayhorn’s tunes and remember the life of this musical underdog. Check out NY1’s coverage of the event, and view photos of the event over at The Wall Street Journal. Additionally, you can listen to NPR’s commemoration on Weekend Edition here.
Join as we celebrate Billy Strayhorn’s illustrious life and career in music, words, and film below.
“Take the ‘A’ Train” (including a rare shot of Strayhorn!)
Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn – David Hajdu
Hajdu illuminates the immense impact Strayhorn had on Ellington’s composition, as well as his reshaping of American music. Published in 1996, this is considered the Billy Strayhorn biography, and is a must for any fans of Ellington & Strayhorn alike.
Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life – edited by Alyce Claerbaut and David Schlesinger, foreword by Ramsey Lewis
Co-edited by Strayhorn’s niece, Alyce Claerbaut, this book compiles essays, photographs, and other media concerning the composer, and reveals the prolific life he led.
Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life – Directed by Robert Levi
This PBS documentary, directed by Robert Levi, and co-written by Levi and Robert Seidman, delves into the life of Strayhorn and fearlessly inspects the obstacles that he faced throughout his short 51 years.