Strayhorn, Billy

Strayhorn, Billy (William Thomas Strayhorn), 1915–67, African-American jazz composer, arranger, lyricist, and pianist, b. Dayton, Ohio. Classically trained, he was drawn to jazz, and early in his career composed a number of songs. Among these was Lush Life (1938), written just before he met Duke Ellington, with whom he became a lifelong collaborator. By 1939 Strayhorn was writing songs, creating arrangements, and sometimes playing piano for the Ellington orchestra. Strayhorn's compositions include “Take the A Train,” the group's theme, and such standards as “Chelsea Bridge,” “Satin Doll,” and “Passion Flower.” His sophisticated approach and his introspective, nuanced, and impressionist-tinged style meshed beautifully with Ellington's own. It is sometimes difficult to tell which of the Duke's works have passages by the younger man, and some of Strayhorn's material has been mistaken for Ellington's. Openly gay in a homophobic era and business, Strayhorn avoided the spotlight, and his achievements and contributions to the Ellington sound were not fully understood by the public for many years. After “Stray”'s untimely death, Ellington paid tribute to him in And His Mother Called Him Bill (1967), an album of Strayhorn's compositions.

See biography by D. Hajdu (1996); study by W. Van De Leur (2001).

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