Billy Strayhorn was born on November 29th, 1915 in Dayton, Ohio. He is gaining recognition as one of the 20th century’s great musical figures. His influence on jazz has been significant dating from his collaboration with Duke Ellington which began in 1939. Strayhorn is one of the most recorded jazz composers in today’s era.
Billy Strayhorn’s best recognized work, “Take the ‘A’ Train” became an anthem for a World War II generation. “Take the ‘A’ Train” is consistently named one of the top one hundred songs of the 20th century. It identified a population and a lifestyle glamorized by the social significance of the Harlem renaissance. “Take the ‘A’ Train” has stood the test of time as the theme song for the Duke Ellington Orchestra since the 1940’s.
Strayhorn's impact on the music world reaches much further when talking about his compositions. The Strayhorn classic “Lush Life” is considered by many to be the standard bearer for ballads that only those singers looking for a harmonic and melodic challenge are willing to tackle. Written at the age of 16, “Lush Life” has been performed by countless jazz artists, including musical giants Nat “King “Cole and John Coltrane.
Historians and scholars agree that Billy Strayhorn remains one of the most under recognized American composers in history. Strayhorn chose to live openly as a gay black man. It was perhaps this decision which in part contributed to Strayhorn’s many decades of public anonymity, even though he composed many of the world’s most defining and recognizable jazz standards.
While Strayhorn’s name may not have been well known by many during his years as a composer and arranger, his music was certainly heard. A list of the artists who have recorded Strayhorn’s music reads like a who’s who in jazz history; Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson, Buddy Rich, Hank Jones, Sarah Vaughn, Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Smith, Johnny Hartman, Art Blakey, Tito Puente, Clark Terry, Tony Bennett, Carmen McRay, and Billy Taylor.
Today numerous Strayhorn classics such as Rain Check, Passion Flower, Chelsea Bridge, Something to Live For, Johnny Come Lately, Day Dream, Lotus Blossom and Satin Doll are being kept alive and given first class treatment by some of today’s great torch bearers of jazz; Dianne Reeves, Joe Lovano, Bill Charlap, Nikki Yanofsky, Don Braden, Marc Rapp, Victor Goines, Tammy McCann, John Clayton and Terell Stafford have all paid homage in song to the music of Billy Strayhorn. Even a number of crossover artists have stretched their musical repertoire to record great Strayhorn classics. This would include superstars Aretha Franklin, Linda Ronstadt, Queen Latifah, Jose James, Donna Summer, and Elvis Costello.
The Strayhorn legacy has generated impressive scholarly interest. In 1996, David Hajdu published “Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn”. The book chronicles Strayhorn’s incredible life and explores his previously under-appreciated contributions to jazz in America. Hajdu’s book was nominated for a National Book Critics Award and is considered by some to be one of the finest of jazz biographies. In 2002 independent jazz researcher Walter Van De Leur wrote “Something to Live For – The Music of Billy Strayhorn”. Van De Leur spent ten
years researching the book and working with over 3,000 autographed scores in the archives of both Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington. His study sheds light on Strayhorn as a prolific composer of over 500 first recordings of musical scores by Billy Strayhorn for the Duke Ellington Orchestra. This is estimated to be 80% of his total contribution to the Ellington Orchestra’s repertory. Van De Leur’s book received the 2003 Irving Lowens Book Award and the 2003 award for best research in recorded jazz music from the Association of Recorded Sound Collections.
In 2007, the PBS – Independent Lens documentary directed by Robert Levi titled “Billy Strayhorn – Lush Life” raised the profile of Billy Strayhorn to a new level. The film contained in depth interviews with prominent figures in the music world along with recollections from Strayhorn family members. The documentary received three important awards in 2008; the Emmy Award for Best Documentary of the Year, the George Foster Peabody Award for Broadcast Excellence, and the Writers Guild Award for Best Documentary Screenplay.
In addition to Strayhorn’s profound influence on jazz, his musical footprint extends even further into the world of theater, film, television and classical music. He contributed songs and long form suites to several theatrical productions. A few examples of historical significance as breakthrough African American influenced productions were “Jump for Joy, “Black, Brown and Beige”, and “Beggar’s Holiday”. His contributions to film included music for the Otto Preminger film “Anatomy of a Murder” and the Orson Wells film “Paris Blues”. Strayhorn’s music can be heard in “A Drum is a Woman”, the first musical program with an all black cast featured on national television. Strayhorn made significant contributions to the highly innovative and at the time groundbreaking jazz re-interpretation of the holiday classic, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. Strayhorn was inspired by Shakespeare for his work on “Such Sweet Thunder”, a concert performance that covered ground breaking material for its musical diversity.
As important as hi s musical legacy, Billy Strayhorn is celebrated for his generous spirit and loving heart. Strayhorn lived his life as an openly gay man. He involved himself in the early 1960’s civil right movement, most notably with the legendary Ms. Lena Horne and as a fundraiser and confidante of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Strayhorn’s friend and musical partner, Duke Ellington, had these parting words to say at Strayhorn’s funeral “He demanded freedom of expression and lived in what we consider the most important and moral of freedoms; Freedom from hate, unconditionally; Freedom from self pity (even throughout all the pain and bad news); Freedom from the fear of possibly doing something that might help another more than it might help himself; and Freedom from the kind of pride that could make a man feel he was better than his brother or neighbor”.