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Billy Strayhorn

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Billy Strayhorn


William Thomas "Billy" Strayhorn (29 November 1915, Dayton, Ohio – 31 May 1967, New York City) was an American jazz composer, pianist, lyricist, and arranger.

Though born in Ohio, Strayhorn was sent to his grandmother in North Carolina, to protect him from his father's drunken sprees. Strayhorn said that his grandmother was his primary influence during the first ten years of his life. He first became interested in music while living with her, playing hymns on her piano, and playing records on her Victrola record player.

Strayhorn returned to Pittsburgh, and attended Westinghouse High School. In Pittsburgh, he began his musical career, studying classical music for a time at the Pittsburgh Music Institute, writing a high school musical, forming a musical trio that played daily on a local radio station, and, while still in his teens, composing several songs, with lyrics. While still in grade school, he worked odd jobs to earn enough money to buy his first piano. While in high school, he played in the school band, and studied under the same teacher, Carl McVicker, who had also instructed jazz pianists Erroll Garner and Mary Lou Williams. By age 19, he was writing for a professional musical, Fantastic Rhythm.

Though classical music was Strayhorn’s first love, his ambition to become a classical composer was shot down by the harsh reality of a black man trying to make it in the classical world, which at that time was almost completely white. Strayhorn was then introduced to the music of pianists like Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson at age 19. These musicians guided him into the realm of jazz where he remained for the rest of his life.

He met Duke Ellington in December 1938, after an Ellington performance in Pittsburgh. Ellington was impressed enough to invite other band members to hear Strayhorn. At the end of the visit, he arranged for Strayhorn to meet him when the band returned to New York. Strayhorn worked for Ellington for the next quarter century as an arranger, composer, occasional pianist and collaborator until his early death from cancer. As Ellington described him, "Billy Strayhorn was 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."

His compositions include Take the 'A' Train, Chelsea Bridge, A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing, and Lush Life. Strayhorn's arrangements had a tremendous impact on the Ellington band, bringing a more linear, classically schooled ear to Ellington’s works, setting down in permanent form the sound and structures that Ellington sought.

Billy Strayhorn died at 51 in 1967.

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