Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 29 November 1915, Dayton OH; d 31 May 1967, NYC) Pianist, composer, lyricist, arranger; aka 'Swee'Pea', 'Strays'. He played classics with a school orchestra in Pittsburgh; met Duke Ellington '38, hoping to write lyrics for him; in early '39 Duke made his first recording of a Strayhorn song, 'Something To Live For' (vocal by Jean Eldridge). He became Duke's amanuensis and collaborator until, often, neither of them could remember who had done this or that, or at least they said they couldn't.

During the important Ellington period '40-42 Strayhorn contributed 'Take The ''A'' Train' (soon the band's theme), 'Clementine', 'Chelsea Bridge', 'After All', 'Day Dream', 'Raincheck', 'Johnny Come Lately'; 'Midriff' in '44, 'Smada' and 'Boo'Dah' in Duke's Columbia period late '40s early '50s; he may have averaged one piece a week during 30 years with Ellington, and the richness of his contribution is still being assessed. He arranged many of the pop songs Duke occasionally played '50s-60s, also helped with more ambitious works, from 'The Perfume Suite' mid-'40s through 'The Tattooed Bride', 'Suite Thursday', 'A Drum Is A Woman', 'Such Sweet Thunder' and adaptations of Tchaikovsky and Grieg '60. Some think Strays's responsibility for some of the suites which carried both names was very great; 'Isfahan', generally considered the most successful part of 'The Far East Suite' '62, was Strayhorn's alone. He directed the band in Duke's My People '63, often arranged the small-group sessions for Johnny Hodges and Barney Bigard, and played piano with Duke's small groups and big band, but rarely appeared with him in public, deliberately keeping a low profile.

He wrote particularly beautiful things for Hodges's sensuous alto, such as 'Passion Flower' and 'A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing' (aka 'Passion'); recorded piano duets with Duke, led Hodges and Jimmy Grissom in a trio '58; albums included Cue For Saxophone '59 (septet with Hodges) on Felsted, Master Jazz, Affinity; Live! was on Roulette, The Peaceful Side '61 on United Artists (made in Paris with bassist Michel Goudret, voices and strings on some tracks). One of his first compositions was 'Lush Life' (words and music) '38 (first recorded by Nat Cole '49 and became a cabaret standard); the last was 'Blood Count', sent to the band from the hospital where he died of cancer.

His melodic and harmonic contribution to the development of jazz composition must be reckoned almost as great as Duke's; the beautiful Ellington album And His Mother Called Him Bill '67 on RCA was made in tribute, including the lovely 'Lotus Blossom' (played solo on piano at the end of the LP as musicians packed up; previously known as 'Charlotte Russe', recorded by a Hodges small group '47). Tribute albums include Art Farmer's Something To Live For on Contemporary and Marian McPartland Plays The Music Of Billy Strayhorn on Concord Jazz, both '87; Portrait Of A Silk Thread '95 by the Dutch Jazz orchestra on Dutch Jazz is a collection of Strayhorn pieces newly discovered by Walter van de Leur; Jack Bowers wrote in Cadence, 'There are no dogs in this pound.' Van der Leur was writing a book about Strayhorn; David Hajdu's Lush Life: A Biography Of Billy Strayhorn '96 was valuable for its interviews, which will remain primary sources. So extraordinary were Ellington's talents that it was even more extraordinary that he found a partner; van de Leur's book Something to Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn (2002) says that they had complementary, not identical skills, and that studying the music should make it clear who wrote what. Like Ellington himself, Strays had more talent than the commercial market could absorb during his lifetime.