Billy Strayhorn In Five Songs

Billy Strayhorn, pictured here in the 1940s, wrote more than 1,000 works, most of them for Duke Ellington. (Library of Congress)
Billy Strayhorn, pictured here in the 1940s, wrote more than 1,000 works, most of them for Duke Ellington. (Library of Congress)

The composer Billy Strayhorn spent almost all of his adult life in the professional company of Duke Ellington, operating as a crucial but seldom visible creative partner whose own greatness has finally emerged only in the past two decades — long after his death in 1967 at age 51. The author of "Take The 'A' Train," "Lush Life" and "Satin Doll," Strayhorn wrote songs, suites, scores and other works that run to well over 1,000 pieces in all. He was an impeccable and sensitive craftsman whose own musical universe overlapped and expanded the vast world of Ellingtonia; his tonal language ran the gamut from classical to bebop.

This month marks Strayhorn's centennial. He was born in Dayton, Ohio on Nov. 29, 1915 and grew up in Pittsburgh, a jazz capital known for producing other pianists and composers. A musical prodigy, he began composing while in high school, writing a musical called Fantastic Rhythm that included the future standard "My Little Brown Book."

In late 1938, while Ellington was playing in Pittsburgh, a two-degrees-of-separation friendship resulted in the bandleader granting Strayhorn a private audience. Ellington was so impressed that he hired Strayhorn and moved him into Ellington's Harlem apartment, beginning a nearly 30-year collaboration that saw only one brief pause in the 1950s. (His life is memorably rendered in David Hajdu's biography Lush Life, and Walter van de Leur's Something to Live For offers a definitive account and analysis of the vast amount of music that he wrote for both Ellington and others.)

It's been noted that Strayhorn's cultural identity in the mid-20th-century United States was, to say the least, challenging. He was a gay African-American jazz artist. Yet he lived as he pleased, with quiet courage and an aesthetic sophistication underlined by beauty, loneliness and love. In 1967, Ellington, devastated by Strayhorn's death, delivered a moving eulogy that praised his friend and writing partner as an artistic cosmopolitan suffused with humane grace:

He spoke English perfectly and French very well, but condescension did not enter into his mind. 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 fear of possibly doing something that might help another more than it might himself; and freedom from the kind of pride that could make a man feel he was better than his brother or neighbor.

Here are five examples of Strayhorn's spirit and vision made manifest.

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