Billy Strayhorn: Biography, Songs & Compositions

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Some people grow up knowing exactly what they want to do in life. In this lesson, learn about pianist and composer Billy Strayhorn, who wrote for and collaborated with Duke Ellington on some of his biggest hits.

Beginnings

William Thomas "Billy" Strayhorn (1915-1967) was born in Ohio, but his family moved to Pittsburgh in 1920. They lived in Homewood, one of the city's eastern neighborhoods. As a boy, he spent summers in Hillsborough, North Carolina, but received much of his early music education in Pittsburgh. As soon as he could get his hands on a piano, he started playing and took private lessons at a local music store.

Strayhorn went to nearby Westinghouse High School. A dedicated student of music even then, he studied piano and harmony and participated in the school orchestra. He was deeply impressed by George Gershwin's music, and by the time he graduated, he'd already written a musical called Fantastic Rhythm, which was performed at the school. After graduation, he attended the Pittsburgh Music Institute to study classical music. Shy but fiercely determined to be a professional musician, Strayhorn made money with odd jobs while he played in a jazz combo in the Pittsburgh area.

A Job in New York

In 1938, Strayhorn got his break. He met Duke Ellington when the latter was performing in Pittsburgh with his band. The young man approached Ellington after a performance and showed him a composition. The bandleader was impressed enough to offer him a job, although the specifics were vague (Ellington didn't really have any open positions at the time). In short, Ellington recognized the young man's musical talent. In 1939, Strayhorn went to New York City to join Ellington's band and lived with Ellington and his family in Harlem until he could afford an apartment of his own.

Billy Strayhorn, 1940s
Billy Strayhorn

Strayhorn collaborated with Ellington for the next 30 years. He wrote original songs for the band and also arranged Ellington's work. Being part of a jazz band in the 1930s and 1940s was grueling work because they performed almost nightly. Only after gigs did the two work on pieces late into the evening. They learned to meld with each other's style so successfully that often you can't tell which was the primary creator of a song.

Strayhorn wrote and/or collaborated on some of Ellington's most famous songs, including "Take the A Train," "Chelsea Bridge," and "It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing." Among the songs Stayhorn is known for is "Lush Life," a bittersweet jazz ballad he wrote when he was only 21. With its melancholy lyrics, touch of minor key, and sense of yearning, some critics consider it one of the greatest songs of all time. Strayhorn's classical training added more complex sounds to jazz, including hints of dissonance (writing so that notes clash rather than mix in harmony).

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