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100 Years Of Billy Strayhorn, Emotional Architect Of Song

By Tom Vitale | NPR
Sunday, November 29, 2015

In 1964, near the end of his career, Billy Strayhorn accompanied himself on a live recording of one of his best-known songs. It starts:

I used to visit all the very gay places

Those come-what-may places

Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life

To get the feel of life

From jazz and cocktails ...

When Strayhorn wrote "Lush Life" in 1936, he could only dream of the Paris nightlife described in the lyrics. He was a 20-year-old living in the poorest neighborhood of Pittsburgh. He had already written a musical revue called Fantastic Rhythm, but he wanted to play classical piano.

Strayhorn was working at a drugstore to pay for his lessons, and when he made deliveries, he played for the customers who had pianos. He had also written a number of original songs.

"They were unheard," Strayhorn told interviewer Paul Worth in 1962. But "they were heard by the drugstore customers. And they got after me to have someone else hear them."

Composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn would go on to create some of the most popular American music of the 20th century: songs like "Lush Life" or "Take The 'A' Train." Born 100 years ago today, Nov. 29, 1915, Strayhorn did it his way — without ever hiding who he was.

His accomplishments are made all the more remarkable by the fact that he received little attention during his own lifetime. Strayhorn spent the bulk of his career in the shadow of his employer — bandleader Duke Ellington.

You Must Take The 'A' Train

In December 1938, a friend took Strayhorn backstage at the Stanley Theatre in Pittsburgh to meet Duke Ellington. Strayhorn played some of his music for Ellington, who invited him to New York — scribbling down directions to his home in Harlem.

Strayhorn turned those notes into a song, and took it to Ellington a month later. Duke Ellington hired the young composer and made Strayhorn's "Take The 'A' Train" his theme song.

Ellington also took partial credit for some of Strayhorn's other pieces, says Alyce Claerbaut — Strayhorn's niece, and co-editor of a new book called Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life.

"The first song that he co-credited to himself and Billy was 'Something to Live For,'" Claerbaut says. "Billy wrote that song before he met Duke. It was part of his play Fantastic Rhythm. Duke really liked that song. And he recorded that song in 1939. And because he was the publisher, he credited that song to himself as well."

Strayhorn worked for Ellington for the rest of his life: 28 years. He never had a contract, and he never complained publicly about not getting credit — or royalties — in part because he had a dream job, says David Hajdu, author of Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn.

"The Duke Ellington Orchestra was one of the greatest orchestras in the world — not just one of the greatest jazz orchestras, one of the greatest orchestras in the world," Hajdu says. "The opportunity to have music that you composed played by those musicians is a gift beyond measure.

Hajdu says Ellington gave Strayhorn, an African-American gay man, another sort of gift.

"Two strikes against him in those days," Hajdu says. "And the closest we would come to thinking of someone as being out-of-the-closet gay. ... He was comfortable with who he was and never pretended to be anything else. And Duke Ellington accepted him for that. And that is also golden."

'I Prefer To Write It'

Other members of the Ellington organization weren't always so accepting. Nevertheless, with his classical training, Strayhorn brought a new level of sophistication to the Ellington band, especially on ballads like "Chelsea Bridge."

"Strayhorn was interested in hues of the emotional spectrum that we don't often encounter in popular music or jazz," Hajdu says. "In Strayhorn we find a lot of gray tones. And muted colors. We find a bittersweet quality. We find tinges of remorse and regret."

Billy Strayhorn also helped take the Ellington band into the future. On songs like "Johnny Come Lately," he was an architect of bebop, exploring the uptempo, angular style at its inception in the early 1940s.

"Strayhorn played an essential role in changing the sound of American popular music, at a time when jazz was American popular music, in the 1940s," Hajdu says. "And did so all through an individual idiosyncratic personal sensibility that made the music all his own."

For all of his skills as a composer, Billy Strayhorn was at a loss for words when asked to describe his creative process.

"Jazz composition?" he said. "Oh my. That's a hard one. What do you want me to say? I don't usually talk about composition or about music. I prefer to write it."

Strayhorn wrote or co-wrote more than 100 tunes for Duke Ellington before dying of cancer in 1967. He was just 51 years old.

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