He was openly gay, unapologetically gay, at a time when most gay men and women met in secret, in back alleys, out of sight, for fear of arrest or worse. William Thomas “Billy” Strayhorn was a composer, pianist and arranger, best known for his works with Duke Ellington, early in his career, and Lena Horne, late in his life. Billy Strayhorn’s compositions include “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Lush Life.”
He was born in Ohio, grew up some in Pennsylvania, but lived most of his life with his grandmother in North Carolina; Billy’s mother sent him there to save him from his father’s drunken beatings. That move proved lucky for Billy; it was while in North Carolina that he discovered his love for music.
As a teenager, Strayhorn returned to Pittsburgh, and
attended Westinghouse High School; it was in Pittsburgh where he began his musical career, studying classical music 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, writing both the music and lyrics for songs like “Life Is Lonely,” which later became “Lush Life,” “My Little Brown Book” and “Something To Live For.” He worked odd jobs, saving enough money to buy his first piano, and by age nineteen, Billy Strayhorn had written his first musical, Fantastic Rhythm.
While classical music was his first love, Billy’s desire to become a classical composer was not to be; in those days, the world of classical music was an all-white world into which Billy Strayhorn could not gain entrance. Disillusioned, but not done, he took to working with jazz artists like Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson; he’d found a home in the world of jazz music and he would live there, and thrive there, for the rest of his life.
In 1938, at twenty-three, Billy met Duke Ellington. In typical Billy style, he showed the Duke how he would have arranged some of Ellington’s best known works. Rather than being insulted, Ellington was impressed enough to invite other band members to hear Strayhorn. At the end of the visit he arranged for Billy to meet him when the band returned to New York. Billy Strayhorn would work for Duke Ellington for the next twenty-five years, leaving the Duke to call him, “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”.
Billy Strayhorn, already a gifted composer and arranger, flourished in Ellington’s shadow; the Duke became somewhat of a father figure to a young man who’d often been sent from home to keep him safe from his own parent. And Duke Ellington used Billy Strayhorn to complete his thoughts, while giving the young man freedom to write on his own and enjoy at least some of the credit he deserved. Duke Ellington would often announce from the stage, “Strayhorn does a lot of the work but I get to take the bows!”
Billy Strayhorn composed the band’s best known theme, “Take the “A” Train”, and a number of other pieces that became part of the Duke Ellington orchestra songbook. In some instances, Billy was credited solely with writing such pieces as “Lotus Blossom”, “Chelsea Bridge”, and “Rain Check”, while others–“Day Dream” and “Something to Live For”–were called collaborations with Ellington. “Satin Doll” and “Sugar Hill Penthouse” were credited to Ellington alone.
In 1939, shortly before leaving on his second European tour, Ellington announced to his family and the band that Strayhorn would be staying with them. And it was through the Duke’s brother, Mercer, that Billy met his first partner, musician Aaron Bridgers, with whom he lived until Bridgers moved to Paris in 1947.
Billy Strayhorn was openly gay during an extremely homophobic era. He was who he was, a gifted musician, composer, arranger, and gay man; he made no apologies and refused to hide his life and loves from anyone. Still, there is some speculation that, like Bayard Rustin and his civil rights work, Billy Strayhorn is often overlooked and discredited because he was a gay man. Most people spoke of his being black and gay than they did of his musical prowess, and it was because of this, perhaps, that Strayhorn quietly hid behind Duke Ellington, letting the Duke take credit for much of his work.
In the 1950s, Strayhorn left his musical partner Duke Ellington for a few years to pursue a solo career; he recorded several solo albums. wrote a few revues for the Copasetics–a New York show-business society–and took on theater productions with his friend Luther Henderson.
In the 60s, Billy Strayhorn participated in many civil rights causes, and, as a committed friend to Martin Luther King, Jr., he arranged and conducted “King Fought the Battle of ‘Bam'” for the Ellington Orchestra in 1963. It was used in the historical revue My People, which was dedicated to Dr. King.
Not only with Ellington and King, but with many others, did Strayhorn make an impact. He was a major influence in Lena Horne’s career; in fact, she wanted to marry him, and often called him the love of her life.
Billy Strayhorn was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 1964, and, in 1967, died in the company of his partner Bill Grove; it was erroneously reported–perhaps to take the light off his homosexuality–that he had died in Lena Horne’s arms, but, by her own accounts, Horne was touring in Europe when Billy Strayhorn passed.
And even while dying, Billy worked. In the hospital he submitted his final composition to longtime mentor and musical partner Duke Ellington, “Blood Count.” Ellington used the piece as the first track on a memorial album, “…And His Mother Called Him Bill,” dedicated to Billy Strayhorn. The last track is a spontaneous solo version of “Lotus Blossom” performed by Ellington, sitting at a piano and playing for his friend.
Billy Strayhorn was told ‘No’ an awful lot in his life. he was told ‘No’ when he asked if he could come home if his father would behave. He was told ‘No,’ because of his skin color, when he wanted to ebacome a classical musician. He was denied a proper place in the history of jazz music for many years because he was an openly gay man.
But Billy never lived in ‘No.’ Billy lived a Lush Life and was quite proud of it. So, here’s one of my favorites, Nat King Cole, singing Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.”
The march goes on.