Billy Strayhorn: A Short, Gay and Lush Life of Beauty

On December 2, 1938, a short, bespectacled young man named Billy Strayhorn persuaded a friend of a friend to arrange for him to meet Duke Ellington, the jazz pianist and composer, whose orchestra was in Pittsburgh for a performance.  After sitting in the audience while Ellington’s band played its first set, Strayhorn made his way to Ellington’s dressing room with William “Gus” Greenlee, the owner of two Pittsburgh nightclubs.  That Strayhorn met Ellington and not the leader of another band was a matter of chance; Greenlee was persuaded to help Strayhorn by his nephew, and Ellington’s band happened to be the next one scheduled to play one of Greenlee’s clubs. Greenlee agreed that if he could set up an introduction with Ellington he would, otherwise he’d “wait a week and introduce him to the next bandleader” he had booked, Count Basie.  (One wonders what would have happened to both bands if the timing had been different.) Greenlee introduced Strayhorn, and Ellington, lying back with his eyes closed while he had his hair treated, said “Let me hear what you can do.”

Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington


Strayhorn played “Sophisticated Lady,” then “Solitude”–two familiar Ellington numbers that the band had just performed—twice each. The first time he played them as they had been played, but the second time he added harmonic enhancements and key changes of his own that were distinctively different. Ellington was impressed.  Baritone sax man Harry Carney was summoned to listen after Strayhorn finished one number, then Carney was dispatched to bring Johnny Hodges and vocalist Ivie Anderson to hear the young phenomenon.

Strayhorn was a piano prodigy who worked odd jobs while still in grade school to buy a used upright piano.  He received a good musical education in high school, and began to perform and compose ambitious pieces, such as a waltz he grandiloquently titled “Valse,” and a Concerto for Piano and Percussion.  Upon graduation he wanted to continue his formal musical education, but his family couldn’t afford college and he wasn’t offered financial aid by any school he looked into. Given the year (1934) and his race–he was African-American—this was not surprising.  His first love was classical music, but a combination of circumstances–there were few obvious ports of entry to European art music for a young black man in the thirties–and exposure to jazz pianists such as Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum persuaded him to put his skills to work in that vernacular idiom.

Joe Henderson: Lush Life, the Music of Billy Strayhorn

When the session was over, Ellington offered Strayhorn an undefined job on indefinite terms.  Not sure how Strayhorn could be used on a full-time basis, Ellington began to give him piecework—assignments to write lyrics for an Ellington melody and a vocal arrangement for Anderson. Ellington paid Strayhorn twenty dollars for the latter, then left for New York after telling the young man he would “have to find some way of injecting” him into his organization.  When Strayhorn heard nothing from Ellington for about a month, he decided to track him down and, after a few unsuccessful attempts, managed to catch him right before he went onstage in Newark, New Jersey. Ever the diplomat, Ellington told Strayhorn he had just instructed his manager to locate him, and he was hired, even though he had no contract, title or job description. “I don’t have any position for you,” Ellington said. “You’ll do whatever you feel like doing.”  With no more assurance than that–no written contract or verbal agreement as to pay–Strayhorn moved to New York and joined Ellington as arranger, composer, sometimes pinch-hit pianist and songwriting partner.  Their relationship would continue for nearly three decades, an extended improvisation much like those they collaborated on.

Strayhorn set to work while the orchestra left for a tour of Europe, studying Ellington’s scores, trying to decipher the method of his new master. As he would later describe this creative technique, “Each member of his band is to [Ellington] a distinctive tone color and set of emotions, which he mixes with others equally distinctive to produce a third thing, which I like to call the Ellington effect.”  Strayhorn initially applied this approach to the horn of Johnny Hodges in “Day Dream” (credited to Strayhorn and Ellington), one of a number of works that he would create over the remainder of his life that gave the altoist a new canvas on which to paint his tonal colors; melodies fraught with melancholy, poignant and purgative. The American equivalent of lieder (German art songs), they produce–in the words of “Lush Life,” Strayhorn’s greatest lyric–smiles tinged with sadness.

As far as I can tell, there are no memorials to Strayhorn in Pittsburgh, where he grew up, or in Dayton, Ohio, where he was born, but the case can be made that he is in a class of his own among American composers; his work is classical, and yet people listen to it with enjoyment, not to be improved, instructed or edified as is so often the case with modern classical music.  You may know that Strayhorn wrote Ellington’s theme song–Take the A Train–but you have probably heard other songs, such as A Flower is a Lovesome Thing, After All and Lotus Blossom–without knowing they were his.

At his first meeting with Ellington Strayhorn played a tune that he then called “Life is Lonely,” but which we now know as “Lush Life.”  The song has been interpreted by hundreds of jazz singers (and butchered by a few), and it provides some perspective on the man whose characteristic mode was the lament; sad, poignant melodies over rich chord changes interpreted best by those masters of blue moods, Johnny Hodges on alto and Ben Webster on tenor.  Strayhorn began composing Lush Life when he was eighteen and finished it when he was twenty-one, and yet it tells a fatalistic, bitter tale of alcohol and fading youth that would seem more appropriate coming from a man four decades older.

Strayhorn was gay, and perhaps he saw that aspect of his being closing off many doors to him, just as his skin color effectively barred him from prizes and fellowships that might have fallen his way if he’d been a white classical composer.  Throughout his life he drank too much for his own good, and he may have already realized at a relatively young age that alcohol would be a satisfying but embittering companion as he grew older.  He describes the life of a lush with music that is also lush, in the other sense of the word; rich.  What he may have seen as he looked ahead was a life that was limited by his race, sexual preference and the bottle, but full of possibilities nonetheless.  As Dorothy Parker put it with resignation, you might as well live.

Strayhorn’s lifelong smoking and drinking probably contributed to the esophageal cancer from which he died fifty years ago today on May 31, 1967, in the company of his partner, Bill Grove.  As he lay dying in the hospital he submitted his final composition–Blood Count–to Ellington, which can be found on Ellington’s memorial album for Strayhorn …And His Mother Called Him Bill. The song is, like Strayhorn’s life, a brief thing that reaches its own melancholy resolution, but leaves you wanting more.

Con Chapman’s biography of Johnny Hodges, “Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges,” is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.










2 thoughts on “Billy Strayhorn: A Short, Gay and Lush Life of Beauty

    1. Coincidence–or something more sinister?

      Actually, I think the name similarity helped me get a copy of his death certificate, which is otherwise available only to family and representatives of the estate.

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