Composer Billy Strayhorn conducting in the studio.

Billy Strayhorn

2021 LEGEND AWARD

 

If you are familiar with the jazz composition, “Take the A Train,” then you know something about not only Duke Ellington, but also Billy “Sweet Pea” Strayhorn, its composer. Strayhorn joined Ellington’s band in 1939, at the age of twenty four. Ellington liked what he saw in Billy and took this shy, talented pianist under his wings. Neither one was sure what Strayhorn’s function in the band would be, but their musical talents had attracted each other. By the end of the year Strayhorn had become essential to the Duke Ellington Band; arranging, composing, sitting-in at the piano. Billy made a rapid and almost complete assimilation of Ellington’s style and technique. It was difficult to discern where one’s style ended and the other’s began. The results of the Ellington-Strayhorn collaboration brought much joy to the jazz world.

 

Some of Strayhorn’s compositions are: “Chelsea Bridge,” “Day Dream,” “Johnny Come Lately,” “Rain Check” and “Clementine.” The pieces most frequently played are Ellington’s theme song, “Take the A Train” and Ellington’s signatory, “Lotus Blossom”. Some of the suites on which he collaborated with Ellington are: “Deep South Suite,” 1947; the “Shakespearean Suite” or “Such Sweet Thunder,” 1957; an arrangement of the “Nutcracker Suite,” 1960; and the “Peer Gynt Suite,” 1962. Two of their suites, “Jump for Joy,” 1950 and “My People,” 1963 had as their themes the struggles and triumphs of blacks in the United States. Both included a narrative and choreography. 

 

In 1946, Strayhorn received the Esquire Silver Award for outstanding arranger. In 1965, the Duke Ellington Jazz Society asked him to present a concert at New York’s New School of Social Research. It consisted entirely of his own work performed by him and his quintet. Two years later Billy Strayhorn died of cancer. Duke Ellington’s response to his death was to record what the critics cite as one of his greatest works, a collection titled “And His Mother Called Him Bill,” consisting entirely of Billy’s compositions. Later, a scholarship fund was established for him by Ellington and the Julliard School of Music.

 

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