Billy Thomas Strayhorn was a black gay composer and arranger who influenced the American jazz movement with his pioneering efforts. While largely unknown in his lifetime, his complex arrangements and classical components continue to inspire generations of jazz musicians. His work has been translated into French and Swedish.
Born on November 29, 1915, in Dayton, Ohio, Strayhorn joined his four older living siblings (four others died). His parents were Lillian Young Strayhorn and James Nathaniel Strayhorn. The family struggled financially. After living in several cities in Strayhorn’s early life, they settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1924. Strayhorn attended Westinghouse High School there as well as the Pittsburgh Musical Institute for piano lessons and classical music study. To help him escape his abusive father and to nurture Strayhorn’s budding musical talent, his mother sent him on extended visits to his grandparents’ home in Hillsborough, North Carolina.
When introduced to jazz, Strayhorn’s musical emphasis changed. In 1937, he started to compose in this genre and founded his first jazz group. One year later, he became a protégé of Duke Ellington after meeting the renowned musician and composer in Pittsburgh. He remained with Ellington for the next 25 years in the roles of composer, arranger, and pianist. Between 1939 and 1967, Strayhorn created up to forty percent of the Ellington Orchestra’s material including the band’s most well-known song, “Take the A Train.” Strayhorn toured internationally with the Ellington Band and lived for a brief time in Paris. He made his permanent home in Manhattan in New York City. Throughout his adulthood, he lived as an openly gay man.
Despite his collaboration with Ellington on numerous pieces, Strayhorn’s contribution largely went unattributed and uncompensated. The situation changed somewhat in 1946 when Strayhorn earned the Esquire Silver Award for Outstanding Arranger. He and Ellington received equal credit for the song, “Drum is a Woman” (1957). Strayhorn played