On Nov. 29—Billy Strayhorn’s 103rd birthday—the Library of Congress announced that it has acquired a collection of nearly 18,000 documents belonging to the composer, arranger, and pianist, who worked with Duke Ellington for nearly 30 years and wrote some of the most enduring compositions in jazz, including “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Lush Life,” and “Chelsea Bridge.”
The collection includes original manuscripts for hundreds of songs, along with lyric sheets, scripts, financial papers, photographs, and contracts. There are also original scores for Strayhorn’s first musical, Fantastic Rhythm, and Jump for Joy, a 1941 musical co-written by Strayhorn and Ellington.
Since 1967, when Strayhorn died from esophageal cancer, the composer’s manuscripts have been in the possession of his family and not available to the general public. The acquisition by the Library of Congress will help ensure that Strayhorn’s work and legacy reaches a wider audience. His materials will be available in the Library of Congress’ Performing Arts Reading Room on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Born in Dayton, Ohio, on Nov. 29, 1915, Strayhorn was raised in Pittsburgh, where he studied classical music. He began working for Ellington in the late 1930s and operated in many ways as the bandleader’s secret weapon, penning some of his most memorable tunes. “It’s a wonderful thing, I mean, to bow after a Billy Strayhorn orchestration,” Ellington once said. “This is one of the things I do best.”
“His contribution to American music since the 1940s has been enormous,” Larry Appelbaum, the Library of Congress Music Division’s jazz specialist, said in a press release.
“The Billy Strayhorn Collection documents the creative work of a musical architect of the highest order who spent most of his adult years working behind the scenes in the shadow and employ of Duke Ellington,” Appelbaum added. “Unlike many other musical geniuses, Strayhorn did not seek the limelight or attention, but scholars, performers, composers and arrangers—for the first time in 50 years—will finally have full public access to someone who added greatly to the brilliance and beauty of 20th-century music.”