Within his own milieu, he was admired for his keen intellect, his generosity of spirit, his Auntie Mame-like zest for life and his gleeful willingness to thumb his nose at social conservatism. Among the jazz elite, he was endlessly respected for his far-reaching skills as composer and arranger. But to the rest of the world, he was, and remains, hidden in the shade, obscured by one particularly giant shadow. Perhaps, then, it is ironically fitting that, born in 1915, he technically remained nameless for years. It wasn’t until after his fifth birthday that his parents, an abusive, alcoholic father and sweetly supportive mother, legally registered him William Thomas Strayhorn. By then, the impoverished family had moved from Dayton, Ohio to the outskirts of Pittsburgh. A shy, bookish kid, Billy Strayhorn’s passion for music was so intense that he saved pennies from odd jobs to buy his own piano. His goal was to be a classical pianist, but as early as age 18 he was composing jazzy pop tunes for a revue with the Gershwin-esque title “Fantastic Rhythm.”
Strayhorn soon became hooked on Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson and Earl Hines, recognizing jazz as one of the few musical arenas where a black artist could flourish. As a songwriter he matured with remarkable speed. Before his 21st birthday, he’d penned both “Lush Life” and “Something to Live For,” richly sophisticated pieces that belied his innocence and, as has been widely hypothesized, perhaps hinted at his budding homosexuality.
In 1938, Strayhorn’s life changed forever when a chance introduction brought him face-to-face with Duke Ellington. Impressed with Strayhorn’s songs and arrangements, Ellington invited him to New York. En route to Harlem, Strayhorn crafted a tune based on the subway directions Ellington had provided. He called it “Take the ‘A’ Train.”
Much has been written, and misinterpreted, about the professional relationship between Ellington and Strayhorn that shaped both careers throughout the next three decades. One of the more popular hypotheses casts Ellington as a credit-grabbing egoist eager to downplay the magnitude of Strayhorn’s contribution. In fact, Strayhorn preferred to remain largely in the background, carving out a charmed, globetrotting existence almost entirely (and most generously) funded by Ellington. From the 1940s through the 1960s, Strayhorn added such gems as “Day Dream,” “Passion Flower” and “Chelsea Bridge” to the Ellington canon, and collaborated with him on such grand initiatives as the three-part “Newport Jazz Festival Suite,” the Shakespearean-themed Such Sweet Thunder, the landmark soundtrack for Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder and their dazzling jazz interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. But equally important to Strayhorn was that his partnership with Ellington allowed him to live freely and openly while feeding his passion for literature, art and travel, as well as his escalating commitment to civil rights.
When Strayhorn died of cancer of the esophagus at 51, only one person spoke at the public memorial. It was Duke Ellington, and he began his loving remarks by describing the friend, ally and creative alter ego he’d long ago nicknamed “Swee’ Pea” as “the biggest human being who ever lived.”
The photos in this feature appear in “Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life,” a PBS documentary premiering nationally on the network’s Independent Lens series Feb. 6. A companion soundtrack album featuring new recordings from Dianne Reeves, Joe Lovano and others is available now from Blue Note Records (Ed. Note: a review by Nate Chinen leads this issue’s CD Reviews section on page 61). For an in-depth look at Strayhorn’s life and work, reference David Hajdu’s indispensable 1996 biography, also titled Lush Life. All photographs courtesy of Robert Levi and Washington Square Films.Originally Published