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.