Remembering Billy Strayhorn

Billy Strayhorn
Billy Strayhorn, Westinghouse High School yearbook, 1934.

Pittsburgh’s Jazz legacy includes some of the greatest musicians, composers, arrangers, and singers in the history of the music. One of the greatest composers and arrangers was Westinghouse High School graduate Billy Strayhorn. Strayhorn collaborated with Duke Ellington and was responsible for over 200 compositions, including the Ellington Orchestra’s signature recordings “Lush Life” and “Take the A Train.” According to Quincy Jones, “’Take the A Train’ was the Holy Grail. It identifies a population, it identifies a lifestyle because it’s the Harlem Renaissance.”

Born in Dayton, Ohio on Nov. 29, 1915, Strayhorn moved with his family to the Homewood section of Pittsburgh in the early 1920s. However, Strayhorn spent considerable time as a child living with his maternal grandmother in Hillsborough, N.C. where he first learned to play piano and listen to music on her Victrola player. But the family home on Tioga Street in Homewood cradled the development of a musical genius who wrote classical and jazz compositions before graduating from high school and who later studied at the Pittsburgh Music Institute. Jazz was his calling and he listened to other great pianists and composers of jazz such as Art Tatum and Duquesne, Pa.’s Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines.

Strayhorn’s big break came in 1938 when he met and began working with Duke Ellington and his orchestra. Strayhorn served as musical director, composer, and arranger for the Ellington Orchestra for the next 29 years. He once told his nephew, Gregory Morris, “Do you know what an arranger has to know in order to make things happen? He has to not only know every instrument in that orchestral group but he has to know the capabilities of every one of those performers.”

Strayhorn and Ellington collaborated on the musical score for the motion picture “Anatomy of a Murder” in 1959. The score won critical acclaim as well as three Grammy Awards for “Best Performance,” “Best Composition,” and “Best Score.” The score consisted of “small pieces” by Strayhorn that have been recognized by film historians as landmarks in film music.

Strayhorn worked with the Ellington Orchestra until his death in 1967. This year, Pittsburgh is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Billy Strayhorn, one of the most prolific composers of “American Classical Music”—jazz.

Take the A Train score
The original handwritten score of “Take the A Train” by Billy Strayhorn. It became the signature song of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. <em>Courtesy of Billy Strayhorn Songs, Inc.</em>
Downbeat Magazine
Jan. 14, 1946 cover of Downbeat magazine with picture of Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington. Strayhorn was named arranger of the year for 1946.

Samuel W Black is the director of the African American Program at the Heinz History Center.

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