Billy Strayhorn: The Man Behind the Music

Contributor Note: As I wrote this post, I thought it was only fitting to listen to some of Billy's work and found this piece. It is referenced later in the post, but I would highly recommend playing it while you read about this amazing man's journey.

The early 1900s culture was filled with queer guys, gals and non-binary pals, but they are often erased from prime history because of societal norms. Although many have not heard of the name Billy Strayhorn, his melodies have become an integral part of American Culture. His long time partner Duke Ellington performed many of Strayhorn’s compositions - “Take the ‘A’ Train”, “Chelsea Bridge”, and “Lush Life,” to name a few. But because Billy lived in the 1930s and 1940s as an openly gay man, it was difficult for him to make it big in music.

Billy Strayhorn was born in Ohio on November 29, 1915. Fairly soon after, his family moved to Pennsylvania and young Billy, however, would often be sent to his grandparents in Hillsborough, NC for many months. While living with his grandparents, his passion for music grew because he would listen to her hymns on piano and her record player. He often cited his grandmother as his primary influence during those first ten years of his life.

During high school he was taught by the same teacher who instructed Erroll Garner and Mary Lou Williams, two well known American Jazz Pianists. Through those years, he would work any extra time he could to save up money to eventually buy his own piano. By the time he was a mere nineteen years old, he had written for a professional musical, Fantastic Rhythm. It was clear that he was an extremely talented musician even from such a young age.

In 1933, Strayhorn first saw Ellington perform and five years later he waited after a show to perform for Ellington. Strayhorn chose to perform an arrangement of Ellington’s work. Thoroughly impressed by the performance, Ellington set up a follow up meeting and that began the partnership that would last 29 years.

The following year, Strayhorn temporarily stayed with Ellington’s sister Ruth and his son Mercer. It was through his son Mercer that Strayhorn met Aaron Bridgers, another jazz pianist and Strayhorn’s first partner. They lived together for many years until Aaron moved to Paris in 1947.

Strayhorn was also extremely active when it came to the civil rights movement. He was a close friend to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and even arranged and conducted “King Fit the Battle of Alabama” in 1963 for the Ellington Orchestra. This song paid tribute to Dr. King and was a part of Ellington’s My People which was written about African-American History.

Strayhorn had an extremely successful career with artists such as Lena Horne, who actually wanted to marry Strayhorn despite his open homosexuality, and Luther Henderson. He released an album The Peaceful side of Jazz in 1963 to mediocre success.

In the following year, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and passed away 3 years later in the arms of his partner, Bill Grove. Duke Ellington soon after released an album in his honor called ...And His Mother Called Him Bill. This album featured the song “Blood Count.” The album ends with “Lotus Blossom,” another one of Strayhorn’s compositions. In this track Ellington was pouring out his heart over the loss of his long time friend while the band was cleaning up their session. Luckily the microphones were still recording to capture this magical expression of emotion.

It is no secret that Strayhorn left an immense imprint on American Culture, but it is difficult to not think about what story would have been had society embraced his queer-ness and his courage to live fearless every day of his life.

By Michael Barilla