100 Years Of Billy Strayhorn, Emotional Architect Of Song The composer and arranger spent the bulk of his career in service to the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He wrote some of the most popular songs of the 20th century — without ever hiding who he was.

100 Years Of Billy Strayhorn, Emotional Architect Of Song

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Composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn helped create some of the most popular American music of the 20th century as Duke Ellington's primary songwriter. He may have spent his career in Ellington's shadow, but he played a major role in shaping a new sound. And he did it his way, without ever hiding who he was. Billy Strayhorn was born 100 years ago today. Tom Vitale has this appreciation.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: In 1964, near the end of his career, Billy Strayhorn accompanied himself on a live recording of one of his best-known songs.


BILLY STRAYHORN: (Singing) I used to visit all the very gay places, come-what-may places, where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life to get the feel of life from jazz and cocktails.

VITALE: When Strayhorn wrote "Lush Life" in 1936, he could only dream of the Paris nightlife described in the lyrics. He was a 20-year-old living in the poorest neighborhood in Pittsburgh. He had already written a musical review, "Fantastic Rhythm," but he wanted to play classical piano. Strayhorn was working at a pharmacy to pay for his lessons, and when he made deliveries, he played for the customers who had pianos, as he told interviewer Paul Worth in 1962.


STRAYHORN: I was seller check (ph) , you know, and a delivery boy in a drugstore.

PAUL WORTH: Had you written any lyrics at the time?

STRAYHORN: Yeah, I had. Well, they were unheard. They were just heard by the drugstore customers, and they got after me to have someone else hear them.

VITALE: In December 1938, a friend took Strayhorn backstage at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh to meet Duke Ellington. Strayhorn played some of his music for Ellington, who invited him to New York, scribbling down directions to his home in Harlem.


VITALE: Strayhorn turned them into a song and took it to Ellington a month later.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Hurry, hurry, hurry, daydream to get to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem. If you should take...

DUKE ELLINGTON: (Singing) If you should take...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) The A train, you get to where you're going in a hurry.

VITALE: Duke Ellington hired the younger composer and made Strayhorn's "Take The A Train" his theme song. Ellington also made some of Strayhorn's other pieces co-compositions, says Alyce Claerbaut, Strayhorn's niece and co-editor of a new book called "Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life."

ALYCE CLAERBAUT: The first song that he co-credited to himself and Billy was "Something To Live For." Billy wrote that song before he met Duke. It was part of his play, "Fantastic Rhythm." Duke really liked that song and he recorded the song in 1939. And he, because he was the publisher, he credited that to himself as well.


VITALE: Strayhorn worked for Ellington for the rest of his life - 28 years. He never had a contract and he never complained publicly about not getting credit or royalties, in part because he had a dream job, says David Hajdu, author of "Lush Life: A Biography Of Billy Strayhorn."

DAVID HAJDU: The Duke Ellington Orchestra was one of the greatest orchestras in the world - not just one of the greatest jazz orchestras, one of the greatest orchestras in the world. The opportunity to have music that you composed played by those musicians is a gift beyond measure.

VITALE: Hajdu says Ellington gave Strayhorn another gift.

HAJDU: He was African-American and gay. That's two strikes against him in those days and the closest we would come to thinking of someone as being out of the closet gay. He was comfortable with who he was and never pretended to be anything else. And Duke Ellington accepted him for that. That is also golden.

VITALE: But other members of the Ellington organization weren't always so accepting. Nevertheless, with his classical training, Strayhorn brought a new level of sophistication to the Ellington band.

HAJDU: Strayhorn was interested in hues of the emotional spectrum that we don't often encounter in popular music or jazz. In Strayhorn, we find a lot of gray tones and muted colors. We find a bittersweet quality. We find tinges of remorse and regret.


VITALE: Billy Strayhorn also help take the Ellington band into the future. He was an architect of bebop, exploring the up-tempo angular style and it's inception in the early 1940s.


VITALE: For all of his skills as a composer, Billy Strayhorn was at a loss for words when asked to describe his creative process.


STRAYHORN: Jazz composition - oh, my (laughter) that's a hard one. What do you want me to say? I don't usually talk about composition or about music (laughter). I prefer to write it.

VITALE: Billy Strayhorn wrote or co-wrote more than 100 tunes for Duke Ellington before Strayhorn died of cancer in 1967. He was just 51 years old. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

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