All That’s Black: Billy Strayhorn

Billy Strayhorn, composer:

“Ever up and onward.”

Born sickly and into an impoverished family in Dayton, OH, Billy was not expected to survive, and in fact, four of his nine siblings didn’t.

I His mother, Lillian, shielded him from an abusive father, supplying him with books and sheet music and would send him to visit his grandmother in North Carolina, where he learned to play the piano.

At the age of 23, Billy met Duke Ellington and auditioned for him on the spot. Ellington had no open spot to fill at the time, but only a few months later, Billy was writing arrangements for Ellington’s orchestra and living openly as a gay man-rare for an African American man at that time.

For the next 29 years, Billy wrote and arranged for Ellington-without a contract. However, in 1940 the ASCAP-a music licensing organization-forbid radio broadcasting. Ellington was banned from broadcasting on the radio, but Billy-not a member of the ASCAP-was allowed to broadcast his work. For months, Billy’s new sound allowed Ellington to continue to perform (and pay his orchestra), even co-writing a musical, “Jump for Joy,” which featured an all-Black cast and was social satire directly attacking racism.

The period that Billy wrote for Ellington is widely considered Ellington’s most creative period, including unheard of, longer-more complex suites, performing the first of these “Black, Brown and Beige” (a 43-minute work) in Carnegie Hall. Most believe that Duke Ellington was responsible for these works, but in truth, Billy was at least a co-composer on all of them. Finally, tired of his backseat role, Strayhorn left to pursue his interests, becoming a civil rights activist and a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Although Billy Strayhorn’s distinguished songs, arrangements and virtuosity at the piano gave him status among musicians, few outside of that knew what he had done for Ellington and music in general.

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