10 Billy Strayhorn Songs You Should Know


Courtesy of the William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

News | May, 19th 2016

Were he still with us, incomparable composer, lyricist, and pianist Billy Strayhorn would be 100 years old. Known for his long-running partnership with Duke Ellington, Strayhorn helped define the Ellington Orchestra's sound and wrote some of jazz's most heart-rending, evocative standards. In advance of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis's upcoming celebration of Strayhorn ("Lush Life: Celebrating Billy Strayhorn," June 10-11), we thought we'd highlight just a few of his most indelible compositions.

Update: Listen to excerpts of the JLCO's performance of "Lush Life: Celebrating Billy Strayhorn" (as well as interviews with Strayhorn, his family, and Wynton Marsalis) via Jazz Night in America. 

"Take the 'A' Train"

Strayhorn's fruitful partnership with Ellington lasted 30 years, but the most famous song it yielded was written shortly after the two met. In 1939, Ellington offered Strayhorn a job with his orchestra and invited him to relocate to New York City. As the story goes, Ellington then gave Strayhorn directions on how to get to his Sugar Hill apartment with the first line reading, “Take the A Train." Strayhorn got to Harlem safely and the resulting song would go on to serve as an unofficial theme song for the Ellington Orchestra.

"Chelsea Bridge"

Legend has it that, during a trip to Europe, Strayhorn saw a painting—likely by Turner or Whistler—of a bridge he presumed to be London's Chelsea Bridge. The bridge depicted in the painting was actually Battersea Bridge, but no matter: this slinky, slow-burning tune became a staple in the Ellington Orchestra's book. 

"My Little Brown Book"

Speaking of books, there's this classic ballad. While at Westinghouse High School in Pittsburgh, PA, Strayhorn wrote a musical, Fantastic Rhythm, which featured “My Little Brown Book.” The musical was performed first at Westinghouse and later throughout western Pennsylvania. The song also became part of Ellington's repertoire, which cemented its place in the jazz canon.

Listen to these songs:

"Lush Life"

Strayhorn seemingly kept “Lush Life” very close to his chest for a long while. Although he wrote the song's music and lyrics between 1933 to 1938, it did not make its public debut until late in 1948 when Kay Davis and the Duke Ellington Orchestra performed the work at Carnegie Hall. The haunting ballad, with its hopeful intro that gives way to a gin-soaked tale of heartbreak, has been a classic since its unveiling. That Strayhorn was just 16 when he began writing the song speaks to his preternatural abilities.

"Day Dream"

Another slower number, Johnny Hodges recorded the first—and perhaps definitive—version of this lesser-known Strayhorn classic in 1941, with Strayhorn on piano. Officially, Strayhorn shares credit for the song with Ellington, though it's unclear how much Duke had to do with its composition.

"Something to Live For"

"Something to Live For" became the first Strayhorn composition recorded by the Ellington Orchestra in 1939. The lyrics to this melancholy number were inspired by a poem Strayhorn wrote when he was still a teenager. Critic Gary Giddins writes that this tune was Ella Fitzgerald's favorite song. 

"Lotus Blossom"

According to Ellington, Strayhorn enjoyed hearing Duke play this song above all his others. When Ellington recorded a tribute album for Strayhorn shortly after his death in 1967, his performed a solo version of this song as the band audibly packed up in the background. The recording made the final version of the album, the essential And His Mother Called Him Bill.

Strayhorn with Ellington associates Jerome Rhea and Richard M. Jones (right). Courtesy of the William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

"A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing"

Another botanically themed entry in the Strayhorn songbook, and another song that originally served as a vehicle for Johnny Hodges's alto saxophone, "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing" was first performed by the Ellington Orchestra in 1941. Decades later, Fitzgerald would sing the song (for which Strayhorn had since written lyrics) with the Ellington Orchestra on 1965's Ella at Duke's Place.

"Blood Count"

Strayhorn renamed and finished writing this piece, originally titled "Blue Cloud," while under treatment for esophageal cancer in 1967; tragically, it became the last composition he ever wrote. It was recorded not long before his passing by the Ellington Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, becoming a part of the album The Greatest Jazz Concert in the World.

"U.M.M.G"

"U.M.M.G." was named for the Upper Manhattan Medical Group—the medical practice where Ellington's doctor, Arthur Logan, worked—and ranked among the peppier tunes Strayhorn wrote. The song has become one of Strayhorn's more celebrated offerings, inspiring renditions by Joe Henderson, Terell Stafford, Art Farmer, and others.


read more

Today would have been Miles Dewey Davis III's 90th birthday. To celebrate Davis—one of the most innovative, melodic, and iconic trumpeters the music ever produced—here's a factoid for every decade since he stepped foot on this planet.

read more

Trumpeter and vocalist Bria Skonberg is a beloved staple at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and each Thursday and Saturday in May she's hosting the Late Night Sessions at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola. We sat down with her to talk about starting out in NYC, her favorite spots in the city, and her picks for upcoming can't-miss shows.


popular


Listen to a playlist featuring some of John Lewis's greatest music!

Playlist: Get to Know "The Music of John Lewis"

Enrich your listening experience of "The Music of John Lewis," the new album from the JLCO with Wynton Marsalis ft. Jon Batiste, with an excerpt from its liner notes and a playlist exploring Lewis's oeuvre!

read more
Ingrid Jensen in RECOLLECT

Crate-dig with Jimmy Cobb, Sheila Jordan & more in RECOLLECT

Our new original video series RECOLLECT takes you record shopping with some of the world's greatest jazz artists, including Jimmy Cobb, Ron Carter, Sheila Jordan, and many more!

read more
Chick Corea - photo by Frank Stewart for Jazz at Lincoln Center

Chick Corea: Five Essential Albums

Chick Corea is one of the most influential figures in jazz and one of the greatest living jazz pianists. In advance of his trio’s July 4 performance in Highland Park, IL, at the Ravinia Festival alongside the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, here are five essential albums from his discography.

read more
Wynton Marsalis performs on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

Celebrating Spaces and The Abyssinian Mass with Colbert on The Late Show

Wynton Marsalis appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to perform with Jon Batiste, Stay Human, and acclaimed dancer Lil Buck. Check out video and behind-the-scenes content from their performance.

read more

10 Essential Jazz Albums

New to jazz and don't know where to start? With many artists and extensive catalogues of music, a new jazz listener can feel intimidated. We're here to help! Check out our list of 10 albums to get you started on your jazz journey and introduce yourself to some of jazz's great artists.

read more

A Visit to Clark Terry

On December 7, 2014 the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra drove 8 hours on an off day to play for Clark Terry on his 94th birthday. Victor Goines, James Chirillo, Ted Nash, Vincent Gardner, and Walter Blanding recall the day and the impact that Clark had on jazz.

read more

recommended


Buddy Rich

So the Story Goes: Buddy Rich on Music and Magic

In the latest installment of So the Story Goes, Buddy Rich—sometimes regarded as "the world's greatest drummer"—gets rhapsodic about the power of music and recounts that one time he played for the Queen of England.

read more
Joe Temperley, by Frank Stewart for Jazz at Lincoln Center

Notes from the Road: Remembering Joe Temperley

Before his passing in May, Joe Temperley spent 29 unforgettable years as the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra's baritone saxophonist and its beloved elder statesman. Between performances on their recent mini-tour of Canada, several JLCO members shared their memories of Temperley, who left behind an indelible legacy and a whole lot of stories.

read more

6 Underappreciated Jazz Artists You Should Check Out

April is Jazz Appreciation Month, so we thought we'd celebrate by delving into the careers of a handful of underappreciated jazz artists. Explore the careers of six musicians who deserve more accolades and learn the best places to start with their discographies.

read more