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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
"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.
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." 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.
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Were he still with us, incomparable composer, lyricist, and pianist Billy Strayhorn would be 100. In advance of the Jazz at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis's upcoming celebration of Strayhorn, we thought we'd highlight just a few of his most indelible compositions.
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