Strayhorn the Songwriter
(Featuring Frank Griffith, China Moses & Alexander Stewart)
@ the Queen Elizabeth Hall
20 November 2010
(Sound-check and live performance photography)
Click an image to enlarge.
Billy Strayhorn biography
If you are familiar with the jazz composition,
“Take the A Train,” then you know something about not
only Duke Ellington, but also Billy “Sweet Pea” Strayhorn,
its composer. Strayhorn joined Ellington’s band in 1939, at
the age of twenty-two. Ellington liked what he saw in Billy and
took this shy, talented pianist under his wings. Neither one was
sure what Strayhorn’s function in the band would be, but their
musical talents had attracted each other. By the end of the year
Strayhorn had become essential to the Duke Ellington Band; arranging,
composing, sitting-in at the piano. Billy made a rapid and almost
complete assimilation of Ellington’s style and technique.
It was difficult to discern where one’s style ended and the
other’s began. The results of the Ellington-Strayhorn collaboration
brought much joy to the jazz world.
The history, of the family of William Thomas Strayhorn
(his mother called him “Bill”) goes back over a hundred
years in Hillsborough. One set of great grandparents, Mr. and Mrs.
George Craig, lived behind the present Farmer’s Exchange.
A great grandmother was the cook for Robert E. Lee. Billy, however,
was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1915. His mother, Lillian Young Strayhorn,
brought her children to Hillsborough often. Billy was attracted
to the piano that his grandmother, Elizabeth Craig Strayhorn owned.
He played it from the moment he was tall enough to reach the keys.
Even in those early years, when he played, his family would gather
to listen and sing.
In 1923 Billy entered the first grade in a little
wooden schoolhouse, since destroyed. Soon after that, however, his
mother moved her family to Pittsburgh to join Billy father, James
Nathaniel Strayhorn. Mr. Strayhorn had gotten a job there as a gas-maker
and wire-puller. Charlotte Catlin began to give Billy private piano
lessons. He played the piano everyday, sometimes becoming so engrossed
that he would be late for his job. He also played in the high school
His father enrolled him in the Pittsburgh Musical
institution where he studied classical music. He had more classical
training than most jazz musicians of his time. Strayhorn lived a
tremendously productive life. He influenced many people that he
met, and yet remained very modest and unassuming all the while.
For a time he coached Lena Horne in classical music to broaden her
knowledge and improve her style of singing. He toured the world
with Ellington's band and for a brief time lived in Paris. Strayhorn’s
own music is internationally known and honoured. It has been translated
in French and Swedish.
Some of Strayhorn’s compositions are: “Chelsea
Bridge,” “Day Dream,” “Johnny Come Lately,”
“Rain-check, and “Clementine.” The pieces most
frequently played are Ellington’s theme song, “Take
the A Train” and Ellington's signatory, “Lotus Blossom”.
Some of the suites on which he collaborated with. Ellington are:
“Deep South Suite,” 1947; the “Shakespearean Suite”
or “Such Sweet Thunder,” 1957; an arrangement of the
“Nutcracker Suite,” 1960; and the “Peer Gynt Suite,”
1962. He and Ellington composed the “Queen's Suite”
and gave the only pressing to Queen Elizabeth of England. Two of
their suites, “Jump for Joy,” 1950 and “My People,”
1963 had as their themes the struggles and triumphs of blacks in
the United States. Both included a narrative and choreography. The
latter Strayhorn conducted at the Negro Exposition in Chicago in
1963. Another suite similar to these two was “A Drum Is a
Woman.” The “Far East Suite” was written after
the band’s tour of the East which was sponsored by the State
In 1946, Strayhorn received the Esquire Silver
Award for outstanding arranger. In 1965, the Duke Ellington Jazz
Society asked him to present a concert at New York’s New School
of Social Research. It consisted entirely of his own work performed
by him and his quintet. Two years later Billy Strayhorn died of
cancer. Duke Ellington’s response to his death was to record
what the critics cite as one of his greatest works, a collection
titled “And His Mother Called Him Bill,” consisting
entirely of Billy’s compositions. Later, a scholarship fund
was established for him by Ellington and the Julliard School of