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Pittsburgh Marks 100th Anniversary of Jazz Great & Native Son Billy Strayhorn

BillyStrayhornBioPicI love to swing dance and one of my favorite swing numbers is “Take The A Train.” I always thought that Duke Ellington had composed it since the tune is so much associated with the Ellington band. It was not for some years that I learned it was Ellington’s arranger Billy Strayhorn who had written it. Who was Strayhorn? Unless you’re a jazz aficionado, you may not know. However, he was the man behind the great Duke Ellington sound and composed many of the best loved jazz standards — “Take the A Train”, “Lush Life”, “Lotus Blossom”, “Chelsea Bridge,” and “Rain Check,” Others like “Day Dream’ and “Something To Live For” were collaborations with Ellington. “Satin Doll” and “Sugar Hill Penthouse” are credited to the band leader, but Strayhorn’s finger prints are all over them.

To mark the Strayhorn Centennial a special event will be held at Pittsburgh’s Cabaret at Theater Square on Tuesday, April 21. The program will feature internationally known jazz singer Allen Harris and noted jazz pianist Eric Reed best known for his work with Wynton Marsalis. For details see TrustArts.org or call 412-456-6666. Other events are planned by the Billy Strayhorn Foundation throughout the year.

William Thomas “Billy” Strayhorn was born in 1915 and grew up in Pittsburgh. Interested in music as a child, in grade school he did odd jobs to earn enough to buy his first piano. While a student at Pittsburgh’s Westinghouse High School, later attended by Erroll Garner and Ahmad Jamal, Strayhorn began studying classical music at Pittsburgh Music Institute. He also wrote a high school musical and formed a musical trio that performed daily on a local radio station. He also began studying with Carl McVicker who also instructed jazz pianists Erroll Garner and Mary Lou Williams. At age 19, he composed a professional musical “Fantastic Rhythm.” It was about this time that Strayhorn was introduced to the music of pianists Art Tatum, and Teddy Wilson and the realm of professional jazz where he spent the rest of his life.

He first met Duke Ellington in December 1938, after an Ellington performance in Pittsburgh. Strayhorn showed, the band leader how he would have arranged one of Duke’s own pieces. It so impressed Ellington that he arranged for Strayhorn to meet him when the band returned to New York. Strayhorn worked for Ellington for the next quarter century as an arranger, composer, occasional pianist and collaborator until his early death from cancer in 1967. “….Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.” Ellington said.

About the Author

In 2000, following a long and successful career as head of his own public relations agency, Jim became a freelance travel writer. In 2003 he was named travel editor at New York Trend. Jim travels widely in North America and Europe and has also visited in Asia, Africa, and Central America. He enjoys writing stories that bring alive his travel experience and entice the reader to visit new destinations. Jim is a member of the International Association of Black Travel Writers.

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