Billy Strayhorn (November 29, 1915 - May 31, 1967) was an American composer and pianist, perhaps most famous for having written "Take the A Train" and for his collaboration with Duke Ellington.
Strayhorn began his musical career in Pittsburgh, where he studied for a time at the Pittsburgh Music Institute, wrote a high school musical and, while still in his teens, composed "Lush Life," a work that had all the world weariness of a much older man. He first met Duke Ellington backstage after an Ellington performance in Pittsburgh in 1938, where he first told, and then showed, the band leader how he would have arranged one of Duke's own pieces. Duke was impressed enough to invite other band members hear Strayhorn. At the end of the visit he arranged for Strayhorn to meet him when the band returned to New York. Strayhorn worked for Ellington for the next quarter century until his death from cancer.
Strayhorn's relationship with Ellington was always difficult to pin down: he was a gifted composer and arranger who seemed to flourish in Duke's shadow. Ellington may have taken advantage of him, but not in the mercenary way that others had taken advantage of Ellington; instead, he used Strayhorn to complete his thoughts, while giving Strayhorn the freedom to write on his own and at least some of the credit he deserved. Strayhorn, for his part, may have preferred to stay out of the limelight, since that also allowed him to be out of the closet in an era and a community that did not tolerate gay artists.
Strayhorn composed the band's theme, "Take The A Train," and a number of other pieces that became part of the band’s repertoire. In some cases they were listed as Strayhorn compositions ("Lotus Blossom," “Chelsea Bridge,” "Rain Check," "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing" and "Mid-Riff"), while others were listed as collaborations with Ellington ("Day Dream," "Something to Live For") or were credited to Ellington alone ("Satin Doll," "Sugar Hill Penthouse," "C-Jam Blues"). On the other hand, Ellington gave Strayhorn full credit as his collaborator on later, larger works such as Such Sweet Thunder, A Drum Is a Woman, The Perfume Suite and The Far East Suite, where Strayhorn and Ellington worked closely together.
Strayhorn also had a tremendous impact on the Ellington band for the two decades in which he arranged for him. Ellington always wrote for the personnel he had at the time, showcasing both the personalities and sound of soloists such as Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Ben Webster, Lawrence Brown and Jimmy Blanton, and drawing on the contrasts between players or sections to create a new sound for his band. Strayhorn brought a more linear, classically schooled ear to Ellington’s works, setting down in permanent form the sound and structures that Ellington sought.
Strayhorn’s own work, particularly his pieces written for Johnny Hodges on alto saxophone, often had a bittersweet, languorous flavor. He wrote his last pieces while dying from cancer from the esophagus; he delivered his last piece, “Blue Cloud,” to Ellington while in the hospital. Ellington included that piece, renamed “Blood Count,” on the album, And His Mother Called Him Bill, that he recorded several months after Strayhorn's death as a tribute to his friend and collaborator.