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A compendium of queer people in the 19th and 20th centuries // Drawn and researched by Michele Rosenthal

Billy  Strayhorn

Billy Strayhorn 1915to –1967

American jazz composer and pianist, and the longtime unsung collaborator of Duke Ellington. Inspired by his grandmother, he displayed musical talent from a young age, even saving up money from odd jobs to buy his own upright piano. He wanted to be a classical pianist, but black classical musicians were practically nonexistent, and he soon gravitated towards jazz instead. While still a teenager, he wrote one of his best known songs, “Lush Life,” as well as penning a musical. In 1938, he had the chance to meet Duke Ellington, who was passing through his hometown of Pittsburgh. Ellington was so impressed by what Strayhorn played for him that he invited him to come to New York City, even though there were no official open positions in the band. Strayhorn took him up on the offer. There he met his first partner, fellow black musician Aaron Bridgers. They lived together from 1939 until when Bridgers moved to Paris in 1947. Throughout his life, Strayhorn was surprisingly open about being gay. In 1941, he met the singer Lena Horne because Ellington, who was romantically interested at the time, thought Strayhorn would be a “safe” choice to show her around. Lena Horne ended up falling in love anyway, and said she would have married Strayhorn had he been straight. He did become her mentor, vocal coach, and close friend. And over the course of three decades, he enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with Duke Ellington, using his classical background to create sophisticated arrangements, and writing or co-writing some of Ellington’s best known compositions, including the staple “Take the ‘A’ Train” and the groundbreaking soundtrack to Anatomy of a Murder. But his contributions went largely uncredited, or at least downplayed. Ellington retained many of the copyrights for Strayhorn compositions, and even received their royalties. Strayhorn’s homosexuality may have been one of the reasons he tended to shy from the spotlight, and why others shielded him from it. But he had mixed feelings about his hidden role within the orchestra, and began branching out later in his career, releasing a few solo albums. A civil rights advocate, he attended the 1963 March on Washington, but his health declined soon after. He died from cancer brought on by excessive drinking and smoking, in the company of Bill Grove, his partner at the time. A few months later, Duke Ellington commemorated his memory with the album …And His Mother Called Him Bill. Today, Strayhorn is finally seen not just as a member of Ellington’s band, but as an important and influential musician in his own right.

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