Billy Strayhorn - b. Nov. 29, 1915

November 29, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

How does a small, gay, Black kid, raised and living in Homewood, a Black section of Pittsburgh, come to write, at age 19 in 1934
The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces
With distingué traces. . .*
and over the chord sequence D♭ / B7 / D♭?

Billy Strayhorn was born 100 years ago today. “Lush Life” is deservedly his most frequently recorded song. Lady Gaga and Linda Ronstadt have done it. Sinatra never got more than a few bars into it on a few takes at a 1958 recording session. On the tape you can hear someone suggest that they “put it aside for a minute.” “Put it aside for about a year,” says Sinatra. Even years later, when his accompanist suggest that Sinatra sing it saloon style, “just you and me and a piano,” Frank shook his head.

The lyrics and music have a sophistication that rivals even the best of Tin Pan Alley – Gershwin, Kern, Porter, et al. I sometimes play piano – not well, but enough to fool some people for a short while – and I would never try playing “Lush Life” with anyone else in the room.

Strayhorn’s best known tune is “Take the A Train,” often attributed to Duke Ellington – it was, after all, his theme song – and Duke may have had a hand in writing it.  The two worked together so closely that with many of the songs, it’s impossible to know who wrote what. “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,” Duke wrote in Music is My Mistress.

Even among jazzers, Strayhorn’s presence faded along with the big band era. Then in the late 60s he was gradually rediscovered, and people started playing some of his lesser known tunes. Here is Joe Henderson playing “Isfahan” from his 1992 Strayhorn tribute album “Lush Life.” The bassist is Christian McBride.



Composers and arrangers remain largely unknown; it’s the musicians on stage that get the recognition. Band leaders even used to claim composer credit on tunes written by musicians in their band. (Cootie Williams is listed as one of the composers of “Round Midnight,” which, as everyone knows, was written by Thelonius Monk.) Duke was more generous. “Strayhorn does a lot of the work but I get to take the bows.”

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* The lyric may be too sophisticated. Some singers have turned “distingu√© traces” into “distant gay traces.”

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