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Duke Ellington Tuesday, 27 April, 1999, 16:15 GMT 17:15 UK
Behind every great man
Duke Ellington's sheer force of personality made his band a success for half a century. But it was a little-known composer who wrote some of the band's most memorable tunes.

Duke Ellington
Billy Strayhorn was something of a child prodigy in Pittsburgh. He met Ellington on more than one occasion before being signed up to the band in 1939. The clincher, a fantastic tune called Take the A Train.

Strayhorn played piano on some band recordings while Ellington directed the sessions. Strayhorn also played on many small group recordings as spin-offs from the big band.

Strayhorn was content to remain in the background. His debt to Ellington was large. Not only had he been placed on the payroll but Ellington had accepted him into his fold, despite his homosexuality, a challenge to many social preconceptions of the time.

Strayhorn became something of a heavy drinker, but it didn't worry Duke Ellington. His band had its fair share of heavy imbibers. And Strayhorn was a useful minder for Ellington's many girlfriends.

The possessive Ellington often would ask Strayhorn to accompany his partner of the time. He knew full well Strayhorn would keep an eye on them and not challenge his position. Lena Horne was one of many to receive this special attention.

Ecletic influences

Strayhorn's compositions reflect his deep interest in classical music, especially the 20th century Russian composers such as Stravinsky, and the French impressionist school, notably Ravel and Debussy.

Strayhorn's style incorporates tonal colours which embrace this eclectic range of influences. His pieces are now part of the jazz landscape. They include: Take The A Train, Chelsea Bridge, Passion Flower, Johnny Come Lately, Day Dream and Lotus Blossom.

At times it is difficult to clearly distinguish where the divide is between Strayhorn's and Ellington's compositions. Because he was quite happy for Ellington to put his name at the top of a score, penned by himself, it is only now that some serious work is being done to clearly establish Strayhorn's contribution.

Strayhorn died of cancer in 1967. But his reputation has continued to grow. Today, Strayhorn is seen as one of the most important jazz composers of the 20th century.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Audio
Johnny Come Lately: A Strayhorn composition
Audio
Chelsea Bridge: Recorded 1941, in Hollywood
Links to more Duke Ellington stories are at the foot of the page.


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