Billy Strayhorn Wasn't Born Here, but that Doesn't Matter
A look back at the the Pittsburgh journey of jazz great Billy Strayhorn.
Billy Strayhorn holds a high place in the pantheon of great jazz artists with Pittsburgh roots and connections.
But he wasn’t born here.
Strayhorn’s parents, both from North Carolina, moved for work to Dayton, Ohio, where their son was born on Nov. 29, 1915. Months later, they moved to Montclair, N.J., where they stayed for almost five years before packing up for western Pennsylvania, again hoping for better work. They rented rooms first in Braddock, living there for almost five years, then for a year in Rankin; in 1926, they found a small house at 7212 Tioga St. Rear in Homewood.
Life was not easy for the Strayhorns, but Billy loved music. He found jobs in the neighborhood and at Pennfield Pharmacy in nearby Point Breeze, saving his money until he could buy a piano. Strayhorn, who studied classical music and dreamed of becoming a concert pianist, became renowned at Westinghouse High School for his musical talents; one of his original compositions, “Concerto for Piano and Percussion,” was played at his graduation ceremony in the winter of 1934.
The year after he graduated, he was invited to work on a school musical. He wrote the entire score, lyrics and book for the show, “Fantastic Rhythm.” It would become a huge success, eventually reviewed in all three major Pittsburgh newspapers, including the Pittsburgh Courier, which called Strayhorn a “budding young musical genius.”
While he did formally study classical music in 1936 at the private Pittsburgh Musical Institute in Oakland, Strayhorn was becoming familiar with jazz. He put together a quintet that played regularly at Rauken Lakes, a small amusement park near Bridgeville; they would eventually become a trio and adopt the moniker “The Mad Hatters.”
Many people wanted to see this young musician succeed. A student at Pitt named David Perelman — who had worked with Strayhorn at Pennfield Pharmacy — also knew George Greenlee, whose uncle Gus owned the two Crawford Grills, among the most popular nightclubs in the Hill District. Perelman convinced George Greenlee to use his uncle’s contacts to introduce Strayhorn to important musicians coming through town.
On Dec. 1, 1938, Duke Ellington was beginning a week-long engagement at the Stanley Theater (the modern-day Benedum Center). George Greenlee took Strayhorn backstage to meet Ellington; Strayhorn sat at a piano and played a song exactly as Ellington had just played it.
Then he showed Ellington how it could be changed and improved.
Impressed, Ellington gave Strayhorn several assignments that week; Billy completed all of them, in brilliant fashion. Before he left town, Ellington gave Strayhorn directions to his apartment in Harlem, and one of the great partnerships in American musical history was born. Strayhorn used the New York City directions as inspiration for a new tune, “Take the ‘A’ Train.” It would become Ellington’s theme song and biggest hit.
From January 1939 until his death in May 1967, Strayhorn worked closely and successfully with Ellington and his band as a composer, arranger, lyricist, vocal coach and friend, often for little or no credit (even when it was much deserved).
Strayhorn will also be remembered for a beautiful song he wrote in Pittsburgh in the 1930s. Originally titled “Life Is Lonely,” it became “Lush Life,” now a jazz standard. It’s a sad and sophisticated tune, notoriously difficult to play and sing. In his 1996 biography of Strayhorn, writer David Hajdu includes a story about a Paris meeting with saxophonist Johnny Griffin: “‘Where did you learn to write music the way you do?’ Griffin asked Strayhorn. ‘In high school,’ he said.”