Historical Markers
William Strayhorn Historical Marker
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William Strayhorn

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
Westinghouse High School, 1101 North Murtland Street, Homewood, Pittsburgh

Dedication Date:
May 27, 1995

Behind the Marker

Billy Strayhorn was already an accomplished pianist and composer when he was in high school. So accomplished, in fact, that many who attended his graduation performance were sure that they had heard him perform Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," rather than his own Gershwin inspired "Concerto for Piano and Percussion," an advanced piece he had composed for the occasion.

Bill Strayhorn was born in Dayton, Ohio, on November 19, 1915. Bright, ambitious people, Strayhorn's parents moved to Pittsburgh when he was five to find better opportunities, but once there remained in menial jobs their whole lives. The Strayhorns lived in Homewood, a neighborhood integrated in an unusual manner. White people lived in nice houses on tree-lined streets, while blacks lived in small shacks tucked in behind and away from the street. The Strayhorn residence was a shack at 7212 Tioga Street Rear. Billy's mother, not wanting him to be ashamed, told him to call it "Tioga Street, the zenith way."

Strayhorn's parents were opposites in temperament. A frustrated day laborer, his father, James, became an abusive alcoholic. His mother, Lillian, was refined and formal. Fascinated at an early age by classical music, Strayhorn wanted to become a concert pianist. He adored George Gershwin, especially for his ability to combine classical and jazz influences. When his friends introduced him to the jazz of Earl Hines, Art Tatum, and Teddy Wilson, Strayhorn found black pianists he could emulate.
A head and shoulders portrait of William Strayhorn reviewing sheet music.
Billy Strayhorn, circa 1947.

Like markerJohn Coltrane, Jimmy Heath, Dizzy Gillespie, Nina Simone, and many other important Pennsylvania musicians, Strayhorn had roots in North Carolina and spent most of his summers there with his grandparents. The shift from the city to the country and the connection to older lifestyles seem to be important elements in the lives of many jazz musicians. Classically trained and musically gifted from a young age, Strayhorn wrote the haunting jazz and pop classic "Lush Life" during his teenage years. After high school, Strayhorn studied music theory and concert music at the Pittsburgh Musical Institute, and worked in a drug store to pay his bills. In 1938, he met legendary bandleader Duke Ellington and offered him the song.

Within a year, Strayhorn had joined the Ellington band. For the next thirty years Strayhorn would be Ellington's constant collaborator and inspiration, and his best critic. Ellington and Strayhorn worked out a relationship that may be unique in jazz history. Strayhorn composed tunes and wrote arrangements of Ellington's music. Ellington relied tremendously on Strayhorn's musical prowess and instincts and Strayhorn toured with the Ellington Orchestra just as if he were one of the performers, but even though he was an extraordinary pianist, he rarely played with the band.

The Ellington orchestra kept a grueling schedule of up to 300 one-night performances a year. Typically, after a show, Ellington and Strayhorn would work on music all night, developing new material and perfecting the sound of the orchestra. Strayhorn also composed alone or with Ellington many of the Ellington orchestra's greatest songs, including "Take the A Train," "Chelsea Bridge," "Passion Flower," and "It Don't Mean a Thing, if it Ain't Got That Swing."

Ellington and Strayhorn's association lasted until the latter's sudden death in 1967. After a lifetime of drinking and smoking, Strayhorn contracted cancer of the esophagus. Later that year Ellington memorialized his great friend with the album "And his Mother Called him Bill."

"Billy Strayhorn," Duke Ellington would later write, "was the biggest human being who ever lived, a man with the greatest courage, the most majestic artistic stature, a highly skilled musician whose impeccable taste commanded the respect of musicians and the admiration of all listeners."

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