Baby Boy Strayhorn – The Strayhorn Centenary Project

For the first few years of his life, Billy Strayhorn didn’t have a name. His parents had buried two of three children born before him, so when the new born started life sickly, with rickets, they did not rush to name him. He was called “Baby Boy Strayhorn” on his birth certificate. The rickets went away, the baby survived, and they would name him William Thomas Strayhorn.

Billy Strayhorn was born in Dayton, Ohio on November 29, 1915 to James and Lillian Strayhorn. Billy would ultimately have five siblings: older brother James, Jr., or Jimmy (1912), and younger siblings Georgia (1921), John (1924), Theodore (1926), and Lillian (1930). The family moved around quite a bit until finally settling in the Homewood district of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1926. It was an oddly integrated neighborhood in that whites lived on the main street and blacks lived in rented houses on alleys behind the white-owned houses. The youngest daughter, Lillian (later Lillian Strayhorn Dicks) described her father as having been born in the wrong time. “He was bright and had a lot of personality, and he probably would have done very well years later,” she told Strayhorn biographer David Hajdu. As it was, he was a frustrated man, no doubt hindered by the racism of the time, driven to drink and fits of anger, which he often took out on his family. In one instance, he stomped on his son Billy’s much-needed glasses as they sat on the floor and walked off laughing.

Billy’s mother Lillian had aspirations of being a society lady, a dream never realized. Rather than take out her disappointments on her children as James had, she protected her kids from his cruelty, in particular young, quiet Billy. In him she saw a hope for a brighter future, even when he was still young. Billy, in turn, became very attached to his mother.

Interest in music started in grade school, but opportunities were very limited. The family had no budget for music lessons much less an instrument — and from the start, Billy wanted to learn piano — so Billy took a job delivering newspapers to earn money to pay for his musical pursuits. Eventually, he became a clerk at a drugstore and was able to buy himself an upright player piano that could only be played manually. (Side note: In his youth, Duke Ellington learned how to play stride piano on a working player piano by slowing down the roll and following the depressed keys with his fingers.) Billy spent money on music lessons and scores, until the house had stacks of sheet music all over the place. His mother loved the music in the house. Also around this time he met future concert trumpeter Harry Herforth, a young white man with whom Billy became friends. They took long walks together and discussed music.

In high school, Billy and Harry studied with Carl McVicker, a forward-thinking man who encouraged all students from all backgrounds to pursue and study music. Herforth would eventually play with the Boston Symphony. Billy had classical inclinations as well, with an ear for Claude Debussy and Cesar Franck. Despite his classical training and aptitude, however, race would keep him from pursuing a career in classical music. When he graduated high school in the winter of 1934, he kept working at the pharmacy, determined to raise money to eventually attend a school that would accept him. During the next four years, he honed his skills, took odd music jobs, and worked at his high school alma mater, composing music for students to play.

Though described as a quiet, introspective person, Billy Strayhorn clearly had drive. From the start, he did not let his family’s financial hardships or his father’s cruel indifference keep him from pursuing music. He knew who he was and what he wanted to do in life. His honestly also extended towards recognition of his sexual orientation. He never dated girls and did not go to proms or dances, except to play piano at them. He never pretended to be heterosexual. We might not call him “out” in the modern since of the term. In fact, Hajdu writes that Strayhorn’s childhood friends said that he never came out to them. Many assumed he was either gay or asexual. But most importantly and most intriguingly, Billy Strayhorn was out to himself and by all accounts seemed comfortable with himself. In contrast, I was not out to myself growing up. I knew I was sexually attracted to boys by the time I was five, even if I did not know the language to describe such an attraction. But I would not feel comfortable acknowledging this aspect of myself until I was 23. If anything illustrates the strength of Billy’s character it is this simple fact of self-honesty, the bravest kind of courage that exists. It still breaks my brain that a black man born 50 years before me, born to an era of violent racism and homophobia, possessed this kind of strength.

It was as a 17-18 year-old that Billy composed his signature piece: “Lush Life.” Its urbane lyrics, sophisticated melody, and challenging chord progressions made it a jazz standard covered by everyone from Nat King Cole to Queen Latifah. Its opening line immediately grabs attention:

I used to visit all the very gay places

Others may disagree, but I think the double-entendre was intentional. “Gay” in the sense of “homosexual” was just coming into usage around the time of the song’s composition. And while he used “she” as the pronoun to describe the lost love in “Lush Life,” “Something To Live For,” also composed around this time, has no pronouns at all. It also has this line:

Oh, what wouldn’t I give for

Someone who’d take my life and make it seem

Gay as they say it ought to be

Billy’s big break came in early December, 1938. His drugstore gig sent him all over middle-class, white Pittsburgh and his musical prowess made him a local celebrity. Folks asked him to play for them while making deliveries. It was via this unusual route of networking that he met a student at the University of Pittsburgh’s College of Pharmacy, David Perelman. Perelman had as a friend George Greenlee, one of the College’s first black students. Greenlee’s uncle had friendships with many of the black musical illuminati of the day, including 39 year-old band leader Duke Ellington. As it happened, Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra came to Pittsburgh for an extended engagement at the Stanley Theatre around this time. Via Greenlee’s uncle, Billy was introduced to the Maestro.

Duke was having his hair conked — a hair straightening ordeal popular at that time among black men — when he asked that the young man be brought into his dressing room. Billy played for Duke his own “Sophisticated Lady” in the manner the Maestro had just played it during the performance. Then he said, precociously, “This is the way I would have played it.” Duke rose and stood behind the young man as he played and ordered his valet to get Harry Carney, his long-time baritone sax player and first lieutenant. Eventually legendary alto-sax master Johnny Hodges and vocalist Ivie Anderson would join them. Billy began playing some of his own compositions, including “Something to Live For.” They all marveled at Billy’s playing and composing chops. Duke gave the young man a couple of assignments on the spot, to add lyrics to one piece and to do arrangements for another. He completed both of these, receiving $20 for his arranging work. Then he received a most unusual job offer from Ellington: the Maestro wanted Billy to join his organization, though the duties were not defined. In effect, he said come to New York and we’ll figure something out. He gave him directions to his place in Harlem and the Orchestra went off to their next destination.

It would be a few months before Duke followed up with his new protege and brought him to New York. When Billy finally went to the Big Apple in 1939, he set the directions Duke had given him to get to his place on Sugar Hill way up in Harlem to music. He called the piece “Take the ‘A’ Train.”

{Ed. note: Reference material for this article: Lush Life — A Biography of Billy Strayhorn by David Hajdu (North Point Press, 1996).}

© 2015, gar. All rights reserved.

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