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Billy Strayhorn

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William Thomas “Billy” Strayhorn (November 29, 1915 – May 31, 1967) was an American jazz composer, pianist, lyricist, and arranger, best known for his successful collaboration with bandleader and composer Duke Ellington lasting nearly three decades. His compositions include “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Chelsea Bridge,” and “Lush Life.”

Strayhorn was born in Dayton, Ohio. His family soon moved to the Homewood section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. However, his mother’s family was from Hillsborough, North Carolina, and she sent him there to protect him from his father’s drunken sprees. Strayhorn spent many months of his childhood at his grandparents’ house in Hillsborough. In an interview, Strayhorn said that his grandmother was his primary influence during the first ten years of his life. He first became interested in music while living with her, playing hymns on her piano, and playing records on her Victrola record player.

Strayhorn returned to Pittsburgh, and attended Westinghouse High School, later attended by Erroll Garner and Ahmad Jamal. In Pittsburgh, he began his musical career, studying classical music for a time at the Pittsburgh Music Institute, writing a high school musical, forming a musical trio that played daily on a local radio station, and, while still in his teens, composing (with lyrics) the songs “Life Is Lonely” (later renamed “Lush Life”), “My Little Brown Book”, and “Something to Live For”. While still in grade school, he worked odd jobs to earn enough money to buy his first piano. While in high school, he played in the school band, and studied under the same teacher who had also instructed jazz pianists Erroll Garner and Mary Lou Williams.

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