Education and Meeting Duke Ellington
Strayhorn returned to
Though classical music was Strayhorn’s first love, his ambition to become a classical composer was shot down by the harsh reality of a black man trying to make it in the classical world, which at that time was almost completely white. Strayhorn was then introduced to the music of pianists like Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson at age 19. These musicians guided him into the realm of jazz where he remained for the rest of his life. His first jazz exposure was in a combo called the Mad Hatters that played around
He met Duke Ellington in December 1938, after an Ellington performance in
Strayhorn's relationship with Ellington was always difficult to pin down: Strayhorn was a gifted composer and arranger who seemed to flourish in Duke's shadow. Ellington was arguably a father figure and the band was affectionately protective of the diminutive, mild-mannered, unselfish Strayhorn, nicknamed by the band "Strays", "Weely", and "Swee' Pea". Ellington may have taken advantage of him, but not in the mercenary way that others had taken advantage of Ellington; instead, he used Strayhorn to complete his thoughts, while giving Strayhorn the freedom to write on his own and enjoy at least some of the credit he deserved. Though Duke Ellington took credit for much of Strayhorn’s work, he did not maliciously drown out his partner. Ellington would make jokes onstage like, "Strayhorn does a lot of the work but I get to take the bows!"
William P. Gottlieb, c. 1947
Strayhorn composed the band's best known theme, "Take the 'A' Train", and a number of other pieces that became part of the band’s repertoire. In some cases Strayhorn received attribution for his work such as "Lotus Blossom", "
Shortly before Ellington went on his second European tour with his orchestra, from March to May 1939, Ellington announced to his sister Ruth and son Mercer Ellington that Strayhorn "is staying with us." Through Mercer, Strayhorn met his first partner, African-American musician Aaron Bridgers, with whom Strayhorn lived until Bridgers moved to
Strayhorn was openly gay. He participated in many civil rights causes. As a committed friend to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he arranged and conducted "King Fit the Battle of Alabama'" for the Ellington Orchestra in 1963 for the historical revue (and album) My People, dedicated to King.
Strayhorn's strong character left an impression on many people who met him. He had a major influence on the career of Lena Horne, who wanted to marry Strayhorn and considered him to have been the love of her life. Strayhorn used his classical background to improve Horne's singing technique. They eventually recorded songs together. In the 1950s, Strayhorn left his musical partner Duke Ellington for a few years to pursue a solo career of his own. He came out with a few solo albums and revues for the Copasetics (a