This Day in Black History: Nov. 29, 1915

Composer Billy Strayhorn was born.

Posted: 11/29/2012 08:30 AM EST
Billy Strayhorn

(Photo: Courtesy of The Library of Congress)

Legend has it that Billy Strayhorn, longtime composer for jazz great Duke Ellington, began playing the piano the minute he was tall enough to reach the keys of his grandmother's instrument.

Even at a very young age, he was good enough to make his family want to gather around to hear him play. More importantly, he had the dedication necessary to build a fulfilling and successful life in the arts, taking on jobs to buy himself a second-hand piano and pay for his sheet music and lessons.

Born on Nov. 29, 1959, the Dayton, Ohio, native grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he received private piano instruction and played in his high school's band. Strayhorn went on to study classical music at the Pittsburgh Musical Institute and later the student became teacher, coaching Lena Horne, for example, in the genre to help her expand her range and skill.

Strayhorn perhaps is best known for his work and long-time collaboration with Ellington, whose band he joined at age 22. He created one of Ellington's most well-known compositions, "Take the A Train," which he wrote using the subway directions Ellington had given him to travel to his apartment in Harlem.

Strayhorn also recorded his own solo albums and worked on theatrical productions.

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