Today, November 29, would have been the 93rd birthday of Mr. Billy Strayhorn, one of the greatest composers in American popular music. Make that music, period. The key compositional collaborator of Duke Ellington, Strayhorn graced him, and us, with such tunes as "Take The 'A' Train," "Sophisticated Lady," some of "Satin Doll," the ineffable "Lotus Blossom," and many, many others that you really ought to acquaint yourselves with immediately if you're not familiar with them. An excellent place to start is the tribute record Ellington and his orchestra made shortly after Strayhorn's death—in 1967, at age 52, of cancer of the esophagus—...And His Mother Called Him Bill. Then there's Strayhorn's unusual, intimate, lovely solo album—criminally out-of-print, but available at unpopular prices, and worth them—The Peaceful Side. And so much more.
The heartfelt and eloquent eulogy Ellington wrote for Strayhorn is one of my very favorite pieces of short writing ever. Here is the kernel of it:
...Billy Strayhorn successfully married melody, words, and harmony, equating the fitting with happiness. His greatest virtue, I think, was his honesty, not only to others, but to himself. His listening-hearing self was totally intolerant of his writing-playing self when, or if, any compromise was expected, or considered expedient.
He spoke English perfectly and French very well, but condescension did not enter into his mind. He demanded freedom of expression and lived in what we consider the most important and moral of freedoms: freedom from hate, unconditionally; freedom from self-pity (even throughout all the pain and bad news); freedom from fear of possibly doing something that might help another more than it might help himself; and freedom from the kind of pride that could make a man feel he was better than his brother or neighbor.
You can read the eulogy in its entirety in my friend David Hajdu's splendid Strayhorn biography Lush Life.
To echo the final words of Ellington's tribute: God bless Billy Strayhorn.