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NMAH | Albert H. Small Documents Gallery - Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn: Jazz Composers; April 4 - June 18, 2009

After joining the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1939 as lyricist and arranger, Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967) quickly went to work studying Ellington's scores. He soon mastered the "Ellington effect," as he termed it, and became indispensable to the maestro, something of a musical alter ego.

Billy Strayhorn in 1958.

Billy Strayhorn in 1958. Photo by Carl Van Vechten. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Van Vechten Collection.

Unlike Ellington, Strayhorn was schooled in the European masters. He not only lightened Ellington's burden as a composer of music for the orchestra, but also contributed many ideas, particularly in harmony. Strayhorn had great sensitivity to the Ellington sound and understood its underpinnings and structure.

While Strayhorn evidently composed in a straightforward, linear fashion, Ellington seems to have sometimes manipulated passages, sections, and phrases, recording them until he got the desired result, almost as if these units were a child's wooden alphabet blocks.

Strayhorn was a gentle, soft-spoken man who avoided the limelight, and thus has rarely received his due. In addition to his enormously popular Take the "A" Train, his best-known works are Day Dream, Lotus Blossom, and Lush Life.

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