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Billy Strayhorn: A classical composer?
By Qijia Ma


Billy Strayhorn (1915–67) is best known as a jazz pianist, composer, and arranger whose collaborations with Duke Ellington resulted in classics like "Take the 'A' Train" and “Lush Life.” A lesser-known aspect of Strayhorn’s early career involves his comprehensive study and composition of classical music.


Although Pittsburgh’s Hill District is most famous for its history of jazz, gospel and blues, it also had a thriving classical scene that inspired young Strayhorn in the first half of the 20th-century. Strayhorn studied with pianist Charlotte Dyer Enty Catlin (1903–68), who performed classical-style recitals at the Loendi club, Pittsburgh festivals, and private clubs. At a 1924 concert at the Peoples’ Tabernacle, Catlin performed virtuosic show-stoppers like Flood of Springs by Sergei Rachmaninoff and ended the program with Harry Burleigh’s arrangements of African American spirituals. As Strayhorn tackled counterpoint and theory under Catlin’s guidance, his compositions became ambitious.


At Westinghouse High School, Strayhorn performed Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto, op. 16 with orchestra, and he went on to compose Valse for solo piano and Concerto for Piano and Percussion. Meanwhile, Strayhorn was performing regularly with his jazz combo, the Mad Hatters. Considering how Strayhorn had one foot in classical music and one foot in jazz, can we hear the ways that Strayhorn blended those styles in his Valse?

In the following audio clip, I am performing Strayhorn’s Valse (1934), a piece that was written in the style of 19th-century Polish composer Frederic Chopin. In the first fifteen seconds, notice the singing melody in a high range, supported by a waltz pattern in the bass. The opening theme (0:00-0:46) has a lot of ornaments in the melody, like those heard in Chopin’s waltzes, but also similar to embellishments in jazz improvisation. You will hear a contrasting section (0:46 to 1:42 seconds) followed by a return to the original melody. At the end of the piece (around 02:13), Strayhorn finishes with a major 9th chord, a frequently-heard sound in jazz. 

ValseBilly Strayhorn - Performed by Qijia Ma
00:00 / 02:22

Billy Strayhorn "Valse" (1934). Performed by Qijia Ma. Recorded by Lizzie Averell.

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Billy Strayhorn’s later compositions continued to challenge traditional distinctions between different music genres. In 1960, for instance, Strayhorn collaborated with Ellington on The Nutcracker Suite, a jazz adaptation of Pyotr Tchaikovsky's famous ballet. Billy Strayhorn’s career shows how musicians draw from many different styles and influences, inspiring them to create something new. 

Billy Strayhorn, Valse (1934), measures 1–8

When listening to Valse, do you feel like the music is more:
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Anon., "Brilliant Artists in Recital Tuesday Evening." Pittsburgh Courier (23 August 1924): 5.

Anon., "Enty-Deppe on Music Day Programme." Pittsburgh Courier (14 March 1925): 4.

Claerbaut, A. Alyce and David Schlesinger. Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life. Evanston, IL, Agate Publishing, 2015.

Leur, Walter van de. Something to Live for: The Music of Billy Strayhorn. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

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