Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington’s Collaboration

Billy Strayhorn, from a popularity standpoint, was in Duke Ellington’s shadow. But according to Duke, Billy “was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.”

Billy Strayhorn wrote about 40% of Duke Ellington’s repertoire during his tenure which lasted almost 3 decades. His touch left a significant mark on Ellington’s musical identity and brand. Those decades are arguably Duke Ellington’s most adventurous period.

The nature of the collaboration between the Duke and Strays remained a mystery to audiences, record buyers and critics. Who composed what? This famous question has been debated over decades between critics, musicologists and fans.

From hiding scores to creating elusive stories to trick journalists, both Ellington and Strayhorn kept their collaboration behind closed doors via long-distance phone calls, in recording studios and rehearsals with the band. Strayhorn was almost always seen in the recording studio with the Duke, and even playing piano on various commercial releases and radio broadcasts.

In a 1962 interview, Duke Ellington said, “Strayhorn lives the life that I would love to live. You know, he is the pure artist.”

Ever Up and Onward: A Tribute to Billy Strayhorn

In this eight-part video series, bassist and Colburn Conservatory alumnus Marlon Martinez explores the life, legacy, and music of this jazz icon.

Watch the series