Strayhorn’s Style

Billy Strayhorn was a pioneer of the modern big band sound. He brought a complexity to melody, harmony, orchestration, and compositional form that stemmed from influences outside of jazz and blues. His formal training in classical music, combined with his love for jazz and musical theater, resulted in a progressive touch to the already trail-blazing Duke Ellington Orchestra.  Strayhorn’s emotionally deep yet palatable music influenced a line of jazz artists who were the creators of Bebop in the 1940s, and the modern styles that followed.

Characteristics of Billy Strayhorn’s Music

Billy Strayhorn’s music has often been analyzed, and critiqued, with Duke Ellington’s compositional approach in mind. Many have described Strayhorn as “fitting himself” into Duke Ellington’s sound or adopting an entirely “Ellingtonian” way of composing. It’s true that he wrote with Ellington’s soloists in mind, which highlighted the personalities in the band. However, Billy Strayhorn’s techniques are far more individualistic. He was a trendsetter who inspired countless legends with his forward-thinking melodies, lyrics, orchestrations, and compositional form.

  1. Melody: Strayhorn’s melodies are often angular in their shape, and his phrases are typically long and legato in feeling, with many intervallic leaps. His melody notes often sit on extended chord tones: 9ths, 11ths, 13ths, more colorful notes that open up the harmonic possibilities in his orchestrations. This creates that angular feeling in Strayhorn’s music that predates Bebop and Post-Bop tunes.
  2. Chord Progressions: Rather than depending on conventional jazz and American Songbook chord progressions like the ii-V-I, Strayhorn created melodies built off of one chord that shifts up or down a few steps. The chord is not bound to any particular progression or resolution except its parallel motion. These looped progressions and chord choices make Strayhorn’s music very relatable to modern ears, and you can hear the same type of chords being used today in R&B, Rap, and Hip Hop.
  3. Tonality: Strayhorn often obscured the tonality of a song with dissonance, while maintaining conservative compositional forms. It’s as if he took a completed, traditional portrait and then blotted out details, adding new layers of shade, hues, clouds and water to create an “impressionistic” filter.
  4. Form: Billy Strayhorn said, “he studied the three B’s – Bach, Beethoven and Brahams.” What he must have learned from these composers is ternary form and other traditional structures, rounding out complete musical statements that feel balanced. What made Strayhorn’s music so appealing to arrangers in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s was his ability to compose vivid introductions and developmental passages in place of improvised solos that typically happened in the middle of a pop song. This is where you find the classical influence in his writing style.
  5. Modulation: Modulation plays a unique part in Strayhorn’s music, often moving one or more minor 3rd intervals apart, an interest shared by composers Bela Bartok, Ernô Lendvai, and John Coltrane.
  6. Unison-Countermelody: Unison countermelody is a signature part of Strayhorn orchestrations. This thin layer of accompaniment is commonly assigned to the five saxophones voiced in the same register. Strayhorn regularly uses extended chord tones and chromaticism to obscure the tonality of the song with dissonant ornamentation.
  7. Cross-Section Voicing: The cross-section technique is something Duke Ellington pioneered, and Strayhorn personalized in his orchestrations. With this technique, sections of the big band are mixed together where each section is unusually voiced. For example, you may hear a trombone or trumpet paired with the saxophones in harmony.
  8. Closed-Block Voicing: Closed-block voicing is a hallmark to both Ellington and Strayhorn orchestrations, but Strayhorn used this technique as an extended feature of a composition, while Ellington tended to use this technique for contrasting effect. What makes Strayhorn’s technique different from other big bands is that he keeps the voices, the sections of the big band, within one octave below the lead trumpet melody line. The baritone sax plays the melody just one octave below the trumpet, or it harmonizes the melody within the octave – a very unorthodox technique.
  9. Lyrics: Billy Strayhorn was a gifted lyricist who crafted masterful songs that impressed lyricists who were well in the profession. Billy Strayhorn’s lyrics are often melancholy, with a bittersweet attitude towards love. There is a sense of longing that is illustrated further by his lush orchestrations.

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