Plaque Sponsor

Dave Samber and Darrell Windle, Tom Segal, Killian Walsh, Alyce Claerbaut, and the Highfield Group

1915 - 1967

“If you want something hard enough, it just gets done.”

- Billy Strayhorn

Billy Strayhorn studied music at the Pittsburgh Music Institute.  While still a teenager he wrote both the music and the poignant lyrics for his classic “Lush-Life,” one of the most musically sophisticated Jazz standards ever recorded. Strayhorn, a gifted arranger, composer and pianist met Duke Ellington in December 1938 and served as his collaborator for the next twenty-eight years. Strayhorn's arrangements had a tremendous impact on the Ellington band, bringing a linear, classically schooled sound to Ellington’s works. Though Duke Ellington received credit for much of Strayhorn’s work – understandable given his established fame and skill – it was Strayhorn who composed the band's best known theme, "Take the ‘A’ Train", as well as a number of other pieces including "Lotus Blossom", "Chelsea Bridge", "Rain Check", "Day Dream" and "Something to Live For." Collectively, Strayhorn’s work is among the most renowned and distinctive of the 1940s and 50s Big Band Era. He participated in the Civil Rights Movement and was a confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Strayhorn was openly gay during an extremely homophobic time. Contemporary critics agree that his unapologetic openness about being gay contributed to him being perhaps purposefully overlooked as an important musician in his own right for so many years.  He succumbed to esophageal cancer on May 31, 1967, with his partner, Bill Grove, at his side. He remained in Ellington’s shadow until his acclaimed biography, Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn, was published in 1996, followed by the award-winning documentary it inspired – “Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life” (2007). His legacy lives on through new generations of aspiring musicians who discover that his genius has only deepened with the passage of time.

Plaque Sponsor

Dave Samber and Darrell Windle, Tom Segal, Killian Walsh, Alyce Claerbaut, and the Highfield Group

Lesson Plan


Gender Male

Sexual Orientation Gay

Gender Identity Cisgender

Ethnicity African American Black

Nations Affiliated United States

Era/Epoch Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968)

Field(s) of Contribution

Advocacy & Activism

Art, Music, Literature & Theater


Social Justice

Social Sciences

US History

Commemorations & Honors

Pittsburg's Regent Theatre Renamed the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in Honor of Strayhorn and fellow Pittsburgher Gene Kelly (2000)


Original Biography Author
Victor Salvo
Biography Edited By
Owen Keehnen
Biography Vetted, Edited, and Certified By
Alyce Claerbaut- Niece of Billy Strayhorn and President of Billy Strayhorn Songs
Image Rights Usage Granted By
Corbis Images
Image Source for Bronze Casting
Corbis Images
Resources Coordination
Carrie Maxwell