Who is who among Jazz composers


  • Billy Strayhorn (1915-67) (+ 52 years old), one of the greatest composers in the history of American music, one of the few jazzmen to be openly homosexual, the early representative of the gay pride.

William Thomas Strayhorn,  with nickname  Billy and for it  known  as “Billy” Strayhorn,  was, with a short career,  the creator of a body of work that includes such standards as “Take the ‘A’ Train, Lush Life &Satin Doll”. Born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1915, grew up near Pittsburgh. His family soon moved to the Homewood section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His mother’s family was from Hillsborough, North Carolina, and she sent him there to protect him from his father’s drunken sprees (juergas). Strayhorn spent many months of his childhood at his grandparents’ house in Hillsborough. In an interview, Strayhorn said that his grandmother was his primary influence during the first ten years of his life. He first became interested in music while living with her, playing hymns on her piano, and playing records on her Victrola record player.Strayhorn returned to Pittsburgh, and attended Westinghouse High School, later attended by jazz men Erroll Garner and Ahmad Jamal. In Pittsburgh, he began his musical career, studying classical music for a time at the Pittsburgh Music Institute, forming a musical trio that played daily on a local radio station, and, while still in his teens, composing (with lyrics) the songs “Life Is Lonely” (later renamed “Lush Life“), “My Little Brown Book”, and “Something to Live For“.


While still in grade school, he worked odd jobs to earn enough money to buy his first piano. By age 19, he was writing for a professional musical, Fantastic Rhythm, which was performed for several years with young Billy Eckstine starring. After Strayhorn was hired by Ellington, he gave up his apartment and moved in with Ellington’s family. But later on, he moved in with pianist Aaron Bridgers. Profile as musician:  Still a teenager, Strayhorn composed what is arguably his masterpiece, “Lush Life,” which not only endures as one of the great songs of the past century but also defines the composer’s signature style: achingly interwoven melodies. Even today, as we are transported by the truth of its longing and regret, it’s astounding to think that the song was written by a teenager. Teacher: While in high school, he played in the school band, and studied under the same teacher, Carl McVicker, who had also instructed jazz pianists Erroll Garner and Mary Lou Williams.


 Work with Leaders: Yet all his life Strayhorn was overshadowed by his friend and collaborator Duke Ellington, with whom he worked for three decades as the Ellington Orchestra’s ace songwriter and arranger.  While there can be no doubt about Duke Ellington’s genius, some say that a good part of that genius is owed to the contributions of the little guy in the background, Billy Strayhorn. Strayhorn was 23 when he met Ellington, but the bandleader waited a year before hiring him as his collaborator. In 1939, the Ellington orchestra performed its first Strayhorn tune, “Something to Live For” that you can listen to and see in our video clips collection.   But what truly cemented the partnership (sociedad) was a nationwide radio strike in 1941, which necessitated a new set of songs for a big date on the West Coast. Strayhorn and the boss’ son, Mercer Ellington,  boarded a train in Chicago and emerged a few days later in Los Angeles with a whole new band book, whose songs included “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Johnny Come Lately”,” “Chelsea Bridge” and “After All”.  When complimented on a song such as “Satin Doll,” Ellington would often note Strayhorn’s contribution, but the music continued to be identified primarily as Ellington’s. Although it was standard practice back then for a bandleader to claim composing credit on something written by someone else for his group, Ellington didn’t do that very often, except on “Something to Live For,” which was actually written while Strayhorn was still a teenager and before he even met Ellington. In opinion of Mark Stryker the work of Strayhorn and Ellington in the soundtrack of film Anatomy of a Murder, directed by Otto Preminger in 1959, with James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell, is indispensable  to realize of chemistry among both, and so we can listen to this chemistry in the essential masterpiece suites of film such as Such Sweet Thunder and The Far East Suite.


While the jazz world wasn’t known for being very tolerant back then, and Strayhorn did have his run-ins with other musicians, he never went out of his way to hide his sexual orientation before the mythic date of  28 June 1969, when a group of LGBT people rioted following a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar at 43 Christopher Street, New York City.  Sylvia Rivera, a transgender rights activist and founding member of both the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance, is credited by many as the first to actually strike back at the police and, in so doing, spark the rebellion. Further protests and rioting continued for several nights following the raid. The Stonewall riots are generally considered to be the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. His life was tragically cut short by cancer and alcohol abuse,. If you want know better the life of this great music you can read more in “Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn”  by David Haidu and you can see a film of Filmmaker Robert Levi also title “Lush Life”. “Lush Life” the film   isn’t just a documentary on a composer. It’s also a documentary about a fascinating and complicated guy, who drank and smoked far too much, who died young, who was very active in the civil rights movement in the early ’60s and who was also pretty openly gay at a time when no one was openly gay, or so we tend to think.


The Billy Strayhorn Foundation, Inc., a non profit incorporated in the State of New York, exists to celebrate the music and life of the composer, arranger, pianist Billy Strayhorn and to develop an appreciation of his music among all people. The BSF supports this purpose through live music performance, lectures, and symposia



Duke Ellington was born April 29 (Taurus), in the border of two century, in 1899, in Washington. Died of lung cancer in 1974. Earned the nickname “Duke” for his gentlemanly ways. His good manners were due to the fact that his father was first abutler (mayordomo) in White House and later a blueprint for the U.S. Navy

American composer, pianist, and band/orchestra leader. His career, carried out in New York, spanned more than 50 years. Is undoubtedly the major figure in the history of jazz music,  a giant among giants” as defined by Gunther Schuller in 1989.Ellington earned 12 Grammy awards from 1959 to 2000, 9 while he was alive. His reputation increased after his death and the Pulitzer Prize Board bestowed on him a special posthumous honor in 1999.  About the origin of Jazz the Duke always said that in this music style the most important was the meeting between the “freedom” of black music and the “discipline” of white music, the syncopation vs structural formalism of conventional melody and harmony.  Respect to the “blues”, Ellington said: “Blues is the essence of Jazz”.

Ellington is the King of Jazz as Scott Joplin is the King of Ragtime with Jelly Roll Morton in the middle for his contribution to both, Ragtime and Jazz.

Duke Ellington had musician parents in a middle-high class neighborhood. At the age of 7, he began studying piano. He wrote his first composition, “Soda Fountain Rag,” at the age of 15. Despite being awarded an art scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, Ellington followed his passion for ragtime and began to play professionally at age 17. As pianist was influenced by the first great pianist of the Jazz history that not was Jelly Roll Morton but another much better, the master of master  James P. Johnson with the stride sound, technique that the Duke incorporated soon to his music. Ellington was thoroughly impressed by “Carolina Shout” of James P. Johnson.  

In the 1920s, Ellington performed in Broadway nightclubs with frequent appearances at the Cotton Club, far of Broadway.  Was bandleader of a sextet and an orchestra in different periods of his life.

Ellington sought out musicians with unique playing styles, especially in wind instruments (horns):  such as Bubber Miley, trumpet and cornet player, who used a plunger to make the “wa-wa” sound; Rex Stewart, the other cornet; Charles Melvin “Cootie” Williams, a master of both, plunger-mute technique and the brilliant open horn in the trumpet, and Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, who gave the world his trombone “growl.” Juan Tizol, his other trombonist, help to the Duke in composition tasks (i.e: Perdido). Others horns: his favorite saxophonists: Johnny Hodges (alto saxophonist born in Cambridge, Massachussetts). He played with the Duke in two periods (1928-1951 and 1955-1970). The elements of the blues were present in his solo style. Ben Webster: tenor saxophone. Harry Carney: baritone saxophone. Clarinet: Barney Bigardand Jimmy Hamilton. His favorite female vocalist: Ivie Anderson. Guitarist: Fred Guy (accompaniment guitar). Contrabass or double bass: Jimmy Blanton and his perky pizzicato. In the drums, Sonny Greer, his favorite.


His most popular songs: “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing,” “Solitude,” “Satin Doll.” “Jeep’s Blues” (Hodges), “Caravan”   “Concerto for Cootie” (for trumpeter Cootie Williams) (later became “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me” with Bob Russell‘s lyrics). All of them, except for “Jeep´s Blues” and the “Concerto for Cootie”, performed in our website. In his compositions and music arrangements is noted the influence of Bix Beiderbecke, the “white King of Jazz music”, whom Ellington admired.  

Masterworks: Sophysticated Lady // In a sentimental mood. “Prelude to a Kiss,” the three pieces has been performed are available in our website, arranged by to be played with a simple guitar.

Has been written that Ellington refused to refer to himself as a Jazz musician, preferring to be called an “American” musician instead.  Such nonsense is not true and moreover is much more important, by the ulterior influence in New Musics from 1950 onwards (rock´n roll, pop-rock, rock, soul)  to be the King of Jazz than the King of American Music with null influence in the New Musics. In his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress,   published in 1973, and in non-official biography, titled “Dueke Ellington. Jazz composer”, written by Ken Rattenbury,  say nothing to support this way of thinking.  American music had a great influence in the Jazz and the Jazz also had influence in American music but they are different music styles.  Respect to the compositions, Jazz player did a lot of covers of American songs composed by the greatest composers (Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers, Berlin…) but  the Jazz pieces were not covered by classical orchestras in Broadway, and these composers were most important than Ellington in the called “American song” or “American music”.


He had many collaborators in composition tasks but undoubtedly the most important were the trombonist Juan Tizol and the pianists Mary Lou Williams and Billy Strayhorn, author of the great standards such as“Take the A train”, “Isfahan”, “Lush life”, all of them available in our website.  Billy  was a noted  music that accompanied to Ellington from he was a young adult after to perform Lush life for the Duke, who was very impressed by the gift of Billy.  Lush life is without doubt one of more complex piece of Jazz History. It is not possible to analyze the Ellington´ career without emphasize the importance of Billy in it.


His last words were, “Music is how I live, why I live and how I will be remembered.” He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York City.

a giant among giants” –Thank you Mr Ellington



Irving Berlin was not a Jazz musician but a great composer of american music. His songs were performed by the most Jazz Big Bands and the best players. 

Irving Berlin was born Israel Baline in 1888 in the Russian village of Temun. He was the youngest of eight children. His family was Jewish. They fled Russia because of religious oppression.

The Baline family came to America in 1893 (5 years old).  Israel’s father died when the boy was eight years old.  . First, he got a job helping a blind street singer. Then he began earning money by singing on the streets of New York.

Later, he got a job singing while serving people their food in a restaurant. Israel taught himself to play the piano. But he could play only the black keys !!!.

Soon Israel began composing his own songs. An assistant wrote down the notes on sheets of paper. When the songwriter’s first song was published, his name was spelled wrong !!!. Israel Baline had become I. Berlin. Israel thought the name sounded more American. So he re­named himself Irving Berlin.

Between nineteen twelve and nineteen sixteen, Irving Berlin wrote more than one hundred eighty songs. By the time he was in his late twenties, his songs were famous around the world.

Berlin became an American citizen in nineteen eighteen. A few months later, hewas ordered into military service. The United States was fighting in World War One. Berlin was asked to write songs for a musical about life in the military. He called the show “Yip Yip Yaphank.” All of the performers in the show were soldiers. Many of the songs became popular.

After he served in the army, Berlin returned to New York. He formed his own music publishing company. He also established a theater for his musical shows near Broadway.

Irving Berlin loved America for giving a poor immigrant a chance to succeed. 


The United States entered World War Two in nineteen forty‑one. Berlin agreed to write and produce a new musical   ((“This is the Army”)).   

With this musical he earned ten million dollars for the Army Emergency Relief Fund.  

After the war, Berlin continued to write songs for movies and plays. He wrote songs for more than fifteen movies from the nineteen thirties to the nineteen fifties.  

Irving Berlin also wrote the music for seventeen Broadway plays from the nineteen twenties to nineteen fifty.