The Duke says it best.

Duke Ellington, April 29, 1969 – upon receiving the presidential medal of freedom:

The Duke with Billy Strayhorn

“Thank you very much, Mr. President. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.

This is the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And the word “freedom” is one, coincidentally, that we are using at the moment in our sacred concert.

And, of course, we speak of freedom of expression and we speak of freedom generally as being something very sweet and fat and things like that. In the end when we get down to the payoff, what we actually say is that we would like very much to mention the four major freedoms that my friend and writing-and-arranging composer, Billy Strayhorn, lived by and enjoyed.

That was freedom from hate, unconditionally; freedom from self-pity; freedom from fear of possibly doing something that may help someone else more than it would him; and freedom from the kind of pride that could make a man feel that he is better than his brother .”

Who is Billy ‘Swee Pea’ Strayhorn?

Whether or not you know the name, you almost certainly enjoy the legacy of Billy Strayhorn.

His life is the classic underdog tale of a black man in a racist nation driven in his pursuits of music and other intellectual endeavors. His mother instilled in him a deep love for the musical arts, and took great pains to foster his musical education. It is no real surprise that 23 year old Strayhorn struck Duke Ellington’s interest so intently that the Duke hired Strayhorn without knowing what he was going to have Strayhorn do .

And it didn’t take long for Strayhorn to make his place within the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Billy Strayhorn’s mastery of composition and arrangement was part of what made Duke Ellington’s band not only thrive but also grow to the esteem of one of the greatest jazz orchestras there has ever been .

Fittingly, no one has been more vocal about Billy’s contributions and genius than the Duke himself.

The First Freedom: Freedom from self-pity.

Billy Strayhorn is known by many for his activism, charity, and creativity – and to know him you only need to listen to his music. He was a man of impeccable character making music that pushed the arts and society. Strayhorn lived an openly homosexual life – incredible in itself for a man in the 1940s.

‘Lush Life’ is a tune which Billy Strayhorn began writing when he was 16 years old. The lyrics are astoundingly intimate and eloquent. The music is expressive of the subject matter in it’s harmony and melody, all reasons that this tune has become one of the Jazz standards.

How the Orchestra got on the ‘A train’

Duke Ellington was in a legal battle with ASCAP and couldn’t utilize radio play to promote his band, which would decrease his album sales which would make him unable to pay his musicians.

Billy Strayhorn kept the band afloat by composing tune after tune, including this timeless super-hit. It premiered in a live radio performance, and remains one of Ellington’s greatest.

The Second Freedom: Freedom from hate, unconditionally

Billy Strayhorn composed ‘King fit de Battle Alabam’ for the 1963 historical revue which was directed by Duke Ellington called My People. Strayhorn, an active social organizer and advocate created this piece for Martin Luther King Jr. – a close friend of his.

The Third Freedom: Freedom from fear of possibly doing something that may help someone else more than it would himself.

“It [Strayhorn's compositions] made us all think a little differently about what were were playing.” – Benny Carter, influential Jazz musician in the Ellington Orchestra

Duke Ellington describes his writing relationship with Billy Strayhorn as though they were in eachother’s minds. What really gave the Ellington Orchestra distinction among other Jazz Bands, were that the tunes played by Ellington’s band were composed, often in long forms such as suites, and arranged particularly well for the individuals in the orchestra. Billy Strayhorn was known as a guide to many great performers in and out of Ellington’s band. This excerpt from the Nutcracker Suite, arranged in 1960, exemplifies Ellington and Strayhorn’s collaborative style.

The Fouth Freedom: Freedom from the kind of pride that would make a man feel he was better than his brother.

Lena Horne, for who a time studied from Billy Strayhorn said of him: “A pixie, brown color, horn-rimmed glasses, beautifully cut suit, beautifully modulated speaking voice, appeared as if by magic and said ‘I’m Billy Strayhorn–Swee Pea.’ We looked at each other, clasped hands . . . and I loved him.”

And she’s not the only one.

The accounts written of Billy Strayhorn often speak on not just his extraordinary musical abilities, but of his endearing – and enduring – humanity.

Join the discussion!

Do you have a favorite Billy Strayhorn song? Or is this your first introduction to an under-appreciated master?

Did any of the four freedoms particularly resonate with you? Do you see them at play amongst any particular musicians today?

Share your impressions of this incredible musician in the comments below!


Angela Cross


Author Angela Cross is a vocalist, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. She’s also a passionate and ever-curious soul – learn more about Angela at her artist page !


And if you haven’t yet, be sure to check out her latest album, Songs from the Girl .


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