Marking Time highlights one of the more than 2,500 markers that have been installed throughout the state since 1914 as part of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program, operated by PHMC's State Historic Preservation Office.

Although jazz composer and arranger William “Billy” Strayhorn was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1915, his family moved to the Homewood section of Pittsburgh when he was five years old. His parents, Lillian and James Strayhorn, were bright and ambitious, but were never able to break out of their modest means.

Young Strayhorn played his grandmother’s piano from the moment he was able to reach the keys and was fascinated by classical music. After graduating from Westinghouse High School (where this marker is located), where his musical talents were nurtured, he studied music theory and concert music at the Pittsburgh Musical Institute. Although he intended to become a concert pianist, he particularly admired composer George Gershwin for his ability to meld classical music and jazz.

In 1938, Strayhorn met Duke Ellington, and offered him “Lush Life,” a song he had written as a teenager. Within a year, Strayhorn joined the Ellington band, and for the next three decades was Ellington’s collaborator and inspiration. Ellington described him as “my listener, my most dependable appraiser [and] critic.” Strayhorn toured with the ensemble – his primary role was to compose and arrange music for Ellington – but he rarely appeared on stage. Openly gay in an era that was less than tolerant, Strayhorn preferred to work behind the scenes.

Billy Strayhorn collaborated on more than two hundred pieces with Ellington and produced a number of the orchestra’s greatest songs, including such standards as “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Satin Doll,” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got that Swing.” His ballads include “Lush Life,” “After All,” and “Passion Flower.” Their association continued until Strayhorn’s death in 1967. Ellington eulogized him as “a highly skilled musician whose impeccable taste commanded the respect of all musicians and the admiration of all listeners.” Later that year, Ellington honored him with an album entitled And His Mother Called Him Bill.


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