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Library of Congress
Published: 29 November 2018

The Library of Congress announced today that it has acquired the original manuscripts documenting the work of composer, arranger and pianist Billy Strayhorn.  

An important star in the jazz firmament, Strayhorn was the source of much of the sound of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He worked with Ellington for nearly 30 years, writing or collaborating on more than 200 tunes and arrangements for the band.

Strayhorn wrote the orchestra’s signature tune, “Take the ‘A’ Train.”

The Strayhorn Collection contains nearly 18,000 documents, which include music manuscripts, lyric sheets and scripts, financial and business papers dating from the 1940s, and photographs from the 1930s through the 1960s.

The richest portion of the collection is approximately 3,000 music manuscripts in Strayhorn’s own handwriting, including lead sheets, piano-vocal scores and complete orchestrations. These include compositions written solely by Strayhorn or in collaboration with Duke Ellington. The collection also has a wealth of sketch materials that were apparently unused or have remained unidentified.  

Collection highlights include:

  • Original manuscripts for hundreds of songs, including “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Lush Life,” “Something to Live For,” “Chelsea Bridge,” “Rain Check” and “King Fit De Battle of Alabam”;
  • Original manuscripts for musicals “Beggar’s Holiday” and “Rose Colored Glasses”;
  • Contracts and other documents concerning Strayhorn’s business dealings with The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers;
  • Contracts for individual works including “Absinthe,” “Blossom,” “Christmas Present,” “Love Came,” “Passion Flower,” “Rosebud,” “Tigress” and “Watch Your Cue”;
  • Autographed letter to Strayhorn from longtime partner Aaron Bridgers (1954);
  • Autographed letter to Strayhorn from Luther Henderson (1966);
  • Autographed essay, “Harmony,” examining Strayhorn’s approach to music writing, especially jazz, and compositional technique (undated);
  • Two of Strayhorn’s personal address books and passports.

Although classically trained, Billy Strayhorn is better known for his work in jazz.

“His contribution to American music since the 1940s has been enormous,” said Larry Appelbaum, the Library of Congress Music Division’s jazz specialist. “The Billy Strayhorn Collection documents the creative work of a musical architect of the highest order who spent most of his adult years working behind the scenes in the shadow and employ of Duke Ellington. Unlike many other musical geniuses, Strayhorn did not seek the limelight or attention, but scholars, performers, composers and arrangers — for the first time in 50 years — will finally have full public access to someone who added greatly to the brilliance and beauty of 20th-century music.”

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