Black LGBT Pioneers You Should Know
BY Michelle Garcia
February 28 2013 7:00 AM ET
Billy Strayhorn weathered a tumultuous childhood with the help of music. A diminutive teenager with a passion and honed ear for music, Strayhorn was the only black musician in his high school's 25-member orchestra. He started a Cole Porter-esque musical review with skits and music. By age 23, he impressed Duke Ellington so much that he decided to hire him on the spot, despite not having a position for him in his orchestra. Within months, however, Strayhorn was writing arrangements and pushing Ellington's orchestra to perform its best—while living as an openly gay man. Strayhorn's 29-year collaborative partnership with Ellington birthed several major songs including "Take The 'A' Train," the groundbreaking, audacious musical Jump For Joy, and the 43-mnute jazz piece Black Brown and Beige performed at Carnegie Hall. Strayhorn broke out on his own, while also becoming an influential activist, working along with Martin Luther King Jr.