Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Lush Life, a biography of Billy Strayhorn by David Hajdu

A short, elegant biography of composer and musician Billy Strayhorn.

I first learnt about Strayhorn as a teenager, after buying Donna Summer’s 1981 self titled album. This was after she quit working with Giorgio Moroder. A double album made with him, called I’m a Rainbow, was shelved in favour of her doing an album with Quincy Jones.

The last track on that Quincy Jones album is Donna’s version of the Strayhorn classic Lush Life.

Amazingly, Strayhorn says he wrote most of the song while still in his teens. Apparently, he never wrote the song down on paper, and it was only discovered when he was performing it for friends. Norman Granz, founder of Verve, was amongst that audience who heard Strayhorn perform Lush Life. The lyrics of the song have an extraordinary world weariness, written by someone far too experienced in the disappointments of love and romance. It’s hard to believe that Strayhorn was so young when he wrote this song. The lyrics are worth quoting in full:

I used to visit all the very gay places,
Those come what may places
Where one relaxes on the axis
Of the wheel of life
To get the feel of life
From jazz and cocktails.

The girls I knew had sad and sullen faces
With distingue traces
That used to be there, you could see where
They’d been washed away
By too many through the day
Twelve o’clock tales.

Then you came along with your siren song
To tempt me to madness
I thought for a while that your poignant smile
Was tinged with the sadness of a great love for me.
Ah yes, I was wrong,
Again, I was wrong.

Life is lonely again
And only last year
Everything seemed so sure.
Now life is awful again,
A trough full of heart
Could only be a bore.

A week in Paris will ease the bite of it.
All I care is to smile in spite of it.
I’ll forget you, I will
While yet you are still
Burning inside my brain.

Romance is mush
Stifling those who strive.
I’ll live a lush life in some small dive
And there I’ll be while I rot with the rest
Of those whose lives are lonely, too.

Billy Strayhorn was a gay black artist at an unpropitious time. This is one of the reasons Strayhorn was so content (or appeared content, most of the time), to work either uncredited or under credited with Duke Ellington for some 25 years. Too much attention focused on Strayhorn as a band leader and artist would have begged questions about his personal life.

However, there are glimpses in this biography where Strayhorn does seem a bit miffed at the lack of credit he got for his quiet contributions to the Duke Ellington oeuvre. When Strayhorn’s name was used on a record as band leader, while Ellington actually did the musical side, Strayhorn quipped, ‘So now I lead the band and Ellington writes the music.’

Strayhorn, astonishingly, only made one record, The Peaceful Side. It was recorded in six hours and only sold a few thousand copies.

This is a terrific biography of someone who should have a much bigger profile in the world of music, or perhaps you should more often see in print not only Duke Ellington’s name, but rather Ellington / Strayhorn.

Strayhorn died of cancer at the age of 51. Besides being an artist and musician, he was also an aesthete (an expert on Shakespeare), a cook and an activist in the civil rights movement. He was great friends with Lena Horne.

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