I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.
Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn - David Hajdu
Billy Strayhorn is known for being a jazz composer and arranger for Duke Ellington. His most famous composition is Ellington’s signature song, Take the A-Train, which one jazzman says was the “holy grail,” telling of the whole life and culture of Harlem in the Thirties “in 32 bars.” Strayhorn is also known for Lush Life, which has been covered by artists ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Lady Gaga. Unjustly neglected nowadays is a 1956 gem called Blue Rose by Rosemary Clooney and Ellington’s band, an effort that only Strayhorn made possible.
Sheer luck got young Strayhorn an introduction to Ellington in 1939, who was impressed with his arranging skills from the start. Strayhorn wrote the orchestra’s Satin Doll, Chelsea Bridge, Just A-Sittin’ and A-Rockin’, Daydream, Koko, Passion Flower, and A Flower is a Lovesome Thing, to name just handful. Strayhorn was so self-effacing and mild-mannered that he was nicknamed with the derisive “Swee’ Pea” by band members that didn’t know what to make of him, so silent and openly gay. But Ellington defended him from overt and covert homophobia and jealousy. The protection came with emotional and financial prices. Lena Horne says, ''[T]heir relationship was very sexual. Don't misunderstand -- it wasn't physical at all. . . . Duke treated Billy exactly like he treated women, with all that old-fashioned chauvinism. Very loving and very protective, but controlling.''
When Strayhorn joined Ellington’s organization in 1939, Duke’s career flourished professionally and musically. After WWII, when the big bands vanished or had to downsize, their partnership withered. When Strayhorn returned to the Ellington organization in 1956, Duke’s career staged a comeback.
Hajdu interviewed about 200 people for this biography. Hajdu is not a musicologist, though he was a music critic for serious magazines such as The Nation. Therefore, perhaps as a relief to non-expert readers like me, he does not give any technical insights into, for example, what distinguishes Strayhorn from Ellington in the music called Ellingtonia. He quotes musicians who ought to know. “'There's so much more sensitivity and complexity in Strayhorn's compositions than Ellington's,” says Dr. Aaron Bell, bassist for Duke Ellington from 1960 to 1962 and later an arranger. ''We could always tell Strayhorn's.''
The last quarter of the biography is hard to read due to Strayhorn’s descent into sadness and resignation. Strayhorn drank and smoked too much. After a hard fight, he died of esophageal cancer in 1967, at the age of 51. Still, I would highly recommend this book to readers who are interested in jazz and the challenges to an artist who happened to be black, gay, and influenced as much by Ravel and Debussy as the blues.