Book: Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn

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Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn

Author: David Hajdu
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux

Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967) was one of the most accomplished composers in the history of American music, the creator of a body of work that includes such standards as “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Lush Life,” and “Something to Live For.” Yet all his life Strayhorn was overshadowed by another great composer: his employer, friend, and collaborator, Duke Ellington, with whom he worked as the Ellington Orchestra’s ace songwriter and arranger.

Lush Life, David Hajdu’s sensitive and moving biography of Strayhorn, is a corrective to decades of patchwork scholarship and journalism about this giant of jazz. It is also a vibrant, absorbing account of the “lush life” led by Strayhorn and other jazz musicians in Harlem and Paris. A musical prodigy who began a career as a composer while still a teenager in Pittsburgh, Strayhorn came to New York City at Duke Ellington’s invitation in 1939; soon afterward he wrote “Take the ‘A’ Train,” which became the signature song of the Ellington Orchestra, one of the most popular jazz bands in the country. For the next three decades, Strayhorn labored under a complex agreement whereby Ellington thrived in the role of public artist to Strayhorn’s private one, often taking the bows for Strayhorn’s work. Strayhorn was alternately relieved to be kept out of the limelight and frustrated about it. In Harlem and in the cafe society downtown, the small, shy black composer carried himself with singular style and grace as one of the few jazzmen to be openly homosexual. His compositions and elegant arrangements made him a hero to other musicians, but when he died at age fifty-two, his life cut short by alcohol abuse and cancer, few people fully understood the vital role he played in the Ellington Orchestra’s development into a vehicle for some of the greatest, most ambitious American music of this century.


The myth has always been that Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington shared an identical approach to music. In Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn, David Hajdu dismisses that notion from the very beginning. Schooled in Debussy and Ravel, Strayhorn brought a sensitivity and complexity that was missing in the Ellington oeuvre. Although he had talent enough for a career without Ellington, Strayhorn lacked the confidence. Being both black and gay forced him to take a back seat to his partner’s celebrity. Denied greater public recognition, he sought solace in a “lush life” of his own, smoking and drinking himself to an early death in 1967.

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