LUSH LIFE: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn.
By David Hajdu . Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 306 pp. $27.50
By David Hajdu. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 306 pp. $27.50
Bookish, penetratingly original, and obsessively cultured, composer Billy Strayhorn (1915–67) was once described by a friend as "a miniature, black Noel Coward." This sensitive and nuanced biography relates how Strayhorn grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Pittsburgh, enduring the cruelty of an embittered father and dreaming of becoming a concert pianist. Although devoted to European classical music, Strayhorn suffered from a growing isolation (compounded by his homosexuality) that made such high-art aspirations elusive. A chance introduction to Duke Ellington in 1938 gave the young Strayhorn the opportunity to realize his musical ambitions and to lead the urbane, sybaritic life he yearned for. Relocating to Manhattan, he took a privileged place in the Ellington organization as the bandleader’s silent composing partner.
The question of Strayhorn’s contribution to American music is vexed by the general failure of the academic music establishment to come to terms with Ellington. But even if Ellington’s legacy were well understood and appreciated, there would still be uncertainty about Strayhorn’s role. The two men’s working relationship was so close that their music is often inseparable. But not always: Ellington’s melodic, rhythmic, and timbral inventions were intimately connected to the varied musical personalities of his band members. To that palimpsest Strayhorn added his own distinctive layer—dark, rich instrumentations and astringent dissonances that remain startlingly unique even when folded into the Ellington musical persona.
Hajdu, an editor at Entertainment Weekly, does not attempt to isolate Strayhorn’s contribution. Apart from a thoughtful exegesis of Strayhorn’s signature song "Lush Life," his comments about music are confined to the occasional evocative adjective. But the narrative contains intriguing clues. After one recording session, for instance, Strayhorn asked the trumpeter Clark Terry, "Did you enjoy your part?" "Big band" arranging is not thought of as polyphonic. But as this remark suggests, Strayhorn’s distinctive sound is partly due to the uncommon melodic independence of each inner voice.
If Strayhorn’s name is little known outside jazz circles, it is partly because he sacrificed fame for the freedom that comes with relative obscurity. As one close friend recalls, "He liked somebody to hide behind." Life under Ellington’s protective wing was not without cost, however. Ellington’s serene, aristocratic image was part bluff: like many creatures of show business, he was superstitious and sketchily educated. But Ellington also took his responsibilities as a public figure seriously. As Hadju writes, the bandleader devoted "vast resources of ingenuity and will to project an image that promoted pride in and respect for black identity." Ellington could be manipulative, and Strayhorn could not always find the proper mix of anonymity and autonomy. But the resignation and sadness that haunted Strayhorn’s later years (and that pervade the conclusion of this book) have less to do with this imperfect relationship than with the inability of the larger culture to find a place for an artist who refused to be anything other than himself.