Billy Strayhorn - "Lush Life"
In honor of Black History Month all the posts for this month will feature artists of color.
When based off of talent alone, he stands among the greats, like Gershwin, Ravel, and Mercer. His restrained yet rich orchestrations were able to show the audience that he knew how to be discerning with his notes and that he could edit a phrase to say exactly what he wanted.
Although his collaboration with Duke Ellington in the beginning garnered him success, Duke took the credit for Strayhorn’s work as often as he took the bows. Not to say that Duke wasn’t incredibly talented, but as is the case in most collaborations, the more vocal of the two often gets the lion’s share of the praise.
The fruitful collaboration between Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington is widely known to have brought us such classics as "Take The 'A' Train," "Chelsea Bridge" and "Isfahan." But behind the music, Strayhorn's life and identity were complex.
While composing some of the most harmonically rich jazz of its time — often in Ellington's shadow — Strayhorn was an outlier in that he led an openly gay life as a black man in the 1940s, an era rife with homophobia and racism.
Shortly before going on his second European tour with his orchestra, from March to May 1939, Ellington announced to his sister Ruth and son Mercer Ellington that Strayhorn "is staying with us." Through Mercer, Strayhorn met his first partner, African-American musician Aaron Bridgers, with whom Strayhorn lived until Bridgers moved to Paris in 1947.
Strayhorn was openly gay. He participated in many civil rights causes. As a committed friend to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he arranged and conducted "King Fit the Battle of Alabama'" for the Ellington Orchestra in 1963 for the historical revue (and album) My People, dedicated to King.
Strayhorn's strong character left an impression on many people who met him. He had a major influence on the career of Lena Horne, who wanted to marry Strayhorn and considered him to have been the love of her life. Strayhorn used his classical background to improve Horne's singing technique. They eventually recorded songs together. In the 1950s, Strayhorn left his musical partner Duke Ellington for a few years to pursue a solo career of his own. He released a few solo albums and revues for the Copasetics (a New York show-business society), and took on theater productions with his friend Luther Henderson.
Ellington did publicly note the importance of Strayhorn’s talent. He liked to joke onstage, “Strayhorn does a lot of the work but I get to take the bows!” This formulation was rather nearer to the truth than many suspected. Certainly, Strayhorn was considerably more than a humorous aside or a musical footnote. Not only was he the sole composer of Ellington's signature piece, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” but he also wrote other defining works, including “Passion Flower,” “Lush Life,” and “Chelsea Bridge,” and co-wrote “Satin Doll” and “Such Sweet Thunder.”
So today, with storm clouds rolling in, I choose Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” as performed by the divine Sarah Vaughan, as my, find your little friday, look to the helpers, it’s only the end if you stop, song for a, pick up your broken pieces, look forward to the dawn, one more step is farther than you were, Wednesday.