In the wake of a performance by the Ellingtonians in Pittsburgh in December , the classically-trained Strayhorn submitted some of his own compositions. He was then interviewed by Duke who took him on as staff arranger despite his apparent lack of experience. Before long, he found himself in charge of almost all of the arrangements for band vocalists, in particular recent arrival Ivie Anderson. Strayhorn won the Down Beat Poll as best arranger One of his earlier pieces, "Lush Life" written in , was initially sung by Strayhorn himself and withheld from publication for several years.
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A "definitive" corrective USA Today to decades of patchwork scholarship and journalism about this giant of jazz, Lush Life is a vibrant and absorbing account of the "lush life" Strayhorn and other jazz musicians led in Harlem and Paris. While composing some of the most gorgeous American music of this century, Strayhorn labored under a complex agreement whereby Ellington took the bows for his work; until his life was tragically cut short by cancer and alcohol abuse, the small, shy black composer carried himself with singular style and grace as one of the few jazzmen to be openly homosexual.
It is already acknowledged as a jazz classic. Then he really came alive. Strayhorn dressed like a dandy: he liked striped or dark-colored shirts, sometimes paisley prints, and colorful ties; his favorite tie designer, Countess Mara, specialized in whimsical, cartoonish figures on bright backgrounds. Bred to regard good manners as elevating, he purchased an etiquette guide that he read as intently as one might a novel.
When he bought a new suit, he kept the front pockets sewn up, because his mother had taught him to keep his hands out of his pockets. Strayhorn had two favorite phrases: "Ever up and onward" was one. As Aaron Bridgers recalled, "It was his constant message of encouragement and good cheer.
Look ahead. It was part of his philosophy, his approach to being alive, which was very generous, very open, almost too much so. He could see what was unique and worthy in almost any individual he came upon. A book that comes close to being a model biography. Hajdu directs the readers to conclusions through the weight of his evidence, without explicitly stating them.
The detail that Mr. Lush Life is about as lyrical as biography can get and still stay on track. A richly detailed yet rigorously disciplined chronicle, deeply affecting.
Seigel, Washington City Paper "A brilliant biography. Lush Life is an extraordinary portrait of a most unique man, time, and place - that rare biography that not only illuminates a life, but evokes an era with such specificity that we can almost taste the gin and the genius that fueled it. He puts Strayhorn in perspective, clearly establishing who and what he was. Hajdu combines history, musicology, and a depth of humanity in this gracefully written book.
His wide-ranging research and interviewing set a high standard. Hajdu succeeds in making us understand and feel for the major characters in the jazz world in the s, s, and early s.
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After a brief audition, which consisted of Strayhorn playing a few of his own compositions as well as interpretations of Ellington numbers, Duke hired him on the spot - even though there was no specific role for him in the band, which already had a regular pianist. In his tremendously moving book "Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn," David Hajdu goes a long way towards remedying this historical oversight by focusing long overdue attention on this shy, modest man who always shunned the spotlight during his lifetime. Hajdu suggests that the relationship between Ellington and Strayhorn was as much a familial one as a professional one. Musically, Ellington granted Strayhorn enormous autonomy. Although frequently frustrated by the lack of recognition for his contributions to the Ellington Orchestra, an issue that led him to leave Duke briefly in , Strayhorn himself was disinclined to seek too much public acclaim. Openly homosexual, Strayhorn, says Hajdu, was a triple minority: "he was black, he was gay, and he was a minority among gay people in that he was open about his homosexuality in an era when social bias forced many men and women to keep their sexual identities secret. Had he sought a higher profile, perhaps leading a band of his own, Hajdu suggests, he would have had to keep his sexual orientation closeted.
Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn