Billy Strayhorn

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat May 12 08:01:41 MDT 2001

Some time back I crossposted a very powerful critique of Ken Burns's jazz
documentary by David Hajdu that appeared originally on It was,
like many other critiques including my own, opposed to the Great Man theory
of jazz evolution. For a counter-example to Burns's approach, nothing
better can be found than Hajdu's 1996 biography of Billy Strayhorn titled
"Lush Life." Strayhorn, who was Duke Ellington's co-writer and bandleader
for many years, happened to be gay and fairly openly so.

Hajdu's biography ties together questions of gay identity, jazz composition
and African-American oppression in a seamless manner. Although I have only
read the first 40 pages or so, I have a feeling that this book might be the
definitive jazz biography. Strayhorn grew up in a working-class
neighborhood in Pittsburgh and developed a love of music early on. Although
he had dreams of being a concert pianist, the realities of racist society
would interfere. While trying to make ends meet as a soda jerk, he began
writing pop and jazz tunes as a way to begin a career in which color would
be less of a barrier.

Although he was not openly gay as a teenager, there were indications that
he felt like an outsider. This passage from Hajdu's book should give you a
feel not only for Strayhorn's personal drama and evolution as an artist,
but Hajdu's gift for making art out of the jazz biography genre. It deals
with the song "Lush Life" which Strayhorn wrote when he was 18 years old.
It is one of the greatest jazz songs ever written, a perfect marriage of
words and melody. It is also, as Hajdu convincingly argues, about the
struggles of a young gay man's search for love:


Strayhorn himself had no girlfriend at the time, or at any point earlier in
his life, by all accounts. He is not known to have so much as danced with a
girl. At the parties he attended, he often played piano; otherwise he
talked casually to young women and men but wasn’t one to flirt (with
members of either sex). He never attended a prom or other school social
event except to perform. His closest known friends, all male and
heterosexual, generally thought of him as asexual but at some point
speculated that he might be homosexual. "The topic of sex just never came
up with us," noted Harry Herforth. "Considering that we were best friends
during adolescence, I suppose that fact in itself is significant. I myself
was a very late bloomer and didn’t start dating until my late teens, but
looking back after a while, I could see clearly that Billy was probably
always homosexual." Mickey Scrima was a bit more prescient: "To be
perfectly honest, a lot of us suspected that Billy was gay, by simple
virtue of the fact that he never talked about girls, for god’s sake. But I
never heard anything about him being with a guy either, and he never came
on to any of us."

There was a quiet, insular gay social scene in Pittsburgh in the 1930s, and
a gay black member of the Fantastic Rhythm cast—Michael Phelan, who danced
Strayhorn’s "Harlem Rumba"—was part of it during the period when Strayhorn
lived in the city. "There were very few public places where we could meet,"
he said. "On Saturday night only, there was a private club on Liberty
Street. You paid five dollars and walked down steps into the basement. It
wasn’t much. Most of the gay socializing took place at private homes where
there were parties. Now, they always wanted me to do a dance, so I knew
practically everybody who was gay in town. And I certainly knew everybody
who was black and gay. I met Billy, strictly businesswise, from doing
Fantastic Rhythm. But I never saw him anywhere." There is no evidence that
Strayhorn was involved in gay relationships in his youth, but one thing is
clear: he was never known to engage in a heterosexual relationship, not
even to test the experience or for appearances’ sake.

One of Strayhorn’s youthful compositions is so steeped in cynicism about
romance that it implies some depth of experience with love, unrequited and
perhaps gay. Begun some time earlier, according to Strayhorn, but completed
in 1936, the song was entitled "Life Is Lonely" but later renamed with a
lyric phrase that lingered with those who heard it: "Lush Life." It is a
masterpiece of fatalist sophistication that belies its author’s youth but
betrays years of ferment. His friends heard versions of the song as early
as 1933, when Strayhorn sang some of it a cappella for Harry Herforth. "I
had the idea for this, and I started it," Strayhorn later explained. "And
every now and then I’d go back to it, and add a little more to it—you know,
a problem would come up, how it would end and how to work it out. You
couldn’t solve it then, you had to go on to other things, and you keep
coming back to it. So that’s how it was done." From its opening lines,
"Lush Life" can easily be interpreted as an evocation of a homosexual
experience: "I used to visit all the very gay places, / Those come what may
places. . ." Strayhorn himself would be cryptic about its meaning. "It’s a
song most persons have to listen to twice before they understand it, and
then lots of them don’t know what it’s about," he hinted. Even so, a
seventeen- or eighteen-year-old Homewood kid would not have been likely to
use the word gay to signify same-sex romance in 1933; the usage had
scarcely begun to seep beyond homosexual circles to which Strayhorn wasn’t
known to belong. In any case, the lyrics of "Lush Life" are wishful, not
literal; dreaming of a week in Paris, Strayhorn rarely walked past Frick
Park. "Lush Life" is a prayer:

I used to visit all the very gay places,
Those come what may places
Where one relaxes on the axis
Of the wheel of life
To get the feel of life
>From jazz and cocktails.

The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces
With distingué traces
That used to be there, you could see where
They’d been washed away
By too many through the day
Twelve o’clock tales.

Then you came along with your siren song
To tempt me to madness.
I thought for a while that your poignant smile
Was tinged with the sadness of a great love for me.
Ah, yes, I was wrong,
Again I was wrong.

Life is lonely again
And only last year
Everything seemed so sure.
Now life is awful again,
A trough full of heart
Could only be a bore.

A week in Paris will ease the bite of it.
All I care is to smile in spite of it.
I’ll forget you, I will
While yet you are still
Burning inside my brain.

Romance is mush
Stifling those who strive.
I’ll live a lush life in some small dive
And there I’ll be while I rot with the rest
Of those whose lives are lonely, too.

Good as its lyrics are, "Lush Life" can stand on its own musically as a
full-composed work as clear and sharp as anything by, say, Jerome Kern. It
is distinguished by a probing concerto-style exploration of its principal
key (D-flat), some nicely surprising harmonic turns, melodic lines of often
odd yet utterly natural-seeming duration, and virtually no repetition. Most
impressively, the piece exquisitely weds words and music: A key change on
"everything seemed so sure suddenly suggests optimism, and stress notes—for
instance, the "blue note" E-natural on the word jazz—fall precisely on the
lyrics’ points of drama. Though darkly majestic as a whole, "Lush Life"
does have moments of gawky ostentation. Between its scathing high points of
protest—submitting to passion is mad, great love comes with sadness,
romance is mush—there are bits of ersatz—Cole Porter pretense: the strained
internal rhyme of "too many through the day," the awkward "trough full of
heart." Then, so suffers many a prayer.

Louis Proyect
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