Review

Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn

by David Hajdu



You don't have to be a jazz aficionado --- you don't, in fact, have
to know a saxophone from a slide guitar --- to enjoy Hajdu’s
masterful biography of the man who was Duke Ellington's
collaborator, co-arranger and alter-ego.

Billy Strayhorn was a young music-obsessed arranger when he met
Ellington through a friend in 1938. The rapport was instantaneous.
Strayhorn was soon more or less adopted by the sprawling Ellington
clan of sisters, wives, and children. Originally from Pittsburgh,
Strayhorn became the quintessential New York dandy, a staple of
black cafe society. While often seen in the company of such
beautiful women as Lena Horne (whose adulatory remarks about
Strayhorn, Hajdu quotes liberally), Strayhorn was also quietly gay
--- a fact Ellington probably always knew, but one that never
mattered to him, even in this pre-liberation era. Despite their
obvious differences in lifestyle --- and despite the fact that
Strayhorn collaborated on many pieces uncredited and even wrote
some that appeared under Ellington's name --- the two remained
friends and cohorts until Strayhorn's death, of esophageal cancer,
in 1967.

Why was Billy Strayhorn, by all accounts a musical genius in his
own right, willing to stand in Ellington's shadow for all those
years? That's the central question that Hajdu subtly addresses
throughout the remarkable book he spent at least a decade
researching. His conclusion, subtly drawn: Strayhorn had a healthy
ego --- he knew he was gifted --- but not one that required a lot
of public stroking. His love was for the music, and the life, not
the limelight.

If you care about this fascinating period of American musical
history, read this book. If you don't, read it anyway: By fusing
together strains of friendship, creativity and decency, Hajdu has
written a piece that transcends all musical genres.

Reviewed by Sara Nelson on January 22, 2011

Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn
by David Hajdu

  • Publication Date: June 26, 1997
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 305 pages
  • Publisher: North Point Press
  • ISBN-10: 0865475121
  • ISBN-13: 9780865475120