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'Lush Life,' a Self-Portrait in Song

Billy Strayhorn.
Billy Strayhorn.

Best known as the songwriting genius who created many of Duke Ellington's masterpieces, Billy Strayhorn is the subject of a new documentary premiering Tuesday night on public television, as well as a fine companion CD. Both are titled Lush Life, after Strayhorn's most enduring composition, which commentator Ashley Kahn sees as the composer's autobiography in music form.

Though it was written in the '30s, "Lush Life" was not recorded for public release until Nat "King" Cole sang it in 1949 with a free and easy feel. Since then, it's become one of the most standard of pop standards, with no signs of fading away. It was even a highlight of a recent Grammy Awards gala, performed by Queen Latifah.

"Lush Life" conveys such a vast range of emotions that more than 500 musicians have explored it. Some, like Joe Henderson playing solo saxophone, have chosen a hushed approach, while singers like Nancy Wilson have given it a shot of drama.

"Lush Life" seems simple, but it's quite complex — emotionally and musically, with a very unusual structure. It even gave Frank Sinatra a hard time when he tried to record in 1958. He gave up on the song, laughing that he would "put it aside for about a year." But he never did return to it.

"Not everybody could sing it," says Andy Bey, a celebrated jazz singer and pianist with a strong personal connection to "Lush Life," a song he has returned to repeatedly throughout a 55-year career. "A lot of songs had verses and refrains, you know, but it's like a mind boggling thing. It's not about 'ring-a-ding ding' when you do "Lush Life."

"It's about somebody's life. There's a worldliness, about a person who has lived. You really have to kind of understand the story and try to keep the mood, keep the focus."

The pun in the song's title suggests that "Lush Life" might be speaking of a life of elegance, or of boozy despair. In both senses, the song reflects the life of the man who wrote it. Billy Strayhorn was the piano prodigy Duke Ellington recruited in 1938 to compose material for his band. Through a 30-year, on-and-off relationship, Strayhorn wrote many of Ellington's most memorable and sophisticated tunes.

"He was like Duke Ellington's right-hand man," says Bey.

Strayhorn was born in 1915, and fell in love with classical music before developing a fascination with jazz. Growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Pittsburgh, he dreamed of a more cultured and cosmopolitan way of life. He was only 16 when he began to write "Lush Life," which he first called "Life Is Lonely" — and which we now know as "Lush Life."

In fact, the words Strayhorn wrote as a teenager predicted the life he did eventually lead. He did become a socialite, he did make it to France. And he did become an alcoholic.

The song's lyric reveals both poetry and a maturity that's surprising coming from a teenager. It also seems to suggest another significant side to Strayhorn's identity: his sexual orientation.

Bey quotes the first line of the song — "I used to visit all the very gay places..." — and adds, "Who knows? He might have been thinking about the gay bars, but I think it was something broader than that, because he was too broad of a person. I see it as places that are happy and carefree and gay."

As his biographer David Hajdu wrote, Strayhorn was a minority three times over — African-American, gay and open about his homosexuality. His offstage role in Ellington's band made it possible to avoid the public spotlight.

"I think he loved taking a back seat," Bey says. "Because that way, it gave him the freedom to be himself, even though it might have hurt him, because he wasn't given the credit that he deserved as an artist. Billy had the strength and the balls to come out and be who he was."

Strayhorn died in 1967, his death hastened by years of alcohol and cigarettes. He never said if "Lush Life" was intended to be a pronouncement of his lifestyle, yet the song survives as a poignant self-portrait: complex, mature and open to interpretation.

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Ashley Kahn is an American music historian, journalist, and producer, as well as a regular commentator on Morning Edition.