Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.
Tuesday, 25 May 2010
Billy Strayhorn lived his too-short life in the shadow of Duke Ellington - between 1940 and 1967 [when he died aged 51] much of Ellington's orchestra repertoire (among the most significant bodies of music of the century) was written and arranged by Strayhorn, who rarely shared the limelight with his mentor and leader, and was friends with the likes of Lena Horne and other song stylists.
His compositions, of which "Lush Life" and "Take The A Train" are some of the best known of their time giving Strayhorn classic status among jazz composers. His life though, like that other back American writer James Baldwin, was marked and shortened by tragic levels of stress and self-destruction - Strayhorn also being a cultured black intellectual who was also openly gay at a time when this was brave and unusual and in a culture unsympathetic to gayness. Billy though took comfort in the world of cafe society, late nights, alcohol ....
There is a splendid book LUSH LIFE by David Hajdu which captures this period perfectly, and several recordings are available. I particularly like "THE PEACEFUL SIDE" [Capitol Jazz Cd, recorded in Paris in 1961] where Strayhorn plays his best compositions like "Passion Flower", "A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing" and "Something to Live For" accompanied only by a double bass and string quartet. He does not sing himself but a terrific vocal group supply wordless backings that just manage to avoid the cheesy in favour of the divine. Its not exactly dressing-up-to-go-out music (unless you are flying out to Paris) more the kind of album to save for seductions or perfect evenings in.
"Lush Life" with its stylish, melancholy lyric and great imagery which begins: "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", and ends with "Romance is mush, stifling those who strive, I'll live a lush life in some small dive..." continues to be recorded by almost everyone - I particularly like Nancy Wilson's on her album of that name - and oddly enough there is a superlative version by Donna Summer on that album she did with Quincy Jones, though it is not currenly available on cd or download! Billy's work though shines on.