Saturday, February 10, 2007

Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life

I was excited when I heard a segment on Morning Edition earlier this week and learned that PBS is airing a documentary about Billy Strayhorn's life. Strayhorn was a pianist, composer and arranger, best known as a Duke Ellington collaborator; in fact, he composed some of Ellington's best-known works ("Satin Doll," "Take the 'A' Train")--and although I'm really more of a Count Basie girl myself, I've long been obsessed with Strayhorn's "Lush Life," the song that gives the documentary its title.*

I'm embarrassed to admit, though, that until hearing the Morning Edition piece, I didn't know much about Strayhorn himself--not his background (a working-class kid who got himself trained as a classical pianist); not the fact that he wrote "Lush Life" when he was only sixteen--and especially not the fact that he lived as an openly gay black man in 1940s America. The documentary hasn't aired yet in my area, but I'm looking forward to it. Check your local affiliate for listings.

Lush Life

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 distant gay traces
That used to be there you could see where they'd been washed away
By too many through the day
Twelve o'clock-tails.

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.
I was wrong.

Life is lonely again,
And only last year everything seemed so sure.
Now life is awful again,
A troughful of hearts 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.


*I have a bad habit of requesting the song when I go to hear jazz vocalists, and they always demur. But still, I persist.

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