The creative lives of Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington became inextricably linked in 1938, when the two met in Ellington's dressing room after a performance. Duke was getting his hair conked as Strayhorn, a gay pianist and composer of prodigious talent, was introduced. Ellington invited the young man to sit down at the keyboard. David Hajdu brings this scene alive in "Lush Life," his absorbing new biography of Strayhorn. "Strayhorn lowered himself onto the bench with calibrated grace and turned toward Ellington, who was lying still. 'Mr. Ellington, this is the way you played this number in the show,' Strayhorn announced, before masterfully replicating Ellington's performance of 'Sophisticated Lady.' 'Now this is the way I would play it,' Strayhorn said, changing keys and upping the tempo slightly."
Ellington hired Strayhorn on the spot, specifying neither the nature of the job nor the compensation. A couple of weeks later, wanting to impress his new boss, Strayhorn wrote "Take the A Train," based on Duke's subway directions to his Harlem home. "A Train" soon become the signature song of the Ellington band, and Strayhorn spent the remaining 30 years of his life working with Ellington and writing a gorgeous body of music as haunting and intimate as any in the 20th century. Yet, while revered as a genius by musicians, Strayhorn has remained largely unknown to the general public.
Hajdu's biography tries to discover the reasons for Strayhorn's cultural invisibility. How much of the music associated with the Ellington band was actually composed by Strayhorn and credited to Duke? How did Strayhorn's out-of-the-closet homosexuality affect his public standing? To Hajdu's credit, he doesn't deliver simple answers but revels in the contradictions. Strayhorn could not only play like Ellington, he could write like him. The close collaboration between the two composers, Hajdu shows us, makes it difficult to determine who wrote what. Strayhorn and Ellington may each have gotten what they needed, given their natures. The great bandleader, pianist, composer and showman won most of the glory, but he was out working 350 nights a year. Although a private man most comfortable in the society of close friends who accepted his homosexuality, Strayhorn was a bon vivant who spent more time drinking than composing. Happily, the exquisite music that he wrote in the age of Ellington is enjoying a renaissance that will certainly be fed by this fine biography.