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A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award Billy Strayhorn (1915-67) was one of the greatest composers in the history of American music, the creator of a body of work that includes such standards as "Take the 'A' Train." Yet all his life Strayhorn was overshadowed by his friend and collaborator Duke Ellington, with whom he worked for three decades as the Ellingto A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award Billy Strayhorn (1915-67) was one of the greatest composers in the history of American music, the creator of a body of work that includes such standards as "Take the 'A' Train." Yet all his life Strayhorn was overshadowed by his friend and collaborator Duke Ellington, with whom he worked for three decades as the Ellington Orchestra's ace songwriter and arranger. A "definitive" corrective (USA Today) to decades of patchwork scholarship and journalism about this giant of jazz, David Hajdu's Lush Life is a vibrant and absorbing account of the "lush life" that Strayhorn and other jazz musicians led in Harlem and Paris. While composing some of the most gorgeous American music of the twentieth century, Strayhorn labored under a complex agreement whereby Ellington took the bows for his work. Until his life was tragically cut short by cancer and alcohol abuse, the small, shy composer carried himself with singular style and grace as one of the few jazzmen to be openly homosexual. Lush Life has sparked an enthusiastic revival of interest in Strayhorn's work and is already acknowledged as a jazz classic.


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A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award Billy Strayhorn (1915-67) was one of the greatest composers in the history of American music, the creator of a body of work that includes such standards as "Take the 'A' Train." Yet all his life Strayhorn was overshadowed by his friend and collaborator Duke Ellington, with whom he worked for three decades as the Ellingto A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award Billy Strayhorn (1915-67) was one of the greatest composers in the history of American music, the creator of a body of work that includes such standards as "Take the 'A' Train." Yet all his life Strayhorn was overshadowed by his friend and collaborator Duke Ellington, with whom he worked for three decades as the Ellington Orchestra's ace songwriter and arranger. A "definitive" corrective (USA Today) to decades of patchwork scholarship and journalism about this giant of jazz, David Hajdu's Lush Life is a vibrant and absorbing account of the "lush life" that Strayhorn and other jazz musicians led in Harlem and Paris. While composing some of the most gorgeous American music of the twentieth century, Strayhorn labored under a complex agreement whereby Ellington took the bows for his work. Until his life was tragically cut short by cancer and alcohol abuse, the small, shy composer carried himself with singular style and grace as one of the few jazzmen to be openly homosexual. Lush Life has sparked an enthusiastic revival of interest in Strayhorn's work and is already acknowledged as a jazz classic.

30 review for Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan

    Wonderfully written, and an extremely important bringing-to-light of a gay, black genius who was shamefully uncredited, unappreciated and largely unknown by the public. Essential reading, even if jazz is not your bag. It succeeded in making me completely fall in love with the guy, and he has taken his place in my pantheon of personal heroes.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Peterson Toscano

    It took nearly two weeks to read this biography of the jazz genius, Billy Strayhorn. Every time I read a reference to a song, a singer, a film score, an event, I then closed the book and took a dive into YouTube or Wikipedia or Google images or Spotify to experience the reference for myself. I was up half the night listening to the South African jazz singer Sathima Bea Benjamin. She did a session with Duke Ellington in Paris. Billy Strayhorn played the piano (so gentle and smooth) and the Danish It took nearly two weeks to read this biography of the jazz genius, Billy Strayhorn. Every time I read a reference to a song, a singer, a film score, an event, I then closed the book and took a dive into YouTube or Wikipedia or Google images or Spotify to experience the reference for myself. I was up half the night listening to the South African jazz singer Sathima Bea Benjamin. She did a session with Duke Ellington in Paris. Billy Strayhorn played the piano (so gentle and smooth) and the Danish jazz violinist Svend Asmussen plucked the strings throughout. Ellington and Strayhorn liked the sound of the violin that way and insisted on this method for most of the album. I listened to “I’m Glad There is You” over and over and smiled as I thought of my own South African, Glen Retief. The prose is nothing special, and the structure is straight-forward biography with a few flourishes, but Hajdu does he job--he points us to Strayhorn, unpacks the composer's life and music and brings us in close. I walked away with a lot of new music and a new hero.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Anthony D'Juan Shelton

    I picked this book up on a whim in 2002. What caught me about it was Strayhorn's ten mile stare on the book cover. The burning cigarette between his fingers. The internal soul of a servant who lived an outwardly humble existence while stiflin...g the pain that lived beneath the surface -- his alcoholism. Strayhorn was Duke Ellington's composer. He was also one of the first openly gay black man to live in the public eye, in the 20th century; a bit taboo, considering this was in the 1920s and so fo I picked this book up on a whim in 2002. What caught me about it was Strayhorn's ten mile stare on the book cover. The burning cigarette between his fingers. The internal soul of a servant who lived an outwardly humble existence while stiflin...g the pain that lived beneath the surface -- his alcoholism. Strayhorn was Duke Ellington's composer. He was also one of the first openly gay black man to live in the public eye, in the 20th century; a bit taboo, considering this was in the 1920s and so forth. Though homosexuality wasn’t uncommon during the era of big band jazz, blues, and the Harlem Renaissance (Bessie Smith was bi-sexual, while, poet, Langston Hughes was assumed to be gay because he was never “seen with a woman”), in the case of Strayhorn it was a breakthrough considering he was not only an amazing composer, but the composer for the world renowned, brilliant musical creator, Duke Ellington. At the age of 17 Strayhorn wrote “Lush Life.” A somber look at loneliness and the long for lost love and human truth. How Strayhorn could capture such accuracy at a young age was puzzling to many; yet one has to consider with the upbringing he had (there was an incident where Strayhorn’s alcoholic father pulled Strayhorn’s glasses off his face, put them on the ground, stomped them, then walked out laughing hysterically, leaving Strayhorn to ponder his father’s actions), which did contribute to his own inner-blues. For Strayhorn was a loner for most of his life, growing up, choosing to bury himself into classical music, rather than “regular” childhood activities. He discovered his homosexuality early in life and surprisingly wasn’t too fearful with coming forth with it. His “coming out” wasn’t so much of a shit storm, as it is for most people, it seems, today mostly because Strayhorn owned it quietly and confidently enough that he didn’t leave much room for his orientation to be questioned. He just played the music and went on to a behind the scenes, semi-famous life along side Ellington. Since Strayhorn wasn’t a front man (nor did he hardly take the spot light), his significance in Ellington’s career is easily forgotten. Yet “Lush Life” made the rounds throughout the industry, spawning numerous versions from numerous singers, like Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole (yet the best being the version done by John Coltrane, alone, in a 13 minute intoxicating instrumental that could illuminate the inner-blues existing in anyone), and bringing, for Strayhorn, a very calm comfortable life. He didn’t place himself around many racial matters. Nor did he play the victim in racial confrontation, as do many black people today (black people today with more resources and access to upward mobility than we ever had back in the 20s and 30s and 40s still choose to see themselves as second class citizens, rather than the originators of American Culture that we are). Yet it was in these old times where blacks didn’t allow white hatred to overcome them; and this was the kind of white hatred that was out in the open. Sure, this era wasn’t perfect, but there was a sense of community, family, and creativity (along side crime, poverty, and un-wed mothers), all of which fueled the energy that went into the music and daily life. The lyrics in “Lush Life” bring pain right out in the open: "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 yet to take these lyrics as a “sign” of who Strayhorn later revealed himself to be would be an exercise in ignorance. “Lush Life” is a song of escape from pain and past heart ache up started by illusion: "The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces With distingue traces that used to be there You could see where they'd been washed away By too many through the day, twelve o'clock tales" Clearly the observation of loss and lies is a through line in Strayhorn’s message. It’s a song for the dreamer. The sense of “oh, what else must I do” when the world has closed you out and there’s nothing left to do but to take this one night to wallow in the stomach of self-pity: "Life is lonely again and only last year Everything seemed so sure Now life is awful again A trough full of hearts could only be a bore A week in Paris could 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 So 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" And yet, it’s a far cry from melodrama. This is a song about the deepest set pain known to anyone: a loss that one has no control over, which usually equates to suicide (not bad for a 17 year old). “Lush Life” signifies a special place in all of us. Not only the song but the spirit it creates. I can recall many days, in my twenties, where there was a lost hope sitting right in front of me that I could reach for and didn’t because one stops themselves from happiness out of the pleasure of the self-pity; and though we are as much responsible for the result of our pain as the person who inflicts it, it’s not to stop us from taking that ultimate lush life “in some small dive” where we’re told there is hope. The truest of human qualities (at least in these old days) come out in the dive bar. People interact with strangers and find a common ground, more so than one may do at their desk job; and Strayhorn knew this before we knew it; and even more, Strayhorn knew it before he himself knew it – which put him ahead of his time. To be so brave and create a clear picture of the life we will all soon lead is to take the deepest understanding to human needs. So we can only applaud Strayhorn for his bravery and naiveté that allows us to remember the truth behind our lush life escapism and our constant search for happiness.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Michael Finocchiaro

    I knew very little about Billy Strayhorn other than that he was Ellington's sideman forever. This book revealed a much more complex and challenged individual who actually wrote a ton of music for Ellington. I had no idea he was a homosexual and how difficult that made his unfortunately foreshortened life. For those who love jazz and love the great standards of the great Ellington periods of the 40s and 50s, this is a touching and vivid portrait of an under-estimated talent who courageously just I knew very little about Billy Strayhorn other than that he was Ellington's sideman forever. This book revealed a much more complex and challenged individual who actually wrote a ton of music for Ellington. I had no idea he was a homosexual and how difficult that made his unfortunately foreshortened life. For those who love jazz and love the great standards of the great Ellington periods of the 40s and 50s, this is a touching and vivid portrait of an under-estimated talent who courageously just wanted to be himself.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Sketchbook

    Strayhorn was the "genius" behind Duke El, who blackmailed Billy into silence for his gay life and kept the boy in the back of the bus. An award-winning (and nominated) bio by author David Hajdu. Strayhorn was the "genius" behind Duke El, who blackmailed Billy into silence for his gay life and kept the boy in the back of the bus. An award-winning (and nominated) bio by author David Hajdu.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Iain

    Absolutely terrific. The story of a genius kicking against the restrictions of his era. Billy Strayhorn wanted to be a classical composer, but that career path wasn't open for a black kid in the 30s. Instead he ended up as the right-hand man of one of the most important figures in jazz, Duke Ellington. He composed or co-composed many of Duke's biggest hits, but was largely uncredited and unknown to the public. This book is scholarly where it needs to be—as when Hajdu teases out the writing credi Absolutely terrific. The story of a genius kicking against the restrictions of his era. Billy Strayhorn wanted to be a classical composer, but that career path wasn't open for a black kid in the 30s. Instead he ended up as the right-hand man of one of the most important figures in jazz, Duke Ellington. He composed or co-composed many of Duke's biggest hits, but was largely uncredited and unknown to the public. This book is scholarly where it needs to be—as when Hajdu teases out the writing credits for Ellington's song catalogue—but also energetic, passionate and readable. There are at least three big selling points to this book. First, the relationship between Strayhorn and Ellington is fascinating (and somewhat reminiscent of that between Lennon and McCartney—Ian MacDonald's excellent Beatles biography Revolution in the Head makes a great companion piece to Lush Life). Strayhorn is quiet, deep, obsessive, ahead of his time; Ellington brash, spontaneous, generous but patronising, unreconstructed (he recruits Strayhorn as a safe chaperone for one of his many ex-girlfriends, Lena Horne, because he can't stand the thought of another man getting her). Their skills are more similar than complementary, and they don't even work very closely together when they collaborate, but they still need each other and spark the best work out of each other. Second, there's the background thread of the civil rights movement. As successful black entertainers, Strayhorn and Ellington have far more freedom than most, and mingle with the Hollywood elite; they're the vanguard of the liberated society of the 60s and 70s. But even so, they sometimes run into ridiculous social barriers. The sheer idiocy of racial discrimination is striking. Whites and blacks can dance together, but only if there's a clothesline across the middle of the room; and a mixed-race band? Unheard of! It makes you wonder: what prejudices do we toss around casually today that will seem shocking or ridiculous in 50 years' time? On top of this, Strayhorn was not only gay, but openly gay; but unlike skin colour, sexual orientation is something that 50s society can assiduously ignore as long as you stay out of the limelight and don't kick up a fuss. Third, and most of all, the narrative is drenched in period detail. Hajdu is brilliant at capturing the essence of a time and place through well-chosen soundbites from hundreds of interviews, and narrative flourishes that go just a little beyond what the historical record justifies. Can he really know about a particular tone of voice, a particular expression, in a conversation he heard about at second- or third-hand? No, but it rings true.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    "Duke ran his business like a family, and his family like a business." -Mercer Ellington The Duke-- necessarily, but sadly, the focus of the lens through which Billy is understood-- comes off as a benevolent patriarch here, sacrificing the rightful recognition of individuals for the survival and success of his brand... er, band. It feels more cunning than conniving, a clever marketing strategy in a white mainstream which was unprepared to admire so many talented blacks, an act which could implici "Duke ran his business like a family, and his family like a business." -Mercer Ellington The Duke-- necessarily, but sadly, the focus of the lens through which Billy is understood-- comes off as a benevolent patriarch here, sacrificing the rightful recognition of individuals for the survival and success of his brand... er, band. It feels more cunning than conniving, a clever marketing strategy in a white mainstream which was unprepared to admire so many talented blacks, an act which could implicitly concede equality. Instead, after swing was safe, it canonized "the exception". Billy was clearly a beautiful humble genius, and his tragedy is that he remained the unacknowledged meat and potatoes in Ellington's melting pot because we didn't recognize that black and gay are vital components of America's.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Adam

    Only took me five years or so to finish off this one. :) It's a well-written biography; if I had to criticize one thing, it's that the narrative hustles along from project to project, but never really probes into more than 4 or 5 close relationships of Strayhorn's. Because there was no in-depth interview with Duke Ellington on how he worked with Strayhorn, much of their relationship - the most consequential one of Strayhorn's life - feels underexplored. Music biographies are hard by nature (now Only took me five years or so to finish off this one. :) It's a well-written biography; if I had to criticize one thing, it's that the narrative hustles along from project to project, but never really probes into more than 4 or 5 close relationships of Strayhorn's. Because there was no in-depth interview with Duke Ellington on how he worked with Strayhorn, much of their relationship - the most consequential one of Strayhorn's life - feels underexplored. Music biographies are hard by nature (now this is a form that could be improved by high tech gadgetry allowing us to listen as we read), but this succeeds as well as any of them do.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Larry-bob Roberts

    Lots of research into untangling the tangled legacy of Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington. It would be great to travel back in time and see one of the Copasetics shows - the social group of tapdancers for whose annual shows Strayhorn was the musical director. Also looks like Something to Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn would be good to check out. Reading the other reviews, I'm not the only one who cried at the end of this biography. Lots of research into untangling the tangled legacy of Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington. It would be great to travel back in time and see one of the Copasetics shows - the social group of tapdancers for whose annual shows Strayhorn was the musical director. Also looks like Something to Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn would be good to check out. Reading the other reviews, I'm not the only one who cried at the end of this biography.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jim

    A singularly moving portrait of Strayhorn, black, gay and all but entirely missing from the annals of Americana and jazz. Strayhorn's Pittsburgh roots are also worth noting, the particularities of that particular city amidst that cultural moment was indispensable to his growth as an artist, the man who brought us "Take The A Train" (credited, usually, to Duke Ellington), "Lush Life," "The Far East Suite," and countless other groundbreaking masterpieces of twentieth-century music. Hajdu is a mast A singularly moving portrait of Strayhorn, black, gay and all but entirely missing from the annals of Americana and jazz. Strayhorn's Pittsburgh roots are also worth noting, the particularities of that particular city amidst that cultural moment was indispensable to his growth as an artist, the man who brought us "Take The A Train" (credited, usually, to Duke Ellington), "Lush Life," "The Far East Suite," and countless other groundbreaking masterpieces of twentieth-century music. Hajdu is a master at bringing Stray's story to life, making us wish we had met him.

  11. 5 out of 5

    shiv

    having finally finished it, i continue to find the book appallingly written. but i had a bit of a crush on billy strayhorn by the end of it, and was unbelievably sad to leave his world. which, i suppose, is the point of a good biography. i think we would have been tremendous drinking buddies.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Greg

    Is it normal to get weepy when you get to the part of the bio where the subject (inevitably) dies? It isn't normal for me. Someday I'll write the two-man play where Strayhorn and Ellington are holed up in a hotel to finish a piece. I've been talking about it for 20 years now. Is it normal to get weepy when you get to the part of the bio where the subject (inevitably) dies? It isn't normal for me. Someday I'll write the two-man play where Strayhorn and Ellington are holed up in a hotel to finish a piece. I've been talking about it for 20 years now.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Erica Pearson

    This is one of the best biographies I have ever read, and is definitely my favorite book by David Hajdu. Made me cry.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    Strayhorn discarded public prominence in service to Duke Ellignton and his Orchestra. A great read.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Ethan Swanson

    Beautifully detailed and respectful of Strayhorn's accomplishments and influence on the music. Beautifully detailed and respectful of Strayhorn's accomplishments and influence on the music.

  16. 5 out of 5

    David Getz

    Just splendid. A gift to a reader who loves jazz. A rich life beautifully told. As moving as a Strayhorn ballad

  17. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    I read this one over the course of maybe two or three days. Very smoothly written, thorough, plenty of great jazz anecdotes. The blurb on the back is certainly correct- after reading one certainly does have the desire to listen to the man's music for himself, assuming that (like me) he was already more familiar in name than in anything else. I did get a sense of what Strayhorn was all about as a human being: his emotionally fraught, rather bleak upbringing with an erratic and wounded father and a I read this one over the course of maybe two or three days. Very smoothly written, thorough, plenty of great jazz anecdotes. The blurb on the back is certainly correct- after reading one certainly does have the desire to listen to the man's music for himself, assuming that (like me) he was already more familiar in name than in anything else. I did get a sense of what Strayhorn was all about as a human being: his emotionally fraught, rather bleak upbringing with an erratic and wounded father and a deeply resilient, forgiving mother who encourages her shy, geeky, gentle boy to pursue his dreams of culture and musical sophistication. You come to interact in a certain way with the man as an adult: I sensed his distant, wise, generous, pleasure seeking classiness and some of it lasted in the mind when I'd put the book down for some reason, like when you watch a movie and you feel a little bit like one of the characters or part of the mise en scene foe awhile after. Hajdu (who is now a music blogger at The New Republic online) does an excellent job of managing the difference between Ellington's majestic, tactful patriarchy with Strayhorn's muted, devoted and some what biterly overshadowed status in their working relationship. Duke took many many bows, accolades and credits for pieces that Strayhorn had written throughout their long career...but Strayhorn also lived rather high on the hog, as he'd always dreamed and manifested the title of the bio to a t. All of this, naturally, was on Ellington's dime- unofficial, granted, a send-the-bills-there type of arrangement. It's an interesting piece of jazz history and that moral complexity is well- handled. I happen to come down a little more on Ellington's side, simply because Strayhorn's telepathic musical connection was more or less and open secret, and Duke did in fact take him from nowhere to the very top of the field. And of course Ellington is Ellington- he made sure the people caught a glimpse of his shy, humble, geeky other half of his heartbeat... The issue I had with the bio is that as written, it was certainly informative and researched well...I prefer when biographies use some poetic license in the prose- not to make stuff up for god's sake but to give me some investigative prose. I want to be a part of the world of the subject (note: not "character") and I want to get something from a biography which I can't get anywhere else. I want a story but I want a "true" story- let's not get into the postmodern complexities of all that... I don't want the prose to hold me at arm's length- 'who' 'what' 'when' 'where', etc....all of that is important and necessary but it's the mortar on which everything else, the real significance, is built. I want to delve deeper into the mind and soul of the subject- I can always consult an encyclopedia if I want the when and the where. I think it's fair to hold biographies to a novelistic standard...I want to see and feel and hear the world my subject is inhabiting as much as possible, the way fiction can do. Hajdu sets the scene well enough but I felt the absence of a fuller evocation of the seductive, fascinating world of Duke and Strays, et al. With some lucid and eloquent examples, I just didn't get a lot of it here. Solid three stars.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Andrea Claburn

    A fascinating look at the life a famously reticent, inscrutable figure in American music history and the genius behind much of Duke Ellington's compositional output. I came away from this book with a profound sense of loss, not only because of a life cut far too short, at 51, but the cultural loss of music that might have been from a brilliant mind whose talent knew no boundaries. Billy Strayhorn was "beyond category" (to use a phrase favored by his famous collaborator), capable of spectacular co A fascinating look at the life a famously reticent, inscrutable figure in American music history and the genius behind much of Duke Ellington's compositional output. I came away from this book with a profound sense of loss, not only because of a life cut far too short, at 51, but the cultural loss of music that might have been from a brilliant mind whose talent knew no boundaries. Billy Strayhorn was "beyond category" (to use a phrase favored by his famous collaborator), capable of spectacular compositions in any style, any orchestration or instrumentation, but who worked predominantly in jazz due to the discrimination he faced in the classical world. If Mr. Strayhorn had had the freedom to pursue all avenues of musical expression (and continue to make a living doing so), we as a nation might have had another important modern American "art music" (which I use for lack of a better term, because what he did write was clearly high art) composer in addition to one of the great big-band (and small ensemble) composer-arrangers in history. Billy died in 1967 at the height of the civil rights movement (which he passionately supported in any way he could); there is no telling what he might have accomplished if he had been granted a couple more decades of productive artistic output in a more open, receptive cultural environment in his native country (Parisians had always embraced him, and he them). We'll never know how things might have played out had he not passed away so young, but this book suggests how much we lost the day Billy Strayhorn died by painting a moving portrait of a courageous, uncompromising artist who was truly ahead of his time.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Alton

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Overall a good book about a very interesting and talented musician who to this day remains unrecognized for the contributions he made to popular music. Many songs commonly thought to be the work of Duke Ellington were in fact due to the work of Strayhorn. Minor quibble with the writing-some parts seem a bit incomplete and are screaming out for more exposition. Where Hadju succeeds is in portraying the rich life Strayhorn led as an openly gay black man during the 40's and 50's. Interviews with fr Overall a good book about a very interesting and talented musician who to this day remains unrecognized for the contributions he made to popular music. Many songs commonly thought to be the work of Duke Ellington were in fact due to the work of Strayhorn. Minor quibble with the writing-some parts seem a bit incomplete and are screaming out for more exposition. Where Hadju succeeds is in portraying the rich life Strayhorn led as an openly gay black man during the 40's and 50's. Interviews with friends and associates show a man dear to everyone who knew him. He also did a good job of showing the creative process and the work involved in putting out a finished piece of music, live and on record. The question of why Strayhorn remains virtually unknown is not answered by this book-it might not ever be answered to anyone's satisfaction since it seems Strayhorn was complicit in his anonymity while he was alive. In ways he needed Duke just as Ellington needed his genius. Homophobia might have played a bigger role in his remaining silent. Highly recommend this book to lovers of jazz and Ellington and Strayhorn fans in particular.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Karmen

    I had heard of William 'Billy' Strayhorn, having been introduced to some classic jazz & blues by a friend a number of years ago. I love listening to music but never so far as to be able, usually at least, to place the music to its author/artist. I just love to listen to music that sets up a particular mood - upbeat, downbeat, funky, chill. I came across this book, as always, in a thrift store. It follows recent reads about Slash and Keith Richards. This book is the author's homage to Straythorn a I had heard of William 'Billy' Strayhorn, having been introduced to some classic jazz & blues by a friend a number of years ago. I love listening to music but never so far as to be able, usually at least, to place the music to its author/artist. I just love to listen to music that sets up a particular mood - upbeat, downbeat, funky, chill. I came across this book, as always, in a thrift store. It follows recent reads about Slash and Keith Richards. This book is the author's homage to Straythorn and to finally afford him the credits his work should have received. He was first and foremost a genius at arranging music, incorporating different genres and periods into accessible and loved pieces. All the while, he was not a prima donna to work with. Accessible to everyone - singer, musician, producer, director, Broadway, jazz, classic. It was a pleasure to listen to his work as I read along. I would recommend that future authors include a listening guideline to each chapter and post it either on author or publisher webpage.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Spiros

    This book chronicles what has to be the most unique and intricate collaboration in the history of music: that of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. An analogy would be if Salieri had embraced Mozart upon his arrival in Vienna, and paid all his bills and gambling debts, while Mozart wrote music for Salieri and pushed Salieri's musical acumen far beyond what it would have been, all while staying resolutley out of the Court limelight and pursuing his Masonic interests. My mind just boggled coming This book chronicles what has to be the most unique and intricate collaboration in the history of music: that of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. An analogy would be if Salieri had embraced Mozart upon his arrival in Vienna, and paid all his bills and gambling debts, while Mozart wrote music for Salieri and pushed Salieri's musical acumen far beyond what it would have been, all while staying resolutley out of the Court limelight and pursuing his Masonic interests. My mind just boggled coming up with that analogy. Anyway, this biography obviously gave me a greater appreciation for the genius of Billy Strayhorn, and it also gave me a greater appreciation for the greatness of Duke Ellington; it also made me go back and listen to "...and his mother called him Bill", which I have always regarded as the greatest tribute album ever released.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Martin

    Meticulously researched and well written biography of Swee' Pea. Throughout his career, Strayhorn played a secondary role to Duke Ellington in their collaboration, but it could be argued that Strayhorn contributed more to the Duke Ellington "sound" and orchestra than the Duke himself. So many amazing and wonderful pieces were composed by Strayhorn, including "Take the 'A' Train", "Chelsea Bridge", "Isfahan", "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing", "Day Dream", and many others. There are many examples of Meticulously researched and well written biography of Swee' Pea. Throughout his career, Strayhorn played a secondary role to Duke Ellington in their collaboration, but it could be argued that Strayhorn contributed more to the Duke Ellington "sound" and orchestra than the Duke himself. So many amazing and wonderful pieces were composed by Strayhorn, including "Take the 'A' Train", "Chelsea Bridge", "Isfahan", "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing", "Day Dream", and many others. There are many examples of Strayhorn's music to listen to, but I recommend the following: Duke Ellington - The Blanton-Webster Band [3 CD set] Duke Ellington - The Far East Suite [Special Mix released in 1995] Johnny Hodges with Billy Strayhorn and The Orchestra Billy Strayhorn - The Peaceful Side As Ellington was quoted as saying: "Strayhorn does a lot of the work but I get to take the bows!"

  23. 4 out of 5

    Karen

    It would take a very hardened soul who could read this book and not be profoundly moved by the beautiful spirit of Billy Strayhorn. In this time of hubris and outlandish political theatrics, Strayhorn's humility, creativity, and gentle confidence shine through. This book is very skilled at identifying the complexity of his life, and how his genius and personality were informed by the era in which he lived. Like other reviewers, I stopped reading periodically in order to listen to the music on yo It would take a very hardened soul who could read this book and not be profoundly moved by the beautiful spirit of Billy Strayhorn. In this time of hubris and outlandish political theatrics, Strayhorn's humility, creativity, and gentle confidence shine through. This book is very skilled at identifying the complexity of his life, and how his genius and personality were informed by the era in which he lived. Like other reviewers, I stopped reading periodically in order to listen to the music on youtube. I'm not really a jazz fan, but this book gave me a much greater appreciation of the music. What I will most remember about Billy Strayhorn is that he brought out the best in others. This is no small feat, and for this he remains a role model and hero in my eyes.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Don

    What a beautiful read! There was so much that was fascinating about Billy Strayhorn's life that's revealed in this book, from his complicated professional relationship with Duke Ellington to his many friendships with prominent artists and even political figures. It really makes you fall in love with Strayhorn - and sent me on a shopping spree for some of his recordings and compositions. It's amazing how much is still not widely known about Strayhorn that was written in this book. The amazing sto What a beautiful read! There was so much that was fascinating about Billy Strayhorn's life that's revealed in this book, from his complicated professional relationship with Duke Ellington to his many friendships with prominent artists and even political figures. It really makes you fall in love with Strayhorn - and sent me on a shopping spree for some of his recordings and compositions. It's amazing how much is still not widely known about Strayhorn that was written in this book. The amazing story about "Take the A-Train" which became the Ellington Orchestra's signature song) alone is worth the read.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jason

    When I took a "History of Jazz" class in college, our professor didn't spend that much time on Billy Strayhorn, but everything he said made a big impression: that he was openly gay, that he wrote or co-wrote a lot of Duke Ellington's best known songs, but didn't take much credit for them out of shyness or a fear of the spotlight. Our professor also played one his songs on the piano for us, which was beautiful. This book is the result of an incredible amount of research and interviews, and fills i When I took a "History of Jazz" class in college, our professor didn't spend that much time on Billy Strayhorn, but everything he said made a big impression: that he was openly gay, that he wrote or co-wrote a lot of Duke Ellington's best known songs, but didn't take much credit for them out of shyness or a fear of the spotlight. Our professor also played one his songs on the piano for us, which was beautiful. This book is the result of an incredible amount of research and interviews, and fills in the many blanks about Strayhorn's mysterious life story. Although it's a little dry in places, overall it's a fascinating portrait that finally gives this genius his due.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Yvonne

    A genius. Billy Strayhorn was also black, gay and a small man in stature only. He lived a big life, in an exciting and amazing time. An incredibly creative musician, write, arranger, and a man beloved by many, many people. He never got the credit he deserved, but his collaboration with Duke Ellington allowed him many opportunites. If I could go back in time it would be to Harlem in the jazz age, to sit in a club, have a drink and listen to the music all the geniuses of the time were producing.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Jim Willse

    Strayhorn would have been 100 this year, and one could argue that he was one of the great 20th Century composers. Certainly if you view his music and that of Ellington's as that of one man, which much of it kind of was. Hadju does a good job on the events and people of Strayhorn's life, but is weak on the under-the-hood music making and light on the extent of his alcoholism. Read it with the relevant music on in the background. Strayhorn would have been 100 this year, and one could argue that he was one of the great 20th Century composers. Certainly if you view his music and that of Ellington's as that of one man, which much of it kind of was. Hadju does a good job on the events and people of Strayhorn's life, but is weak on the under-the-hood music making and light on the extent of his alcoholism. Read it with the relevant music on in the background.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Constance Chevalier

    What a life! A genius at writing and arranging music, he also played classical piano and sang. He was Duke Ellington's main man who rarely got credit for his work. A close friend to Lena Horne, Johnny Hodges who he also wrote for and played with, Strayhorn was loved by so many in the jazz world. He also became an activist in the Civil Rights Movement. Having been a heavy drinker and smoker he died early from esophogeal cancer. What a life! A genius at writing and arranging music, he also played classical piano and sang. He was Duke Ellington's main man who rarely got credit for his work. A close friend to Lena Horne, Johnny Hodges who he also wrote for and played with, Strayhorn was loved by so many in the jazz world. He also became an activist in the Civil Rights Movement. Having been a heavy drinker and smoker he died early from esophogeal cancer.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Deborah J.

    I read this for the second time. There are so many details that I missed the first time around, that it's as if I hadn't read it at all! (I read in the mornings now, when my brain--and focus--is clearer.) It gives thorough insight on this genius who provided incredible enrichment to the 'Ellington sound'. I needed to know who he was, how he began, and what his influences were and this book did not disappoint. I read this for the second time. There are so many details that I missed the first time around, that it's as if I hadn't read it at all! (I read in the mornings now, when my brain--and focus--is clearer.) It gives thorough insight on this genius who provided incredible enrichment to the 'Ellington sound'. I needed to know who he was, how he began, and what his influences were and this book did not disappoint.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Josh

    Hajdu's Billy Strayhorn biography is not just the seminal work on Strayhorn, and not just one of the great jazz biographies of all time; it is also, as far as I am aware, the best, most insightful tome on Duke Ellington. High praise, perhaps, for a book that clocks in at just about 260 pages, but it's so rich with revelation into this man and his music that it more than lives up to the hype. Hajdu's Billy Strayhorn biography is not just the seminal work on Strayhorn, and not just one of the great jazz biographies of all time; it is also, as far as I am aware, the best, most insightful tome on Duke Ellington. High praise, perhaps, for a book that clocks in at just about 260 pages, but it's so rich with revelation into this man and his music that it more than lives up to the hype.

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