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Book Reviews

Something to Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn

By Published: March 3, 2004
Metaphors Something to Live For
Walter Van De Leur
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 0195124480

Legendary composer/arranger Billy Strayhorn became something of an overnight success, nearly thirty years after his death, when David Hajdu released his critically-acclaimed biography Lush Life in 1996. Now, Dutch musicologist, Walter Van de Leur, has released Something to Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn. Some might ask, “Is the world ready for another biography of Billy Strayhorn?” Considering the importance of Strayhorn’s contribution to jazz music, though, a more appropriate question might be “Why hasn’t there been more written?”

Of course, Something to Live For isn’t exactly a biography. Van de Leur even admits this in his introduction. One hint to this comes from its subtitle; this is a study of Strayhorn’s music more than his life. While Van de Leur does employ biographical elements in his work, he uses them to underscore the importance and development of Strayhorn’s compositional style.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Van de Leur approaches the material from an academic standpoint. Something to Live For aims at an audience more scholarly than mainstream. For example: “In its most common form, the figure consists of repeated staccato brass chords built with a combination of mostly sixteenth and eighth notes—with an incidental triplet or quarter note.” Chances are, Something to Live For won’t get selected for the Oprah Book Club. It does, however, offer important information concerning one of America’s musical legends.

Strayhorn first came to prominence writing and arranging for Duke Ellington. The image we often have, though, is someone standing in Ellington’s shadow. Van de Leur, however, provides a different view. Here we see Strayhorn, not only as a man who formed an integral part of the Ellington sound, but a composer who remained true to his own musical ideology, as well.

His love of writing and arranging was by no means self-aggrandizing; Strayhorn spent most of his career behind the scenes. For him, the music was more important than the spotlight. His musical style developed from an early appreciation of classical music. He applied this interest to help bring greater depth to jazz. His collaboration with Ellington forms a crucial chapter in American musical history. While Ellington was a great composer in is own right, things might be different historically had it not been for this partnership.

Something to Live For is by no means an attempt to supercede Lush Life; it is more of a supplement. A a matter of fact, much of the biographical information comes from Hajdu’s work. Even with its somewhat academic leaning, Something to Live For offers a worthwhile portrait of one of American music’s greatest treasures. It presents an in-depth study of Strayhorn’s unique contribution to contemporary music, and provides a valuable asset for anyone wanting to learn more about this great figure in jazz music.


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