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Book Reviews

Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn

By Published: March 8, 2004
Although frequently frustrated by the lack of recognition for his contributions to the Ellington Orchestra, an issue that led him to leave Duke briefly in 1955, Strayhorn himself was disinclined to seek too much public acclaim. Openly homosexual, Strayhorn, says Hajdu, was a triple minority: "he was black, he was gay, and he was a minority among gay people in that he was open about his homosexuality in an era when social bias forced many men and women to keep their sexual identities secret." If American society was barely prepared to accord a black man like Ellington, with all his charisma, poise, and flair for self-promotion, the respect he deserved as a world-class creative artist, it was far from ready to show that same respect for a gay black artist like Strayhorn. Had he sought a higher profile, perhaps leading a band of his own, Hajdu suggests, he would have had to keep his sexual orientation closeted. "Forsaking public prominence, Strayhorn sought personal freedom in service to the Duke Ellingtion Orchestra. Now there might not be a Billy Strayhorn Orchestra. But there was a Billy Strayhorn."

Within the Ellington organization, Strayhorn's homosexuality was never an issue. Duke accepted him as he was. Period. This was undoubtedly an important factor in Strayhorn's devotion to Ellington. One friend of Strayhorn's said: "Duke Ellington afforded Billy Strayhorn that acceptance. That was something that cannot be undervalued or underappreciated. To Billy, that was gold." Another friend added: "We all hid, every one of us, except Billy. He wasn't afraid. We were. And you know what the difference between us was? Duke Ellington."

Hajdu follows Strayhorn from Harlem to Hollywood to Paris, as he lives out the "lush life" of his fantasies. We are presented with vivid and memorable portraits of Strayhorn's friends and associates from various walks of life, including Lena Horne, Rachel and Jackie Robinson, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medgar Evers, as well as Ellingtonians like Ben Webster, Jimmy Blanton, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, and most of the major figures in the jazz world. All of them, it seems, held Strayhorn in extraordinarily high regard, as a uniquely talented musician and as a man of rare intelligence and grace. By the end of this extremely personal account of Strayhorn's life, we have come to know him quite well and the tragic details of his final months are extremely distressing. David Hajdu has done an outstanding job of elucidating the complicated life of this enormously talented and too often overlooked artist. This is surely one of the best books ever written about jazz.

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