Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn

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, Lush Life is a vibrant and absorbing account of the "lush life" Strayhorn and other jazz musicians led in Harlem and Paris. While composing some of the most gorgeous American music of this 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 black 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 Billy Strayhorn's work. It is already acknowledged as a jazz classic. (This text courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)


Strayhorn didn't so much transform in New York as take form; in New York, his amorphous youthful ideal of urban elan could finally be made real. "He had always had a certain vision of himself," said Lillian Stayhorn Dicks. "But it never had a chance to come out until he went to New York and met the right people and went to the right places. Then he really came alive." As his intimates saw him, Strayhorn emerged during his first years in Manhattan as nearly a caricature of sophistication, at least in appearance. Strayhorn dressed like a dandy: he liked striped or dark-colored shirts, sometimes paisley prints, and colorful ties; his favorite tie designer, Countess Mara, specialized in whimsical, cartoonish figures on bright backgrounds. Alto saxophonist Marshall Royal left Birdland on Broadway, around the corner from West 52nd Street, at around four one morning and found Strayhorn window-shopping at Layton's men's store. "He was admiring a suit jacket," recalled Royal. "There was another one he liked a couple of blocks away, and it was real nice." Strayhorn was fond of the feel of silk and cashmere on his body, and he collected socks; he had two sock drawers. Bred to regard good manners as elevating, he purchased an etiquette guide that he read as intently as one might a novel. When he bought a new suit, he kept the front pockets sewn up, because his mother had taught him to keep his hands out of his pockets.

Strayhorn had two favorite phrases: "Ever up and onward" was one. As Aaron Bridgers recalled, "It was his constant message of encouragement and good cheer. It meant, Don't look back — yesterday was yesterday and today is today. Look ahead." The other was, simply, "That's great!" and its variants: "He's great!" or "She's great!" Bill Patterson explained, "That was the thing he said more than anything. It was part of his philosophy, his approach to being alive, which was very generous, very open, almost too much so. He could see what was unique and worthy in almost any individual he came upon. Like, a waitress would wait on us, and she'd walk away, and Strayhorn would say, 'She's great!' Why? We didn't see it, but Strayhorn would see something there. The big and the small — these weren't real distinctions for him."


"For a case study of biography at its best, one could not do much better than Lush Life. A book that comes close to being a model biography. Whether you are interest in Strayhorn or not, you will find pleasure and illumination in Hajdu's exemplary craftsmanship." - Jonathan Yarley, The Washington Post

"What makes Lush Life one of the finest of jazz biographies is the way Mr. Hajdu directs the readers to conclusions through the weight of his evidence, without explicitly stating them. The detail that Mr. Hajdu has uncoverred, particularly concerning the early Pittsburgh years and including the copious testimonry of nearly 200 of Strayhorn's and Ellington's associates, is staggering, especially in light of how little has been previously published on Staryhorn." - Will Friedwald, The New York Times Book Review (cover review)

"Hajdu gives Strayhorn his belated due as a distinct musical voice and an engaging, if conflicted, personality. Strayhorn's taste and wit, his relentless drinking, his lovers, his activism in Harlem cultural life and the civil rights movement, his generosity - all are sensitively evoked." - Christopher Porterfield, Time

"Lush Life" is a chatty, human book, deeply lyrical and brimming with pleasures, yet through it all, disturbingly melancholy. The real lushness Hajdu evokes in Lush Life comes with the details of Strayhorn's imaginative life, with his smoky dreams of cocktails glowing forever in dreamy Parisian nights with just the right company at his elbow. Lush Life is about as lyrical as biography can get and still stay on track." - Peter Goddard, Toronto Star

"David Hajdu has done something extraordinary: He has made Strayhorn a living, breathing presence and created of his life a work of real art. The highest tribute I can pay to David Hajdu's work is that it has the complexity, dimension, and excitement of a fine novel." - David Evanier, Los Angeles Reader

"Arguably the finest biography yet written about a jazz musician, a sensitively observed, eloquently expressed portrait of a complex, much loved, and troubled man that will fascinate readers who have never heard a note of Strayhorn's music. A richly detailed yet rigorously disciplined chronicle, deeply affecting." - Joel E. Seigel, Washington City Paper

"A brilliant biography. Lush Life is an extraordinary portrait of a most unique man, time, and place - that rare biography that not only illuminates a life, but evokes an era with such specificity that we can almost taste the gin and the genius that fueled it." - Terry Lawson, Detroit Free Press

"David Hajdu, the author of Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn, does a great service for all those interested in American music. He puts Strayhorn in perspective, clearly establishing who and what he was. Hajdu combines history, musicology, and a depth of humanity in this gracefully written book. His wide-ranging research and interviewing set a high standard." - Burt Korall, International Musician

"Astonishingly intimate, powerful and revealing. Hajdu succeeds in making us understand and feel for the major characters in the jazz world in the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. In so doing, we understand Strayhorn's importance as never before." - Frankie Alexander, Raleigh News & Observer

"David Hajdu's Lush Life is a biography worthy of its subject: sophisticated, subtle, and bittersweet, with an ear open to the nuances of both music and life." - Don McLeese, The American-Statesman

"Hajdu draws an elegant, fastidious, enlightening and, in the end, tragic tale. If Ellington is still larger than life, Hajdu's treatment of Strayhorn might be considered, uh, life itself." - K. Leander Willians, Time Out New York

"Hajdu invests his biography of Strayhorn with the kind of sensitivity and clarity which is the mark of his subject's best work." - The New Yorker (no byline)