'Lush Life,' a Self-Portrait in Song Songwriting genius Billy Strayhorn is the subject of a new documentary, as well as a fine companion CD. Both are titled Lush Life, after Strayhorn's enduring composition.

'Lush Life,' a Self-Portrait in Song

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Oh, you hear this song and you think Duke Ellington. But you would never have known this tune without Billy Strayhorn.

(Soundbite of song "Take the A Train")

INSKEEP: He wrote some of Ellington's biggest hits, like this one, "Take the A Train."

(Soundbite of song "Take the A Train")

INSKEEP: Billy Strayhorn died 40 years ago. His life and music are the subject of a new documentary airing tonight on public television. There's also a companion CD.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Both the documentary and the album are titled "Lush Life" after Strayhorn's most famous ballad. Ashley Kahn reports that song is the composer's autobiography in musical form.

(Soundbite of song "Lush Life")

Mr. NAT KING COLE (Singer): (Singing) I used to visit all the very gay places, those come what may places...

KAHN: It's a song that was written in the '30s, but it didn't reach public ears until Nat Cole sang it in 1949 with a free and easy feel.

(Soundbite of song "Lush Life")

Mr. COLE: (Singing) Then you came along with your siren song to tilt me to madness...

KAHN: Since then, "Lush Life" has become one of the most standard of pop standards with no signs of fading away. It was even a highlight of a recent Grammy Awards gala performed by hip-hop royalty.

Ms. ELLEN DEGENERES (Comedian, Talk Show Host): Please welcome my friend and your host, Queen Latifah.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. QUEEN LATIFAH (Musician): (Singing) I used to visit all the very gay places, those come what may places...

KAHN: "Lush Life" is a song with a vast range of emotion that more than 500 musicians have explored. Some, like Joe Henderson playing solo saxophone, have chosen a hushed approach.

(Soundbite of song "Lush Life")

KAHN: Others, like Nancy Wilson, have given it a shot of drama.

(Soundbite of song "Lush Life")

Ms. NANCY WILSON (Singer): (Singing) I live a lush life in some small dive...

KAHN: The words reveals much of what "Lush Life" is about. There's a smile but it's tinged with sadness. There's a certainty of a great love and then the realization that...

Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Singer): (Singing) Oh yes I was wrong...

KAHN: At first "Lush Life" seems simple, but it's quite complex emotionally and musically with a very unusual structure. It even gave Frank Sinatra a hard time.

Mr. SINATRA: Master number E1925783.

KAHN: Here he is in a busy studio session in 1958 trying to get it right and then giving up.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SINATRA: (Singing) And only last year everything seemed...

Hold it. It's not only tough enough the way it is but he's got some flags in there. Oh yeah. Put it aside for about a year.

Mr. ANDY BEY (Jazz Singer, Pianist): Not everybody could sing it. The structure, I mean a lot of songs had verses and refrains, you know. But "Lush Life" was like a mind-boggling thing.

KAHN: Andy Bey is a celebrated jazz singer and pianist with a personal connection to the song he has focused on repeatedly during a 55-year career.

Mr. BEY: This is about somebody's life. You know, it's like a worldliness. A person who has lived. It comes from a person that had wonderful dreams, that lived those dreams.

KAHN: The pun in the song's title suggests that "Lush Life" might be speaking of a life of elegance or of boozy despair. In both senses, the song reflects the life of the man who wrote it, Billy Strayhorn.

(Soundbite of music)

KAHN: Strayhorn was the piano prodigy Duke Ellington recruited in 1938 to compose material for his band. Through a 30-year on-and-off relationship, Strayhorn wrote many of Duke's most memorable and sophisticated tunes.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BEY: You know, he was like Duke Ellington's right-hand man. And his circumstances was different than all those other composers, even different than Duke. Billy was coming from a whole other ballgame.

(Soundbite of music)

KAHN: Strays, as he was known to fellow musicians, was born in 1915. He fell in love with classical music first and later developed a fascination for jazz.

(Soundbite of music)

KAHN: Strayhorn grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Pittsburgh, but dreamed of a more cultured and cosmopolitan way of life. He yearned to travel to Europe, and he was only 16 when he began to write the song he first titled "Life is Lonely."

(Soundbite of song "Lush Life")

Mr. BILLY STRAYHORN (Composer): (Singing) Life is lonely again...

KAHN: That's Billy Strayhorn singing in 1964. In fact, the words he wrote as a teenager predicted the life he eventually led. He did become a socialite, he did make it to France.

(Soundbite of song "Lush Life")

Mr. STRAYHORN: (Singing) A week in Paris relieves the bite of it...

KAHN: And he did become an alcoholic.

Mr. STRAYHORN: (Singing) It used to be that you could see where they'd been washed away by too many through the day.

KAHN: The lyric to "Lush Life" reveals both poetry and a maturity that's surprising coming from a teen. It also seems to suggest another significant side to Strayhorn's identity: his sexual orientation.

Mr. STRAYHORN: (Singing) I used to visit all the very gay places...

KAHN: As his biographer David Hajdu wrote, Strayhorn was a triple minority -African-American, gay and open about his homosexuality. His offstage role in Ellington's band made it possible to avoid the public spotlight.

Mr. BEY: In some ways I think he loved taking a back seat. It gave him the freedom to be himself, even though it might have hurt him because he wasn't given the credit that he deserved as an artist.

(Soundbite of song "Lush Life")

Mr. STRAYHORN: (Singing) Romance is mush, stifling those who strive...

Mr. BEY: But because, you know, at least Billy had the strength and the balls to come out and be who he was.

(Soundbite of music)

KAHN: Strayhorn passed away in 1967, his death hastened by years of alcohol and cigarettes. He never said if "Lush Life" was intended to be a pronouncement of his lifestyle, yet the song survives as a poignant self-portrait - complex, mature and open to interpretation.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Ashley Kahn. He's a regular contributor to MORNING EDITION. And the Billy Strayhorn documentary "Lush Life" airs tonight on public television. For an essay about some of Strayhorn's other recordings, go to npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

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