Blues in rhapsody

Roz Kaveney discovers the quiet genius of jazz whose work put Duke Ellington in the limelight; Lush Life: a biography of Billy Strayhorn by David Hajdu, Granta, pounds 16.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Some make pacts with the devil and some of us make pacts with our friends; it is not clear which is the more destructive. No one, least of all Duke Ellington, ever wished Billy Strayhorn any harm. Ellington was a substitute for Strayhorn's inadequate bully of a father. He took the talented young composer and arranger as an extra son. Yet Strayhorn is hardly remembered, save for one song - much of his best work is misremembered as Ellington's. Now Ellington was a giant, and even the people they love most get hidden by giants' shadows. David Hajdu's biography succeeds in rescuing Billy Strayhorn from mild obscurity, but Ellington - the patriarch Ellington with the raffishness of the Cotton Club in Harlem behind him - looks over the book, colossally.

Jazz is a collaborative enterprise, to be sure, but there are people with talent, and people with talent and charisma, too. For black jazz to be recognised as art in racist American society, it had to become a commodity as well. America values what is paid for. So jazz needed salesmen.

Ellington was a salesman of genius and his inspiration never ran dry for long. Strayhorn was not the only talented person to find himself circling Ellington, never quite able to escape. He was, however, perhaps the most talented, the one who might have been something else.

Strayhorn was a bright Pittsburgh kid with talent and a term of music school; he had written a Gershwin-plus-Stravinsky concerto for piano and wind, and then reflected that perhaps the world was not crying out for a black working-class composer of art music. He was a virtuoso of quiet piano jazz; a friend got him to play for Ellington, who hired him on the spot as the reflective, sensitive other self that he needed in order to refresh long-standing material.

On his way to Harlem, Strayhorn took Ellington's written directions and turned them into the song that perhaps above all defines their collaboration: "Take The A Train" - that greatest anthem of being young and ambitious in New York. (Hajdu is a quiet and non-directive biographer, whose selection and emphasis of the facts is far more telling than Maileresque rants).

In his late teens, Strayhorn had composed his other most memorable song, a song of disillusion and stoically accepted grief. Either he had known bitterness young, or had understood what it was. "Lush Life" was the one project so personal that Ellington never trespassed on it. When, as a man of 21, you have written, and plangently set, words like "Romance is mush/ Stifling those who strive./ I'll live a lush life in some small dive/ And there I'll be while I rot", the prognosis for real happiness and permanent exhilaration is not good. Part of what Strayhorn gave to Ellington, and thus to the jazz of the Forties and Fifties, was precisely a sense of melancholy more urban and urbane than the blues, but no less authentic.

Billy Strayhorn was openly and proudly gay in a period where medical and popular opinion were united in the assumption that to be gay was to be miserable and doomed to suicide or early death. Part of what made him Ellington's willing serf was the fact that the ebulliently heterosexual Ellington was sufficiently worldly wise to have no prejudices in the matter whatever. The shadow of Ellington was a safe space for Strayhorn, where he could have approval without discretion or compromise. Most of the time this led him to put up with being a worker for hire, whose treatment over copyrights was not always all it might have been.

Strayhorn did have a life away from Ellington and Ellingtoniana. He had affairs, an intense friendship with Lena Horne, a circle of hard-drinking gay friends and a club of black musicians and dancers, the Copasetics, for whose annual reviews he wrote most of the music. He was, like Ellington, a quietly tireless fund-raiser for the nascent civil rights movement. If he was, much of the time, gloomy, perhaps some people just do not have a special gift for happiness.

In his early fifties, in 1965, after a painful and humiliating illness borne with rage and regret and no patience at all, Strayhorn died of cancer and was much mourned. Ellington went on to even greater triumphs and respectability. If at times he smothered Strayhorn's individual creativity, it was because of that greed for more that comes with genius.

The triumph of Hajdu's biography is to show us this working relationship in terms that make clear that the two men had a friendship and working relationship that transcends easy, revisionist cant about parasitism or plagiarism. Ellington's theatrical grief was neither hypocritical nor time-serving. It was the grief of a man in this, as in much else, too big to judge.