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

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits