The A Train to anonymity

LUSH LIFE: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn by David Hajdu, Granta Books pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
For 30 years, Billy Strayhorn was Duke Ellington's musical director, composing some of the band's greatest songs - "Lush Life", "Chelsea Bridge", "Raincheck" - and orchestrating their arrangements. His name should feature in the history of American popular music, but little is known about him. And Ellington's biographers have never adequately explained why Strayhorn was never given copyright control over his music or the public acknowledgement he deserved. But, as David Hajdu notes, Strayhorn was "triple minority" - he was black, gay and out. And as he refused to stay in the closet, he was denied his share of the limelight. This discrimination has continued among jazz critics who equate Strayhorn's homosexuality with passivity or laziness, describing him as too engaged in his louche nightlife to lead a band.

Hajdu makes it clear that if it is impossible to calculate Strayhorn's influence, it is because Ellington exploited his enforced anonymity. After more than 200 interviews and unprecedented access to the Strayhorn family's archives, he has established that Strayhorn wrote most of Ellington's later work, and that he was far from being a shadowy, foppish figure content to stay in the background. The day he met him, Ellington realised that this working-class boy from Pittsburgh embodied his ideal of the culturally refined, sophisticated black man. Strayhorn's life spans the intellectual elites of the Harlem renaissance and bohemian Paris. He knew everyone - James Baldwin, Chester Himes, Orson Welles; Martin Luther King was one of his closest friends and Lena Horne wanted to marry him.

Born in 1915, Strayhorn grew up in a black ghetto where his father - an educated man - worked as a hod-carrier and took to drink. His mother encouraged the cultural aspirations of her "miracle baby" and sheltered him from his father's drunken rages. He was a lonely child who subscribed to the New Yorker, studied French and Cesar Franck, and gathered wild flowers from local woods.

Strayhorn's dream of becoming a concert pianist foundered against the colour bar. In 1938, he was introduced to Ellington after a concert in Pittsburgh. The great man received him on a chaise longue while his valet conked his hair. Strayhorn played him a re-worked version of "Sophisticated Lady" and Ellington immediately invited him to New York, scribbling down directions for the subway. Strayhorn arrived on his doorstep - with his instructions transformed into what became the band's theme tune, "Take the A train". He moved in with Ellington's family and was given carte blanche with the band's musical arrangements. The orchestra could now combine a blues-based swing with Strayhorn's love of the complex chromatic progressions he found in Ravel and Debussy. His colleagues were in awe of his talent but called him "Swee'pea". And there is a charming naivete with which Strayhorn pursued the high life. His boyfriend, Aaron Bridgers, recalls riding subway trains with him speaking in French to annoy the white passengers.

While Ellington provided a "high-profile outlet for his artistry as well as emotional support", the public was encouraged to think of Strayhorn as a glorified amanuensis. The truth was that Strayhorn wrote the orchestral suites (such as "Such Sweet Thunder") for which Ellington received joint credit and all the acclaim. He was never paid a salary - Ellington paid all his bills - and became increasingly disillusioned when he was not allowed to work on other projects. Frank Sinatra approached him, but Ellington scared him off.

However, Hajdu is careful not to demonise the Duke. There was a tacit understanding between the two men that it was hard enough for one black man to make it, let alone two. And, as Lena Horne notes, "their relationship was sexual ... Duke treated Billy exactly like he treated women. Very loving and very protective, but controlling."

Round-the-clock clubbing, cocktails and cigars distracted Strayhorn from a sense of failure. Horne recalls that his briefcase was fitted out as a portable bar with the "mixological necessities" for a dry martini. Alcoholism led to cancer of the oesophagus. Before long, the bon viveur had to digest liquid food (and his beloved martinis) through a tap in his chest after the bulk of his stomach and throat had been removed.

Hajdu combines a mass of interviews and musical analysis to form a balanced overview of his subject. He depicts the degradations endured by Strayhorn senior and the "lush life" relished by his son with effective understatement. His handling of Strayhorn's relationship with Ellington, too, is particularly sensitive. When Strayhorn died in 1967, Ellington, paralysed with grief, refused to get out of bed for the funeral, claiming that he didn't have a clean shirt. But when he heard that "Strays" was laid out in a "kissy- blue" shirt (Ellington's favourite), he put one on, too, and addressed the congregation: "the legacy he leaves, his oeuvre, will never be less than the ultimate on the highest plateau of culture. God bless Billy Strayhorn." David Hajdu's achievement is to reclaim this legacy as Strayhorn's own.

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