Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Lush Life: the brilliance of Billy Strayhorn

Billy Strayhorn was the first openly gay black man to live in the public eye, in the 20th century; a bit taboo, considering this was in the 1920s and so forth. Though homosexuality wasn’t uncommon during the era of big band jazz, blues, and the Harlem Renaissance (Bessie Smith was bi-sexual, while, poet, Langston Hughes was assumed to be gay because he was never “seen with a woman”), in the case of Strayhorn it was a breakthrough considering he was not only an amazing composer, but the composer for the world renowned, brilliant musical creator, Duke Ellington.

At the age of 17 Strayhorn wrote “Lush Life.” A somber look at loneliness and the long for lost love and human truth. How Strayhorn could capture such accuracy at a young age was puzzling to many; yet one has to consider with the upbringing he had (there was an incident where Strayhorn’s alcoholic father pulled Strayhorn’s glasses off his face, put them on the ground, stomped them, then walked out laughing hysterically, leaving Strayhorn to ponder his father’s actions), which did contribute to his own inner-blues. For Strayhorn was a loner for most of his life, growing up, choosing to bury himself into classical music, rather than “regular” childhood activities. He discovered his homosexuality early in life and surprisingly wasn’t too fearful with coming forth with it. His “coming out” wasn’t so much of a shit storm, as it is for most people, it seems, today mostly because Strayhorn owned it quietly and confidently enough that he didn’t leave much room for his orientation to be questioned. He just played the music and went on to a behind the scenes, semi-famous life along side Ellington. Since Strayhorn wasn’t a front man (nor did he hardly take the spot light), his significance in Ellington’s career is easily forgotten. Yet “Lush Life” made the rounds throughout the industry, spawning numerous versions from numerous singers, like Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole (yet the best being the version done by John Coltrane, alone, in a 13 minute intoxicating instrumental that could illuminate the inner-blues existing in anyone), and bringing, for Strayhorn, a very calm comfortable life. He didn’t place himself around many racial matters. Nor did he play the victim in racial confrontation, as do many black people today (black people today with more resources and access to upward mobility than we ever had back in the 20s and 30s and 40s still choose to see themselves as second class citizens, rather than the originators of American Culture that we are). Yet it was in these old times where blacks didn’t allow white hatred to overcome them; and this was the kind of white hatred that was out in the open. Sure, this era wasn’t perfect, but there was a sense of community, family, and creativity (along side crime, poverty, and un-wed mothers), all of which fueled the energy that went into the music and daily life.

The lyrics in “Lush Life” bring pain right out in the open:

I used to visit all the very gay places
Those come-what-may places
Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life
To get the feel of life from jazz and cocktails

And yet to take these lyrics as a “sign” of who Strayhorn later revealed himself to be would be an exercise in ignorance. “Lush Life” is a song of escape from pain and past heart ache up started by illusion:

The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces
With distingue traces that used to be there
You could see where they'd been washed away
By too many through the day, twelve o'clock tales

Clearly the observation of loss and lies is a through line in Strayhorn’s message. It’s a song for the dreamer. The since of “oh, what else must I do” when the world has closed you out and there’s nothing left to do but to take this one night to wallow in the stomach of self-pity:

Life is lonely again and only last year
Everything seemed so sure
Now life is awful again
A trough full of hearts could only be a bore
A week in Paris could ease the bite of it
All I care is to smile in spite of it
I'll forget you, I will while yet you are still
Burning inside my brain romance is mush
Stifling those who strive
So I'll live a lush life in some small dive
And there I'll be
While I rot with the rest of those
Whose lives are lonely too

And yet, it’s a far cry from melodrama. This is a song about the deepest set pain known to anyone: a loss that one has no control over, which usually equates to suicide (not bad for a 17 year old).

“Lush Life” signifies a special place in all of us. Not only the song but the spirit it creates. I can recall many days, in my twenties, where there was a lost hope sitting right in front of me that I could reach for and didn’t because one stops themselves from happiness out of the pleasure of the self-pity; and though we are as much responsible for the result of our pain as the person who inflicts it, it’s not to stop us from taking that ultimate lush life “in some small dive” where we’re told there is hope. The truest of human qualities (at least in these old days) come out in the dive bar. People interact with strangers and find a common ground, more so than one may do at their desk job; and Strayhorn knew this before we knew it; and even more, Strayhorn knew it before he himself knew it – which put him ahead of his time. To be so brave and create a clear picture of the life we will all soon lead is to take the deepest understanding to human needs. So we can only applaud Strayhorn for his bravery and naiveté that allows us to remember the truth behind our lush life escapism and our constant search for happiness.

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writer, actor, & producer in training. in 2005, along side my partner in film and best friend since childhood, we produced and executed 3 films. to this day i am still working in "the business" to the best of my abilities and moving forward to the "next level." currently i am producing a film project, co-writing another, awaiting word on a stage play for New York, and pursuing my next one-person show. i'm also in school pursuing my Ph.D in Social Science.