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Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn

4.22  ·  Rating Details ·  455 Ratings  ·  41 Reviews
A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award

Billy Strayhorn (1915-67) was one of the greatest composers in the history of American music, the creator of a body of work that includes such standards as "Take the 'A' Train." Yet all his life Strayhorn was overshadowed by his friend and collaborator Duke Ellington, with whom he worked for three decades as the Ellingto
Paperback, 336 pages
Published June 26th 1997 by North Point Press (first published January 1st 1996)
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Community Reviews

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Peterson Toscano
May 18, 2011 Peterson Toscano rated it really liked it
It took nearly two weeks to read this biography of the jazz genius, Billy Strayhorn. Every time I read a reference to a song, a singer, a film score, an event, I then closed the book and took a dive into YouTube or Wikipedia or Google images or Spotify to experience the reference for myself. I was up half the night listening to the South African jazz singer Sathima Bea Benjamin. She did a session with Duke Ellington in Paris. Billy Strayhorn played the piano (so gentle and smooth) and the Danish ...more
Anthony D'Juan Shelton
Sep 02, 2009 Anthony D'Juan Shelton rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: music lovers.
I picked this book up on a whim in 2002. What caught me about it was Strayhorn's ten mile stare on the book cover. The burning cigarette between his fingers. The internal soul of a servant who lived an outwardly humble existence while stiflin...g the pain that lived beneath the surface -- his alcoholism.

Strayhorn was Duke Ellington's composer. He was also one of 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 fo
Sep 06, 2016 Sketchbook rated it really liked it
Strayhorn was the "genius" behind Duke El, who blackmailed Billy into silence for his gay life and kept the boy in the back of the bus. An award-winning (and nominated) bio by author David Hajdu.
Nov 28, 2016 le_fino rated it really liked it
I knew very little about Billy Strayhorn other than that he was Ellington's sideman forever. This book revealed a much more complex and challenged individual who actually wrote a ton of music for Ellington. I had no idea he was a homosexual and how difficult that made his unfortunately foreshortened life. For those who love jazz and love the great standards of the great Ellington periods of the 40s and 50s, this is a touching and vivid portrait of an under-estimated talent who courageously just ...more
Jan 27, 2012 Iain rated it it was amazing
Absolutely terrific. The story of a genius kicking against the restrictions of his era. Billy Strayhorn wanted to be a classical composer, but that career path wasn't open for a black kid in the 30s. Instead he ended up as the right-hand man of one of the most important figures in jazz, Duke Ellington. He composed or co-composed many of Duke's biggest hits, but was largely uncredited and unknown to the public. This book is scholarly where it needs to be—as when Hajdu teases out the writing ...more
Dec 30, 2012 Adam rated it really liked it
Only took me five years or so to finish off this one. :) It's a well-written biography; if I had to criticize one thing, it's that the narrative hustles along from project to project, but never really probes into more than 4 or 5 close relationships of Strayhorn's. Because there was no in-depth interview with Duke Ellington on how he worked with Strayhorn, much of their relationship - the most consequential one of Strayhorn's life - feels underexplored. Music biographies are hard by nature (now ...more
Larry-bob Roberts
May 30, 2011 Larry-bob Roberts rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Lots of research into untangling the tangled legacy of Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington.
It would be great to travel back in time and see one of the Copasetics shows - the social group of tapdancers for whose annual shows Strayhorn was the musical director.
Also looks like Something to Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn would be good to check out.

Reading the other reviews, I'm not the only one who cried at the end of this biography.
May 25, 2010 Greg rated it it was amazing
Is it normal to get weepy when you get to the part of the bio where the subject (inevitably) dies? It isn't normal for me.

Someday I'll write the two-man play where Strayhorn and Ellington are holed up in a hotel to finish a piece. I've been talking about it for 20 years now.
Mar 28, 2011 Halley rated it it was amazing
You know you're in the hands of a good writer when you're coming to the end of a biography and bawling your eyes out. I know Billy Strayhorne died many years ago. Before I read this, it was a simple fact. After reading it, it seems like a tragedy.
Mar 28, 2007 shiv rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction
having finally finished it, i continue to find the book appallingly written. but i had a bit of a crush on billy strayhorn by the end of it, and was unbelievably sad to leave his world. which, i suppose, is the point of a good biography.

i think we would have been tremendous drinking buddies.
Erica Pearson
Jul 13, 2008 Erica Pearson rated it it was amazing
This is one of the best biographies I have ever read, and is definitely my favorite book by David Hajdu. Made me cry.
Sep 04, 2009 Mark rated it it was amazing
Strayhorn discarded public prominence in service to Duke Ellignton and his Orchestra. A great read.
Mark Feltskog
Nov 20, 2016 Mark Feltskog rated it it was amazing
Sensitive and comprehensive. David Hajdu is a masterful expository prose stylist--this is perhaps the best biography of a major figure in jazz I've ever read.
Deborah J.
Dec 03, 2016 Deborah J. rated it it was amazing
Reading it for the second time and enjoying it tremendously!
Too bad I can't give it 6 stars.

I read this one over the course of maybe two or three days. Very smoothly written, thorough, plenty of great jazz anecdotes. The blurb on the back is certainly correct- after reading one certainly does have the desire to listen to the man's music for himself, assuming that (like me) he was already more familiar in name than in anything else.

I did get a sense of what Strayhorn was all about as a human being: his emotionally fraught, rather bleak upbringing with an erratic and wounded father and a
Andrea Claburn
Aug 03, 2015 Andrea Claburn rated it really liked it
A fascinating look at the life a famously reticent, inscrutable figure in American music history and the genius behind much of Duke Ellington's compositional output. I came away from this book with a profound sense of loss, not only because of a life cut far too short, at 51, but the cultural loss of music that might have been from a brilliant mind whose talent knew no boundaries.

Billy Strayhorn was "beyond category" (to use a phrase favored by his famous collaborator), capable of spectacular co
Oct 15, 2009 Alton rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Jazz fans, lovers of Ellington's music
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Sep 11, 2008 Spiros rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone who appreciates greatness of soul
This book chronicles what has to be the most unique and intricate collaboration in the history of music: that of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. An analogy would be if Salieri had embraced Mozart upon his arrival in Vienna, and paid all his bills and gambling debts, while Mozart wrote music for Salieri and pushed Salieri's musical acumen far beyond what it would have been, all while staying resolutley out of the Court limelight and pursuing his Masonic interests. My mind just boggled coming ...more
Jul 14, 2014 Chris rated it it was amazing
"Duke ran his business like a family, and his family like a business."
-Mercer Ellington

The Duke-- necessarily, but sadly, the focus of the lens through which Billy is understood-- comes off as a benevolent patriarch here, sacrificing the rightful recognition of individuals for the survival and success of his brand... er, band. It feels more cunning than conniving, a clever marketing strategy in a white mainstream which was unprepared to admire so many talented blacks, an act which could implici
Don Sommers
Jul 22, 2016 Don Sommers rated it it was amazing
What a beautiful read! There was so much that was fascinating about Billy Strayhorn's life that's revealed in this book, from his complicated professional relationship with Duke Ellington to his many friendships with prominent artists and even political figures. It really makes you fall in love with Strayhorn - and sent me on a shopping spree for some of his recordings and compositions. It's amazing how much is still not widely known about Strayhorn that was written in this book. The amazing ...more
Aug 07, 2011 Yvonne rated it really liked it
A genius. Billy Strayhorn was also black, gay and a small man in stature only. He lived a big life, in an exciting and amazing time. An incredibly creative musician, write, arranger, and a man beloved by many, many people. He never got the credit he deserved, but his collaboration with Duke Ellington allowed him many opportunites. If I could go back in time it would be to Harlem in the jazz age, to sit in a club, have a drink and listen to the music all the geniuses of the time were producing.
Constance Chevalier
Jul 08, 2016 Constance Chevalier rated it it was amazing
What a life! A genius at writing and arranging music, he also played classical piano and sang. He was Duke Ellington's main man who rarely got credit for his work. A close friend to Lena Horne, Johnny Hodges who he also wrote for and played with, Strayhorn was loved by so many in the jazz world. He also became an activist in the Civil Rights Movement. Having been a heavy drinker and smoker he died early from esophogeal cancer.
Jim Willse
Nov 30, 2015 Jim Willse rated it really liked it
Strayhorn would have been 100 this year, and one could argue that he was one of the great 20th Century composers. Certainly if you view his music and that of Ellington's as that of one man, which much of it kind of was. Hadju does a good job on the events and people of Strayhorn's life, but is weak on the under-the-hood music making and light on the extent of his alcoholism. Read it with the relevant music on in the background.
May 22, 2013 Josh rated it it was amazing
Hajdu's Billy Strayhorn biography is not just the seminal work on Strayhorn, and not just one of the great jazz biographies of all time; it is also, as far as I am aware, the best, most insightful tome on Duke Ellington. High praise, perhaps, for a book that clocks in at just about 260 pages, but it's so rich with revelation into this man and his music that it more than lives up to the hype.
Apr 24, 2015 Tom rated it really liked it
The book is everything a biography should be. In this case the author traced Strayhorn's life, his relationships, his work output, his motivations and his accomplishments in detail. I came away with a better understanding of the many dimension of the man and why he remained in the shadow of Ellington even while he pursued many other activities and musical interests.
Mar 06, 2013 Joeydag rated it liked it
I was hoping for much more. I don't have a solid appreciation of the author's motivation for his involvement with this project. I have no doubt the material is factual but there doesn't seem to be much life in this biography. Too many quotes about how witty Billy was but too few examples.
May 30, 2008 Marissa rated it really liked it
Strayhorn is one of my favorite composers and this was a very well written biography. I enjoy learning more about the musicians and artists that I love, it adds layers to their art and it's interesting to discover the similarities and differences between them and me.
Aug 18, 2016 Rcorbell rated it liked it
I love Billy Strayhorn dearly and his music is simply something transcendent. But the biography, while extremely thorough, moved a bit slow at times. Does a great job of portraying the people in Billy's life with a straightforward sympathy
Linda Pennington
Jan 03, 2015 Linda Pennington rated it it was amazing
I loved this book so much I wanted to make it into a movie! Then I found out that someone had already done it. If you are a jazz lover who appreciates Ellington, you need to read this. Strayhorn was a musical genius and a fascinating person who was in the background of Ellington's life.
John Lamiell
Fascinating subject matter, but the writing made the whole thing pretty plodding and boring. I will be looking for a better written Billy Strayhorn biography.
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DAVID HAJDU is the author of Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn and Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina. He is a critic for The New Republic and a professor in the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. He lives in New York City."
More about David Hajdu...

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“It really was truth or consequences, and Billy went with truth. It was just incredible." Forsaking public prominence, Strayhorn found personal freedom in service to the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Now there might not be a Billy Strayhorn Orchestra. But there was a Billy Strayhorn.” 1 likes
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