A "definitive" corrective USA Today to decades of patchwork scholarship and journalism about this giant of jazz, Lush Life is a vibrant and absorbing account of the "lush life" Strayhorn and other jazz musicians led in Harlem and Paris. While composing some of the most gorgeous American music of this century, Strayhorn labored under a complex agreement whereby Ellington took the bows for his work; until his life was tragically cut short by cancer and alcohol abuse, the small, shy black composer carried himself with singular style and grace as one of the few jazzmen to be openly homosexual. It is already acknowledged as a jazz classic. Then he really came alive. Strayhorn dressed like a dandy: he liked striped or dark-colored shirts, sometimes paisley prints, and colorful ties; his favorite tie designer, Countess Mara, specialized in whimsical, cartoonish figures on bright backgrounds.
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In the wake of a performance by the Ellingtonians in Pittsburgh in December , the classically-trained Strayhorn submitted some of his own compositions. He was then interviewed by Duke who took him on as staff arranger despite his apparent lack of experience. Before long, he found himself in charge of almost all of the arrangements for band vocalists, in particular recent arrival Ivie Anderson. Strayhorn won the Down Beat Poll as best arranger One of his earlier pieces, "Lush Life" written in , was initially sung by Strayhorn himself and withheld from publication for several years.
Numerous other numbers were written and orchestrated jointly by Duke and Strayhorn. Their work on the moody and mellow film score for Anatomy of a Murder is often regarded as one of their finest collaborative efforts. Strayhorn also played an instrumental role in writing the idiomatic and evocative soundtrack for Paris Blues , a film in which music and scenery rather overshadow the mechanics of the screenplay. In private life, Strayhorn was committed to social and charitable causes.
He was a former president of Copasetics, a Harlem-based fraternal organization of entertainers. He was a strong supporter of the civil rights movement and a personal friend of Martin Luther King. Though openly gay, Strayhorn maintained a particularly intimate relationship with singer and actress Lena Horne.
Was fluent in French. Inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in See also.
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After a brief audition, which consisted of Strayhorn playing a few of his own compositions as well as interpretations of Ellington numbers, Duke hired him on the spot - even though there was no specific role for him in the band, which already had a regular pianist. In his tremendously moving book "Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn," David Hajdu goes a long way towards remedying this historical oversight by focusing long overdue attention on this shy, modest man who always shunned the spotlight during his lifetime. Hajdu suggests that the relationship between Ellington and Strayhorn was as much a familial one as a professional one. Musically, Ellington granted Strayhorn enormous autonomy. Although frequently frustrated by the lack of recognition for his contributions to the Ellington Orchestra, an issue that led him to leave Duke briefly in , Strayhorn himself was disinclined to seek too much public acclaim.