Lush Life

[This post was written by student Zerin Jamal as her final project for this class in Spring 2020. All text (c) Zerin Jamal.]

Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane’s rendition of Strayhorn’s “Lush Life”

William (referred to as Billy) Thomas Strayhorn was best recognized for being Duke Ellington’s collaborator and for working with Ellington to produce many classics, such as “Take The ‘A’ Train,” “Chelsea Bridge” and “Isfahan.” Although he had an aptitude for penning timeless pieces, by which he set some of the world’s most distinct jazz standards, and was a musical genius, Strayhorn spent most of his career in the shadow of Ellington. Ellington even encapsulated Strayhorn’s genius with, “Billy Strayhorn successfully married melody, words and harmony, equating the fitting with happiness.” Albeit primarily being recognized on pieces he collaborated with Ellington on, Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” was possibly his most soul-stirring and famous independent song. The song was impressibly composed by Strayhorn while he was in his teens. When he released it to the public, the song was instantaneously a hit as critics marveled at his capacity to compose a song of such caliber, one that also demonstrates maturity and a complex range of emotions that was explored by many after its release, at such a young age.

Duke Ellington was highly regarded as “the great jazz composer” and bandleader of all time as he wrote several of jazz’s biggest standards. His music often incorporated a mastered fusion of “Afro-American sounds and more modern influences including Latin, Oriental, and expressionist sounds” and he aspired to “lengthen current jazz songs, bring new forms to the hitherto malnourished and largely ignored genre that was jazz music.” This must be noted as Billy Strayhorn not only made an absolute assimilation of Ellington’s form and technique but he also integrated his own distinct talent in musical composition; thus, Strayhorn, too, established several jazz standards. While commending Strayhorn, Ellington once declared, “Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head, and his in mine.

“Lush Life” was widely acclaimed for good reason as it had numerous valuable qualities. The song illustrates Strayhorn’s ability to interlink the elegant harmonies of classical music into the vibrant and strong swing of jazz. It also demonstrates his musical inclination as the lyrics and the melody of the song both simultaneously work together to evoke great emotional responses from the audience. The song ‘moves’ and amazes the listeners by communicating the level of depth and maturity Strayhorn possessed as a teenager. Strayhorn’s composition of this piece was also groundbreaking due to the time it was written in.

“Lush Life” was written during the Harlem Renaissance but was released after the renaissance began to fade away. The Harlem Renaissance was a critical period in black history; it was a time in which African Americans obtained jurisdiction over the depiction of black culture and experience, all while bestowing them a position in Western high culture. During this time, Harlem flourished with cultural and artistic expression; artists and writers strengthened the African American spirit by developing phenomenal literature and works of art that showcased the resilience, intelligence, and fortitude of their people. One of the defining arts of the Harlem Renaissance was jazz as it dominated the musical genre, enabling African Americans to communicate their difficulties, frustrations, pleasure, and pride — all of which came with being black in America. “Lush Life” was particularly valuable since Harlem provided a haven for gay African-Americans despite it being frowned upon. Although homophobia was prevalent, artists, such as Billy Strayhorn, were inspirational since they were uncloseted and extremely successful. Harlem as a community granted refuge for gay African Americans due to artists like Strayhorn having a massive influence; hence, their successes created a safe space for other gay African Americans.

“Lush Life” lyrics

The song opens with “I used to visit all the very gay places.” Although the word “gay” was commonly used to refer to “happy” during this period and did not signify homosexuality, jazz music, and especially the Harlem Renaissance, largely consisted of maintaining a sense of individuality and granted sexual freedom. Seeing as Strayhorn was publicly out-closeted and was in a long-term relationship with Aaron Bridgers, it is plausible that Strayhorn was aware of the both meanings of the term and intentionally incorporated it. Most likely, however, Strayhorn utilized the word to note places in which he felt cheerful, relaxed, carefree, and especially gay as well. “Lush Life” reflects Strayhorn’s ability to freely and openly be gay as a result of Harlem acting as a sanctuary for homosexuals.At this time, it would have been difficult to have sexual freedom and to openly display one’s sexual orientation if they were not straight. However, due to some blues singers already implying their homosexuality and his off-stage part in Ellington’s orchestra, it was possible for Strayhorn to openly display their sexual orientation due to both his absence in the limelight and Harlem’s tight-knit community looking out for one another.

Upon further analysis of the lyrics, Strayhorn describes night life as enervating after being unsuccessful at romance. He refers to a bar as a place, “where one relaxes… to get the feel of life from jazz and cocktails,” and narrates that he was familiar with dispirited women who had “been washed away by too many through the day twelve o’clock tales.” He details finding a lover that he believed was going to be a “great love” for him before unfolding,

Ah yes! I was wrong

Again, I was wrong. Life is lonely again,

And only last year everything seemed so sure.

Now life is awful again.

The piece reflects how night life was and still is part of American culture. Strayhorn describes women feeling dejected as a result of their failed romances which led them to indulge in alcohol, just as the Strayhorn, for relief. The song describes how many live luxurious and lavish lives to mask their true loneliness. Oftentimes, many turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with their feelings of grief and sorrow. These social values still hold for our time seeing as many turn to substances as they believe it will help them better cope; however, they, ultimately, suffer more as a result of substance abuse. This song also highlights the dangers of the overly glorified nightlife scene as it can lead to individuals falling subject to peer pressure, resulting in many drinking and trying drugs they initially were against. 

“Lush Life” reflects the contributions of Black Americans to national culture since jazz was heavily influenced by several African American musical forms. Jazz evolved from slave work songs, African American spirituals, blues, and also ragtime. When listened to carefully, one can hear the mixed influences of ragtime, blues, and the piano which was part of band music. People should listen to this piece of music as Billy Strayhorn was also responsible for making great contributions to jazz, alongside Ellington, with pieces of such caliber. When listening to “Lush Life,” people should attempt to hear the syncopated rhythm (influenced by ragtime), Strayhorn’s distinct musical structure, and his moving lyrics.

Billy Strayhorn singing his own masterpiece “Lush Life” live in 1964.

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