In a recent edition of the New York Times, Sam Roberts reviewed several coffee table-sized books on the city, and he could have added Strayhorn—An Illustrated Life. Billy Strayhorn, the great composer and pianist, was inextricably linked to New York City, if no more for his composition “Take the A Train.” His inclusion in the review would also have been timely since Nov. 29 marked Strayhorn’s centennial birthdate.
Strayhorn—An Illustrated Life (Bolden, an Agate Imprint, Chicago, 2015) is just that with a photo, graphic or piece of music commanding each of the nearly 200 pages. Pianist Ramsey Lewis authors a Foreword and the book is edited by A. Alyce Claerbaut and David Schlesinger. An engaging line appears in the book’s Introduction, possibly written by the editors, that cites Strayhorn as an “unsung hero,” and then notes the extent to which his songs have been sung.
And sung they have! Some of us are old enough to remember the first time Duke Ellington’s band recorded “Take the A Train,” and for a long time thought it was written by Duke. But as Ellington corrected on many occasions, Strayhorn was the composer. Moreover, Ellington said that “Sweet Pea,” as he was affectionately called by intimates, was his “right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in back of my head, my brainwaves in his head, and his in mine.”
They were, in effect, joined at the spine and at the spinet where they composed hundreds of songs, with few indicators of where one started and the other begin. Theirs was a collaboration without borders, a co-dependency that gives the American songbook a unique elegance.
The book charts Strayhorn’s remarkably creative life from his early years in Dayton, Ohio, to his travels abroad, and to his long stay in Harlem. It’s not clear where his musical genius came from, but by the time he was a teenager he was already composing tunes that are now considered evergreens, including “Lush Life,” first recorded in 1949 by Nat “King” Cole. “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,” are the tune’s opening lines. That a teenager could have written such sophisticated lyrics continues to astound musicologists.
But “Lush Life” is just one of countless songs that poured from Strayhorn’s endless fount of creativity. The book follows his odyssey in great detail with insightful commentary from such authorities as David Hadju, Clark Terry, Nancy Wilson, Herb Jeffries, Terrell Stafford, and Lena Horne, whose presence graces several pages standing beside Strayhorn.
Yes, Strayhorn homosexuality is given thoughtful coverage without too much probing its connection to his artistic output. The book is mainly about the man’s music, not his escapades. For that there are several other books you might want to digest.
Meanwhile, feast on this sumptuous chronicle, and it might be helpful, if you’re so inclined and endowed, to download some of Strayhorn’s music or slip one of those CDs in the player, particularly if you’ve got renditions of “Day Dream,” “Chelsea Bridge” or “Something to Live For.” Oldsters will be transported back to a place call reverie, newcomers will get a taste of musical timelessness.