He Wrote the Songs: Prolific Gay Composer Billy Strayhorn-Who Penned Music for Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington-Finally Gets His Due in a New Documentary and CD

Article excerpt

The new documentary Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life tells the story of a great love between two men. But it isn't a romance, and only the titular protagonist is gay.

Billy Strayhorn wrote or cowrote several of the 20th century's greatest jazz and pop songs: "Satin Doll," "Lotus Blossom," "Something to Live For." He penned his masterpiece, "Lush Life," recorded by everyone from Nat King Cole to Rickie Lee Jones, at the age of 16.

These gems have become Strayhorn's legacy. But in his lifetime--which began in Dayton, Ohio, in 1915 and ended in a New York hospital 52 years later--the composer, arranger, and pianist was best known as Duke Ellington's right hand. As Lush Life illuminates, the two enjoyed a complex relationship, which at times hindered Strayhorn from becoming a star in his own right but also permitted him freedom he might otherwise never have enjoyed.

A small man with big appetites (he was rarely seen without a drink and a cigarette) and owlish glasses, Strayhorn boasted skills his employer lacked, including classical training. He imbued his work with a bittersweet, unconventional harmonic sensibility and rhythmic twists that hinted at the innovations of Debussy and Ravel. "Lush Life" is a quintessential saloon song, right up there with "One for My Baby," but it originally proved so daunting to Frank Sinatra that he stormed out of a recording session.

Ellington complemented his protege with showmanship and savvy. The bandleader's fame and popularity generated opportunities for Strayhorn to accomplish great feats even under duress. After a 1940 ASCAP ban forced all of Ellington's original tunes off the radio, Strayhorn and Duke's son, Mercer, had only the duration of a railroad journey to write all new material for the band. Strayhorn cooked up (and almost discarded) "Take the 'A' Train," which quickly became Ellington's signature song.

But until well after his death, Strayhorn often failed to receive accurate billing or credit for his contributions. His name was originally left off "Satin Doll," and it was Ellington alone who got the Grammy for the score of Otto Preminger's movie Anatomy of a Murder, even though Duke spent most of the filming in his hotel while Strayhorn haunted the set and composed underscore.

Because he remained hidden in plain sight, Strayhorn could conduct his personal life, including sharing a brownstone with his partner for many years, under less scrutiny. …