Billy Strayhorn was born 99 years ago today. He wrote the music and the wan, world-weary lyric of “Lush Life” when he was a sixteen-year-old in his native Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Having arranged to meet Duke Ellington backstage at a concert when he was in his early twenties, he demonstrated the song and others he had written. Impressed, Ellington said that he would send for Strayhorn. Before long, he called the young man to New York and launched a collaborative partnership that further enriched Ellington’s music. Among other contributions, Strayhorn wrote the band’s theme, “Take The ‘A’ Train.”
He stayed mostly behind the scenes, but Strayhorn was an indispensable part of the Ellington band until his death in 1967. His compositions and arrangements were woven into the band’s personality to such a degree that it is not always possible to distinguish between his contributions and Ellington’s. That seems to have been how they both wanted it.
Strayhorn never arranged “Lush Life” for Ellington, and it never entered the band’s repertoire. Now and then, however, Ellington asked his friend and protégé to play it, as he did at a 1948 Carnegie Hall concert. There is a recording of that occasion. Strayhorn accompanied the band’s vocalist, Kay Davis. Introducing “Lush Life,” Ellington calls it a new tune, even though he surely knew that Strayhorn wrote it when he was in high school.
Other Ellington Carnegie Hall concerts are widely available on CD. The one from 1948 is rare but still available.
Now, here’s Strayhorn, a skilled pianist, called on stage by Ellington to play one of the most famous of all big band themes.
Shortly after Strayhorn died, Ellington took his band into the studio to pay tribute in an album of Strayhorn compositions and arrangements. The pieces include “Lotus Blossom,” “Rain Check,” “Day-dream” and “My Little Brown Book.” “Blood Count,” written as Strayhorn was dying, features an impassioned Johnny Hodges solo that speaks of the sorrow Ellington and the band felt at the loss of their friend. The indispensable …And His Mother Called Him Bill is a highlight in Ellington’s massive body of recordings