Megan Harlan
June 14, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn

Current Status
In Season
David Hajdu
Music, Biography

We gave it an A

Duke Ellington’s legendary status is due, in part, to Billy Strayhorn. A black, openly gay jazzman in the ’40s and ’50s, Strayhorn was an arranger and composer for Ellington; his role behind the scenes shielded him from public scrutiny — but also rendered his contributions anonymous. After a decade of research, Ellington scholar (and EW general editor) David Hajdu has rewritten jazz history by establishing exactly what Strayhorn wrote. (For example, he was cocomposer of the landmark musical Beggar’s Holiday.) Hajdu also captures the collaborative understanding between the two (”They wouldn’t even exchange a word. They’d just look into each other’s eyes, and Billy would go out and write what Duke wanted”). Strayhorn’s mild, sophisticated demeanor belied his devastating alcoholism, and Hajdu vividly portrays his ”lush life” in Manhattan — as well as its tragic toll. Released simultaneously with a record anthology of Strayhorn’s work, the trenchant Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn should resurrect an overlooked jazz great. A

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