• Robert Birnbaum

Lush Life or Melancholia...

Billy Strayhorn (photo credit: TK)

Looking back (which one is impelled to do frequently in this dark, upside-down world), I am pleased that I adopted a deep, unexamined appreciation for music at a young age. An awareness that has carried forth through the years and from my current vantage point allows me to appreciate that I have come through it all with a fairly full range of emotions, Joyfully, not succumbing to the soul-deadening forces of late stage capitalism. I am still reviewing the things that have influenced my musical diet — high school, protest years. hippiness and hipsterism, night clubs, bar rooms and dance halls, traveling and all manner of serendipities. These days when I listen to a piece of music I can’t help but frame that audition against a wider context—isn’t memory a grand thing?

John Coltrane, Johnny Hartmann and Elvin Jones (Photo: Joe Alper)

One piece of music that has continued to both fascinate me and evoke strong emotions is the 1963 collaboration of legendary saxophonist John Coltrane and shamefully unheralded baritone ,Johnny Hartmann on a short recording session (John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, 6 songs in 31 minutes) that included one of the saddest , most melancholic readings of Billy Strayhorn's singular composition, Lush Life.

LUSH LIFE by Billy Strayhorn

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

The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces With distingué traces That used to be there You could see where they'd been washed away By too many through the day

Then you came along with your siren song To tempt me to madness I thought for awhile that your poignant smile Was tinged with a sadness Of a great love for me 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 A troughful of hearts could only be a bore

A week in Paris Will ease the bite of it All I care is To smile, in spite of it

I'll forget you, I will While yet you are still Burning inside my brain

Romance is mush Stifling those who strive I'll live a lush life In some small dive...

And there I'll be While I rot with the rest Of those whose lives are lonely too...

Here's a later recording by Hartmann

Another iteration with Hartmann talking about the recording with Coltrane

And here is the original recording:

A number of things stand out about this musical moment. Its a testament to Hartmann that Coltrane only ever recorded with one vocalist and Hartmann made the most of it. Also, this magnificently melancholic song was written by (started when he was 16) 19 year old gay black boy from Pittsburgh who went on to form a lifelong, fruitful collaboration with Duke Ellington. I have only read a few biographies of musicians but David Hajdu's Lush Life, is a stellar and thoughtful account of Strayhorn complicated life. I interviewed Hajdu when the book came out in ???:

RB: How do you explain someone like Strayhorn ? After having done what appears to be prodigious research, poor family, abusive father, hard working mother, three brothers and two sisters that lived . . .

DH: It’s not easy for me to do it in a sentence or two and I pretty carefully avoided the easy reductive interpretation; I don’t see him as a victim, I don’t see him as purely a hero, I don’t see his relationship with duke Ellington as a father/son relationship or any other sort of quick, easy thing. It’s much more complicated, he’s a complex figure so I hope I did justice to the complexity of his life and the complexity of his character. In the book, for the purposes of shorthand, I see him as a kind of hero above all, a man who made a decision that was almost unfathomable to us at this point of view. To put it this way, a person who had an extraordinary gift, clearly a gift of almost incomprehensible scale - I mean he was able to write majestic, brilliant music as a kid. Given a gift and then encumbered from using that gift for several reasons, two beyond his control, one of his own making: 1) he’s black at a time when that’s pretty rough, 2) gay at a time that makes things infinitely rougher, and then he compounded it all by deciding to not hide/disguise his homosexuality. He brought his companions to recording sessions, when he was invited to the Ellington orchestra with their wives he would bring his roommate, he’d say come to “our” house and the two of them would serve dinner in turn, he made no effort whatsoever to pretend that he was anything other than gay, he’s never known to have dated a woman or have used a woman as a beard or to even talk about women in a way that was commonplace for gay men to shield their sexual orientation, to insulate themselves from public attack. He never did it. So there were three layers of challenges. So I see that decision as kind of heroic, a sacrifice – I didn’t say any of these things in the book because I was trying to demonstrate things rather than state them . . .

Recently (more or less) I came across a song that seems to hold a fascination akin to what the Hartmann/Coltrane Lush Life rendition evoked. Greg Porter's Take Me to the Alley is a paen to

"the lonely and afflicted ones that have lost their way". Something about this song which I have not yet been able to articulate puts me on the verge of tears...

Take Me To The Alley

Well, they gild their houses in preparation for the King and they line the sidewalks with every sort of shiny thing they will be surprised when they hear him say

Take me to the alley take me to the afflicted ones take me to the lonely ones that somehow lost their ways let them hear me say I am your friend come to my table rest here in my garden you will have a pardon take me to the alley take me to the afflicted ones take me to the lonely ones that somehow lost their ways let me hear me say I am your friend come to my table rest here in my garden you will have a pardon they will be surprised when the hear him say

Take me the alley take me to the afflicted ones take me to the lonely ones that somehow lost their ways let them hear me say I am your friend come to my table rest here in my garden you will have a pardon you will have a pardon Take me to the alley take me to the afflicted ones take me, take me, take me...


Quickie course in the life of the nonpareil Billy Strayhorn

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