I spent the night in bed with Billy Strayhorn

I was awake ALL night until about 4:30 am. It wasa combination of not adjusting to the time change here in Sweden, a little loneliness (I miss Glen!) and a new way of reading non-fiction. I blame Billy Strayhorn and the Internet.

I have been very slowly consuming a biography about Billy Strayhorn, the American composer who worked with Duke Ellington and his bands and created some of the best music of the 20th Century (Take the A Train, Lush Life, Chelsea Bridge, Such Sweet Thunder, and much much more.) Black, homosexual (gay was not in vogue yet) and very open about it in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, Strayhorn lived the life he dreamed of growing up poor in Pittsburg.

It has taken so long to move through the book because every time I read a reference to a song, a singer, a film score, an event, I then close the book and take a dive into YouTube or Wikipedia or Google images to experience the reference for myself. I was up half the night listening to the South African jazz singer Sathima Bea Benjamin. She did a session with Duke Ellington in Paris. Billy Strayhorn played the piano (so gentle and smooth) and the Danish jazz violinist Svend Asmussen plucked the strings throughout. Ellington and Strayhorn liked the sound of the violin that way and insisted on this method for most of the album. I listened to “I’m Glad There is You” over and over and smiled as I thought of my own South African, Glen Retief. Take a listen. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pVzWZ7ZkOuQ&feature=youtube_gdata_player

As a result, I have been soaking in Strayhorn, awash in his music, listening to multiple versions by various singers and musicians. I have stepped into another world that goes beyond facts and history enters into feeling and art. The book, Lush Life by David Hajdu is pretty straight forward and not particularly artful in its structure or language. It serves as a more than adequate telling of a life, and provides enough references to get me scurrying to other sources for added depth. Perhaps that was Hajdu’s intention, to lure his readers into discovering more for themselves. If so, he has succeeded and I feel the richer for it.


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