Someone should write a blues for the lonely offline souls suddenly bereft of all access, thwarted by codes, passwords, various unknowns. One minute you have the lyrics to Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” at your fingertips, next thing you know all the song’s “very gay places, those come what may places” have been denied you, and if you can’t get on “the wheel of life,” how can you get “the feel of life” when the lines are down? If you want to bounce some ideas off a friend in the U.K. at 3 in the morning — he’s not there. If you want to find when “Lush Life” was first recorded and by whom, you can’t. Above all, if you want to get your train of thought moving toward the subject of Duke Ellington, whose birthday is today, and Billy Strayhorn, whose centenary is 2015, the wheels are locked, you’re grounded, shut down, the column grinds to a halt — until the light-bulb of a simple truth goes on in some cobwebbed corner of the brain and a little voice says, “Try unplugging it, stupid.” And so you do, and when you plug it back in, your train is moving and the world is yours again.
Sinatra Gave Up
Back online you can choose to enjoy any one of a dozen renditions of “Lush Life.” If you want someone here and now, like Lady Gaga, she’s yours, instantly, or you can have Linda Ronstadt or Nat King Cole and his daughter Natalie or maybe you prefer Billy Eckstein or John Coltrane with or without Johnny Hartman, or, at last, Strayhorn’s own naked voicing of a composition that has been said to contain “the entire jazz project.”
Songfacts.com says that while there are over 500 covers of “Lush Life,” there’s nothing from the man born to sing it, Frank Sinatra.
Which brings into play an example of the resources abounding online — should you want to make sure that Sinatra never actually did put the song on final vinyl, all it takes is a little looking and you can hear what happened in the studio the day he threw in the towel (go to bigozine2./Sinatra studio outtakes). Says Sinatra’s arranger Nelson Riddle of the 1958 session, “It’s a rather complicated song, and I think Frank would have been momentarily put off by all the changes that had to go on. Not that he couldn’t have sung it with ease and beautifully had he tried a couple of more times.” It’s too bad, for sure, because there’s enough bold and beautiful singing in these three and a half minutes to suggest that this was exactly the sort of material made for the classic “wee small hours, set ‘em up Joe” incarnation of Sinatra. You can hear him finding it, making love to it, almost living it, only to lose faith when he gets to the heart of the matter, the long-delayed descent to the melody, where he falters, loses patience (“it’s tough enough the way it is”), makes fun of his failure, then kisses it off, shouting “Put it aside for about a year!” as if the song and not the singer had somehow come up short. Stranger still, of all the music Strayhorn brought to Ellington over the years, from “Take the ‘A’ Train” on, “Lush Life” never found a place in the repertoire.
My next online adventure, courtesy of YouTube, is “The Mystery Song,” recorded by Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club Orchestra in Camden, N.J., June 17, 1931. As soon as I keyboard the title, I’m head down in a vintage Orthophonic Victrola, close enough to kiss the ornate black Victor label on the original 78 with the image of the dog bending an ear to the gramophone. Meanwhile a disembodied hand appears on the right side of the iMac screen, hits a switch to set the platter spinning and down I go again, deep in a delirium of spinning shellac on the cloudy-shiny lustrous blackness wherein lies every crackling, clicking, hissing, imperfectly perfect second of otherwordly Ellingtonian rapture. You could say the sounds are dated, as in a dream of Harlem played by a ghostly orchestra, yet the strains of the main theme could serve as well as Nino Rota’s Via-Veneto night music for the world weary crowd caught on the “axis of the wheel of life “in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.
Who else on or offline can create word-pictures to compare with the Duke’s? Who else would Samuel Taylor Coleridge turn to were he looking to set “Kubla Khan” or the “Ancient Mariner” to music? An absurd idea, of course, as though something as unimaginable as the internet were available to S.T.C. in his Nether Stowey lime-tree bower in 1798, but say it had been, he’d have called up Ellington’s “East St Louis Toodle-oo” from 1927, where the medium for the Mariner’s halting, hypnotic tale is Bubber Miley and his growling prowling curses and cadenzas, while swirling all around “the greybeard loon” is the sound of swooning seamen and seasick listeners, as in a drugged-out Harlem seance. And for “woman wailing for her demon lover” S.T.C. would have conjured Johnny Hodges and Strayhorn to score the opium backstory of the greatest poem never written.
Channeling M.H. Abrams
All these allusions to the Romantic-period are a way of paying homage to the Norton Anthology of English Literature and its scholar editor M.H. Abrams, who died last week at 102. If this column were worthy, it would be dedicated to his memory.
I still have my road-worn, lived-in copy of the great book, and turning to the Coleridge pages at random, I see immediate intimations of Strayhorn in “A little child, a limber elf,/Singing, dancing to itself,/A fairy thing with red round cheeks,/That always finds and never seeks.” And then I come to the “numberless goings-on of life,/Inaudible as dreams” in “Frost at Midnight” where “the thin blue flame/Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not …/the sole unquiet thing” whose “motion in this hush of nature/Gives it dim sympathies …/Making it a companionable form.” My intention, by the way, is not to coyly reference Strayhorn’s homosexuality but to see him as Ellington did in naming him Sweet Pea after Popeye’s infant, and to get the sense of dim companionable sympathies projected by moody ballads like “Lush Life,” “Chelsea Bridge,” and “Prelude to a Kiss.”
Now turn two Norton pages farther to “Dejection: An Ode” before or after listening to Ellington numbers like “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Harlem Air-Shaft” and “Memlick: The Lion of Judah,” and you find “viper thoughts, that coil round my mind,/Reality’s dark dream” and “the wind/Which long has raved unnoticed./What a scream/Of agony by torture lengthened out/That lute sent forth” and “Mad lutanist! …/Thou actor, perfect in all tragic sounds!/Thou mighty poet, e’en to frenzy bold!/… But hush! there is a pause of deepest silence!/And all that noise, as of a rushing crowd/With groans and tremulous shudderings — all is over ….”
“Dejection” evolved from a letter to the love of Coleridge’s life, Sara Hutchinson, written from the ruins of his marriage, where the quarrels were surely the equal of the domestic brawls being played out in “Harlem Air-Shaft,” and of course the down-to-the dives descent of Lush Life”: “Ah yes! I was wrong/Again,/I was wrong” and “Life is lonely again/… I’ll forget you, I will/While yet you are still burning inside my brain.”
Strayhorn and Shakespeare
If the association of Ellington and English literature seems a stretch, it should be remembered that Shakespeare was the subject of one of the most ambitious of the Ellington-Strayhorn collaborations, Such Sweet Thunder, the title taken from Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream: “I never heard so musical a discord, such sweet thunder.” After pointing out a discord in one of his compositions, Ellington said, “That’s the Negro’s life …. Dissonance is our way of life in America.”
In an NPR interview about Such Sweet Thunder, jazz critic A.B. Spellman described the 12-part suite based on the plays and sonnets as “one of the most remarkable orchestral pieces in all of American music,” in which Ellington and Strayhorn “gave great attention to the material of Shakespeare and tried to make pictures that would take you into the mood.” As for Strayhorn’s acquaintance with the Bard, Spellman says he “was deep into Shakespeare” and “could quote whole sections of plays” and “vast numbers of sonnets from memory, at the drop of a hat” while understanding it all “very, very well.”
Strays as Ariel
There are some choice insights about Ellington and Strayhorn in Clark, the 2011 memoir by the late Clark Terry, that most Puckish of players, who, no surprise, was Ellington’s choice to “play” Puck in Such Sweet Thunder. “Talked through my horn,” as Terry puts it. “A way of speaking and playing at the same time.” Duke, he recalls, “was also a great poet” who “used a lot of unusually creative language.” One tune Terry “loved” to hear Ellington announce was Strayhorn’s “Passion Flower,” the way Duke said, “A passion flower is one that is more enjoyed than discussed.”
The free flights of Strayhorn cited in Terry’s book suggest that if anyone was the Puck to Ellington’s Oberon, or the Ariel to his Prospero, it was Strayhorn: “Strays was a man who lived the most unique life style …. He had no bills: no hotel bills, no apartment bills, no food bills, no clothes or tax bills. No nothing. He didn’t have a salary either. He just signed a tab. Duke paid for everything.”
If Strays “decided that he wanted to go to Paris and have breakfast, he’d just get on a plane — fly to Paris and have breakfast and come back …. And Duke paid for it all. It was as though their partnership was made in heaven. Although they rarely communicated directly on the bandstand or in the studio, they understood each other. Like they could read each other’s minds.”
So assuming you’re online, or within reach of the magic, as I thankfully am, you can see Ellington and Strayhorn in person, when Duke presents his alter ego for the evening’s encore, surrendering the piano and the spotlight to the bespectacled, studious-looking, casually attired man (in contrast to members of the band), who plays a strong, studious solo on “Take the A-Train,” the song that was his first and greatest gift to his Prospero.
At the end, Ellington coaxes applause with a waving motion as he declaims Strayhorn’s name one, two, three times and after it the names of some of his gifts, “Take the A Train! Passion Flower! Chelsea Bridge!”