Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” is one of my very favorite songs. Melancholy and haunting, full of experience and regret and a kind of upbeat sadness. Or, if not upbeat, at least still standing. Plus when’s the last time you heard a song that had a line like “Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life, to get the feel of life.” Or like “the girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces.” This is, like, Dylan shit. Thirty years before Dylan.
Strayhorn wrote “Lush Life” in the mid to late thirties, when he himself was in his teens and before he even met Duke Ellington. He was a prodigy, a gifted pianist, arranger, and lyricist. The songs I wrote in my teens were so bad that I’d trade any one line from “Lush Life” for all of them. Originally entitled “Life is Lonley,” the song evokes a story of a lost love and how the loss taints the life of after. Our narrator would like to think that a week in Paris could make him feel better, but all he really wants to do is keep smiling. So dispirited is he that he claims that “romance is mush, stifling those who strive” and then goes on, almost condemning himself to live a life in dives, bereft among those who are lonely too. Not bitter so much as tired and defeated.
But the song also has a wink inside of it. After he’s had his heart broken and realizes that this love is not what he thought, he says “ah, yes, I was wrong. Again, I was wrong.” The word Again is important here, for his pain is not a young love pain, not a first time pummeling, the likes of which we’ve all been leveled by. No, this is something more tinged with the weight of experience, of a man who’s learned to numb his pain with a little bit of brown death, along side the rest of the chumps.
Let’s not forget the song’s tone and feel, which begins brisk and bright, then mirrors the lyrics as they progress to something slower, more somber. Almost soaking up the suffering.
What’s great about this song, and with so many jazz standards, is the way it bears up under varied interpretation.
I’d always thought that Coltrane and Hartman’s version of “Lush Life” from their 1963 album John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman was the only version a guy would ever need to keep him company. And, in many ways that’s true. It’s the definitive version for a reason, and will always be my go to. Re-live the magic here:
But, my good friend the Internet offered some fine alternatives as well, including this odd gem, Strayhorn himself singing and playing the song:
Or this stripped down version, a duo between Joe Pass and Ella Fitzgerald, who also recorded the song with Duke Ellington.
Here’s a version that’s very reminiscent of the Coltrane/Hartman version from Kurt Elling’s tribute to the duo’s well known album:
Here’s an oddity–a “re-mixed” version of Nat King Cole’s rendition, souped up with a dance beat and crystalline synth dew drops. I’m not even sure what to say about it, really.
Even odder, almost, is this obscure version of Linda Ronstadt doing the song. Hey, at least she’s with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra.
For sheer beauty, it’s hard to match this instrumental version by Stan Getz at the North Sea Jazz Festival:
With each listen, the song grows in depth, beauty, and complexity and each version offers a little something different. Strayhorn was a genius, somewhat unsung outside of jazz circles, and over the years his output has been homogenized down a small handful of contributions, mostly to “Lush Life” and “Take the A Train,” which, hey, if you’re going to get boiled down to two songs, you could do a lot worse.
“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 distingue traces that used to be there
You could see where they’d been washed away
By too many through the day, twelve o’clock tales
Then you came along with your siren song
To tempt me to madness
I thought for awhile that your poignant smile
Was tinged with the 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 trough full of hearts could only be a bore
A week in Paris could 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
So 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