A week in Paris will ease the bite of it...
May 11, 2009 11:44 PM   Subscribe

Though written in the 1930s, it was not until Nat "King" Cole recorded it in 1949 that it became well known: Lush Life is Billy Strayhorn's signature song (well, one of his signature songs). A haunting ballad with surprisingly dark lyrics, its definitive treatment is probably the famous 1963 recording by Johnny Hartman & John Coltrane (Hartman sang it again for TV in 1983), but it has been done countless times by many artists: by pianists Phineas Newborn, Jr. and Oscar Peterson; by saxophonists Joe Henderson and Stan Getz; even by Linda Ronstadt and Queen Latifah.
posted by ornate insect (21 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Ah, yes. A song with no dominant.

While it is indeed in Db, there is no movement from an eb to Ab--wait--I know it's in the song--bear with me--It's tension lies in strict modality.

The rubato beginning:

The Db to Cb (yes, that's the enharmonic approach) is a straight up parallel chord movement you would see much later in the piano works of Tyner and Guaraldi.

The root ascension during the "relaxes on the axis of the wheel" is W-W-H while the third ascension is H-W-W: culminating on--get this--"Wheel" is on a B natural despite the fact the chord is an Ab7 (a fifth above but not the dominant, remember) THOUGH THE CHORD IS NOT AN Abmi b9! Where did that B come from?!

It doesn't end there: The following chord (a D 13 #11) fills the same role as a Neopolitan 6th (a major chord built on the flat two) but takes a turn for the iii (f mi), V(tritone subbed to the flat two: D9), then home on "cocktails."

I could keep on going, but then there's the whole Fmi, Fmi6, Fmi (dom) which will make you want to play bass thusly: F, C, D, Eb.

Christ, this song has kicked my ass ever since my first gig. Give me "A Train" any day.
posted by sourwookie at 12:22 AM on May 12, 2009 [4 favorites]

For thos paying attention:

When I wrote "eb to Ab" I was referring the movement fron ii to I in the key of Db.
posted by sourwookie at 12:24 AM on May 12, 2009

Some back-story on the song (from the first link):

Strayhorn was born in 1915, and fell in love with classical music before developing a fascination with jazz. Growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Pittsburgh, he dreamed of a more cultured and cosmopolitan way of life. He was only 16 when he began to write "Lush Life," which he first called "Life Is Lonely" — and which we now know as "Lush Life."

In fact, the words Strayhorn wrote as a teenager predicted the life he did eventually lead. He did become a socialite, he did make it to France. And he did become an alcoholic.

The song's lyric reveals both poetry and a maturity that's surprising coming from a teenager. It also seems to suggest another significant side to Strayhorn's identity: his sexual orientation.

[Singer, Andy] Bey quotes the first line of the song — "I used to visit all the very gay places..." — and adds, "Who knows? He might have been thinking about the gay bars, but I think it was something broader than that, because he was too broad of a person. I see it as places that are happy and carefree and gay."

As his biographer David Hajdu wrote, Strayhorn was a minority three times over — African-American, gay and open about his homosexuality. His offstage role in Ellington's band made it possible to avoid the public spotlight.

posted by ornate insect at 12:27 AM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Aaargh! I meant ii to V.

posted by sourwookie at 12:27 AM on May 12, 2009

Thank you Ornate, for the info about a song I only knew on the clinical level.
posted by sourwookie at 12:29 AM on May 12, 2009

oh. the b nat is just the third for Ab min. so obvious.

i'm going to cringe in a corner now.
posted by sourwookie at 12:32 AM on May 12, 2009

i'm going to cringe in a corner now.

Feh, you got there in the end.

The Hartman/Coltrane recording is not really my thing, but it is pretty much supreme in its fairly limited slot. On the other hand, the Ellington/Coltrane collaboration is out of this world, and has the added bonus of illustrating Duke's absolute piano genius in a small combo.
posted by Wolof at 12:58 AM on May 12, 2009

sourwookie: don't cringe. You're right; it's a crazy-ass song that tends to whip ya. I've always been amazed at how I tend to fall into its vortex whenever I try to solo it.

Thanks, ornate insect. This has always been an incredible song. And I think it's worthwhile to note yet another dimension of that marvelous and brilliant (and intentionally underappreciated) songwriter that was Billy Strayhorn: that he, an open homosexual, was such a close, dear, and public friend of a very straight man like Duke Ellington; and, while I'm always reticent to let Duke steal the thunder from Billy, I think it's pretty damned decent and gallant of him, and of them both, to live as friends like they did. Nowadays, when it seems like straight guys are invariably and ineluctably threatened by proximity to gayness, it's refreshing to think of these pioneers who stood for friendship between orientations as something that didn't have to be afraid.
posted by koeselitz at 1:10 AM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Popping in to recommend David Hajdu's superb biography of Billy Stayhorn, (Amazon link) entitled Lush Life. I just had occasion to read it. One of the best biographies of a jazz musician I've ever read.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:23 AM on May 12, 2009

Gorgeous and unique tune.
S. Wookie: I never noticed that there was no dominant before. The music has a mood that matches the lyric, a languorous, boozy ennui. I bet the lack of a full cadence plays a part in this.

Tangential note: I bought Captain Marvel last week which includes a version of Lush Life. Getz recorded it in '72 with Chick Corea and the not-quite Return to Forever -- an interesting and surprisingly fruitful collaboration.
posted by Jode at 4:26 AM on May 12, 2009

Nthing the Hajdu bio. It's excellent. Thanks for the post!
posted by trip and a half at 5:23 AM on May 12, 2009

I ran across a good video biography of Strayhorn a couple of years ago on TV.
posted by exogenous at 5:38 AM on May 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

Lush Life
posted by Xurando at 5:52 AM on May 12, 2009

Chris Connor's version of it whups me. Not that it changes anything when sung by a woman, but the tragicness of the song has always stopped me in my tracks.

Thanks for the post.
posted by ashbury at 7:05 AM on May 12, 2009

I've always loved the song and, in equal measure, wished Strayhorn had somehow come up with a better rhyme than "now life is awful again/a trough full of hearts..." I cringe every time.
posted by argybarg at 7:18 AM on May 12, 2009

I've always loved the song and, in equal measure, wished Strayhorn had somehow come up with a better rhyme than "now life is awful again/a trough full of hearts..."

I don't know, I kind of like that couplet -- certainly no more awkward than any of Cole Porter's clumsier lyrics.
posted by blucevalo at 7:39 AM on May 12, 2009

this song has blown me away since I was a little kid for two reasons:

1. It's just a flat out incredible song.

2. When Nat King Cole sings "for jazz and cocktails," I have come in recent years to associate it with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog saying "for me to poop on." I don't know why. Despite this being both funny and annoying to me, it has still not dampened the impact of the song, nor my love for it.
posted by shmegegge at 8:26 AM on May 12, 2009

Thanks for this post - I just finished the Richard Price (he wrote for The Wire) novel Lush Life, which parallels the narrative of the song. Plus a few other plot points, like murder.
posted by taliaferro at 8:35 AM on May 12, 2009

It's noon. Anyone care to join me in a twelve o'clocktail?
posted by Jode at 9:06 AM on May 12, 2009

Popping in to recommend David Hajdu's superb biography of Billy Stayhorn, (Amazon link)

No harm in having the link twice, but see the second link of the FPP.
posted by ornate insect at 10:16 AM on May 12, 2009

There should be a Metafilter offshoot, akin to SportsFilter, called MusicTheoryFilter.
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:22 PM on May 12, 2009

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