I recently finished watching Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life, a documentary by Robert Levi about the composer’s life that a friend recorded for me (thanks Peter!). “Lush Life” was not only the name of one of his most enduring masterpieces, but it also alluded to his one weakness. He really enjoyed his cocktails—perhaps a little too much.
I learned that “Lush Life” was composed when Strayhorn was only 16. The lyric certainly belies his age, as it is written from the perspective of a much older person and is imbued more with despair than youthful hopefulness. It’s very sophisticated musically as well, and is one of the few tunes from the standards repertoire where the verse is always played.
I admired “Lush Life” for many years and was well aware of Strayhorn’s long collaboration with Duke Ellington and his enormous contribution to Duke’s fame. Two of Ellington’s most famous tunes, “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Satin Doll,” were written by Strayhorn. It was another song, however, that really elevated Billy Strayhorn into one of my favorite composers. The tune is “Lotus Blossom.” I first heard it about 10 years ago on a trip to San Francisco to visit a friend. My friend had a new CD by the pianist Fred Hersch called “Passion Flower,” which was a tribute to Strayhorn. It included “Lotus Blossom,” which was new to me. It’s not an obscure song at all (there are at least 50 versions of it on iTunes), but I had never heard it before. The feelings it evokes are complex, an introspective sophistication tinged with sadness. It was a perfect soundtrack for gazing down on San Francisco bay from his condo in the hills.
Levi must have been impressed by “Lotus Blossom,” too, because he saved it for the end of the film summing up Strayhorn’s career. Composer Don Shirley said, “Of all the things that Billy wrote, ‘Lotus Blossom’ was such an enigma for Duke. Duke died never being able to figure out how Billy wrote ‘Lotus Blossom.’ It got to a point that I began to realize that it bothered him—in the good sense—trying to figure How did he do that? It's that kind of thing. But Billy had that kind of genius.” It is a remarkable song.