Billy Strayhorn

I’m jumping the jazz queue for this month; with Pride coming at the end of June I thought I would look at some gay music icons. In jazz there are fewer than one would expect, other than divas like Bessie Smith.

bury what’s been hid

On my shelf is ‘Lush Life’ a collection of Billy Strayhorn performances – solo, combo & with Ellington. He was an out gay man all his adult life – David Hajdu’s biography, also called ‘Lush Life’ goes into great detail about Billy’s career, accomplishments & his out life. Read it.

He was Ellington’s arranger, composer & co-composer for too many songs to list. It’s like seeing how much Cole Porter wrote. Amazing. Take the ‘A’ Train & Satan Doll – two of the better known.

reflection Danforth reflections

But he rarely took the spotlight. It’s not clear why not in the biography – perhaps being queer in private life was fine but being so & on stage at the same time wasn’t possible. He developed drinking and drug problems – standard for the frustrated.

The music is polished, full bodied and varied. He sings a few songs on this CD and has a good jazz voice – a bit like Chet Baker. His piano playing is superb. His lyrics are pointed, sometimes sad, and reflect his frustrations.

glass not even half full

Lush Life being a prime example: it starts: ‘I used to visit all the very gay places/Those come what may places’ and ends ‘Romance is mush/ Stifling those who strive./ 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.’ Alcoholism killed him.




a song


notes float

hover in the air

a voice

perhaps a voice

I don’t listen that closely sometimes

nor do I care

listening is transport

to another place and time

without movement

without language


a song

voices merge   separate

violins twine cautious   then fully

power throb of choke hold that slackens


another note

another coin hovers

a flute


they join with the violins

the deep brass of coronets

also joins

a race

run around a melody

stomp it

hide it


speak it

plain simple

a single plucked


reverberates with melody




not too long

as I sit   listen

my heart beats in the hush

rapid with expectation

the large rush

several all whole


how large is that orchestra

how can it fit in my little speaker

how can it be contained by my ears


another listening

another day

another hour to sit

guitars pile metallic gratings around me

drums scatter around my eyes

move so quickly

the ears can barely follow them

to sort them out from the rapid flame guitar

cannot separate them from the voice

the soft gentle silky voice

the rough gravel voice

the several voices

all voice

in all songs

do the same thing

they merge   submerge

dance around destroy displace

replace enhance melody

the linger flicker of notes

take the strings of the heart

the voice of the heart

that flow follow through

a tease becomes sooth anger



slabs of guitar

scour the air

weld the steel of strings

to the windows

fill the corner

as full as full can be

stir memory

promising so much more

then over




hushed again

waiting for something to follow

sit in the comfortable chair

hear the melody

written before I was born

recorded before I was born

words before I could speak

a sound that speaks to me

to people I will never meet

people with better things to do

people who hear but don’t listen

people who deny this moment

this sound

this joy


another song wait

it doesn’t exist till I hear it

till it merges with my life

with my moments of

being the one to hear

the one to command

to relax   slip

into where it will take me


I give the music permission

to move me

touch me

take me

where no human can or will

I surrender to what I don’t understand

why that melody reaches out to me

why that guitar

why that voice

why that violin

why those chords

no tongue can describe

tree02 winter sky