Billy Strayhorn is one of those jazz cats who lives in the shadows — if you like to poke around in those corners, you are, no doubt, aware of the composer, arranger, and pianist. But if his name registers a blank, trust me, you still know his songs; “Take The A Train,“ “Chelsea Bridge,” and “Lush Life” are just a few of his contributions. That they came in the undeniably giant shadow of Duke Ellington, of course, only further obfuscates his genius.
In Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life, his life story comes, to paraphrase one of Duke’s great albums, to the foreground. Illustrated histories have become quite popular, and for good reason. While not as deep as traditional biographies, they are perhaps wider; they are a bit like the CD box set that can satisfy aficionados and newcomers alike. Strayhorn’s story is fascinating and the book is beautifully designed and thoughtfully laid out. The main musical story is told by Strayhorn’s niece, (who is also in charge of his musical legacy), and a second, dealing with Strayhorn’s life as an openly gay, black man in the ‘40s, is told by a Strayhorn scholar. Those longer texts are broken up by recurring features, such as “Perspectives” from friends and musicians recounted by biographer David Hadju, and “Vignettes,” collected from the director of an award-winning film on Strayhorn’s life for PBS Television. And finally, my favorite parts are the liner notes by another noted Strayhorn author — with “Recommended Recordings” for each of the songs — and many of the original music scores composed and notated in the composer’s handwriting. The whole treasure trove kicks off with a foreword by jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis.
Much like his best compositions, Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life is a singular piece of work that the reader can return to again and again, stopping where he or she wants to simply revel in Billy Strayhorn, his life and his art, and learn something new. And books like Strayhorn are the reason the printed book will continue to hold an advantage over e-readers, much like vinyl has remained relevant. Lingering over things as beautiful as this book is a joy, and I would guess, where once sat books on the works of Picasso, Dali or Monet, look for Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life on the coffee-tables of jazz connoisseurs, hipsters and book lovers near you.
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