I am, of course, referring to the inimitable Billy Strayhorn, composer of one of the greatest songs of the twentieth century, “Lush Life.” To hear this music once is to never forget it.
He started writing it in his teens and finished the piece at 21. This seems impossible, but that’s how genius works – mysterious and unknowable. Other than my capacity for empathy and innate understanding of art seen through the lens of human experience, I have no way to know what it was like to be gifted, black, and gay in the mid-twentieth Century. I just know that the first time I heard this piece my whole world suddenly seemed to expand. I couldn’t really understand it and yet somehow I did – this was part of the genius of Billy Strayhorn.
This song has been recorded by many artists, but for me, the definitive version is the one recorded in 1963 by Johnny Hartman with the the John Coltrane Quartet.
The wistful sadness of glimpsing a life that would never be his is heartbreakingly poignant. To express it like this in art as a teenager seems impossible – it is both a tragic meditation on existential loneliness and a celebration of the pain of life at the same time.
Twelve o’clocktails indeed.