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Lush Life (1949)

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Origin and Chart Information
“I made two records of only versions of Lush Life! Eventually there will be seven records, yeah.”

- Tony Scott

Rank 36
Words and Music Billy Strayhorn

In 1933 a teenage Billy Strayhorn started work on “Lush Life.” He would fine-tune his composition over the next few years and in 1938, at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh, Strayhorn played the piano and sang for Duke Ellington. Ellington’s son, Mercer, would later recall that “Lush Life” and “Something to Live For” were responsible for Ellington hiring Strayhorn in early 1939. It would mark the beginning of their legendary collaboration.


More on Billy Strayhorn at JazzBiographies.com

In 1939 “Lush Life” could boast lyrics but no title. Strayhorn frequently played the song at parties but it was a pet project and was not intended for publication. On November 13, 1948, however, Billy Strayhorn (piano) with vocalist Kay Davis performed “Lush Life” in the last of seven Ellington Carnegie Hall concerts. The difficult-to-find Duke Ellington-Carnegie Hall, November 13, 1948, released in 1991 on Vintage Jazz Classics, contains the first documented performance of “Lush Life” with Billy Strayhorn on piano and Kay Davis singing.

Recording by other artists began soon after that. An initial Nat “King” Cole B-side, rearranged in a Latin impressionistic style, infuriated Strayhorn. To make matters worse, Cole’s misreading of the lyrics irked the usually unflappable Strayhorn and resulted in an angry phone call.

Strayhorn recorded “Lush Life” on piano without vocal (except for a wordless chorus behind him) in 1961 (The Peaceful Side, 1996 Capitol Records). He recorded solo piano and vocal in 1965 (Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn, 1992, Red Baron). Ellington himself never played “Lush Life.”

Additional reading on Billy Strayhorn and the origin of “Lush Life” may be found in David Hajdu’s Strayhorn biography Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn.

“Lush Life” was also the title for a 1993 made-for-TV film starring Jeff Goldblum, Forest Whitaker, and Kathy Baker.

More information on this tune...

Will Friedwald
Stardust Melodies
Pantheon; 1st edition
Hardcover: 416 pages

(Friedwald devotes 23 pages to the song’s history, its composer/lyricist, performers, recordings, and analyses of the music and lyric. Eleven other great American songs also receive in-depth treatment in the book.)
See the Reading and Research links on this page for additional references.

- Jeremy Wilson

Recommendations for This Tune
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John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman
John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman
2004 Impulse! 112606
Original recording 1963
Take a poll of musicians as to what recording of “Lush Life” has most influenced them, and this performance is the likely winner. Hartman never sounded better than in this tender, faithful interpretation of Strayhorn’s classic, and Coltrane’s quartet plays with sensitivity and great emotional depth.
Joe Henderson
Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn
1992 Polygram 11779

Henderson finally achieved widespread commercial success late in his career beginning with this album. His solo rendition of “Lush Life” is lyrical and emotional, showing his sound to have softened somewhat over time.
Phineas Newborn, Jr.
A World of Piano
1991 Original Jazz Classics 175
Original recording 1961
Newborn’s touch is light and tender here, yet he orchestrates “Lush Life” so skillfully that it sounds as if he has three hands. Newborn begins with an introduction adapted from Maurice Ravel before introducing Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones into the mix.
Stan Getz
Captain Marvel
2003 Sony 86086
Original recording 1972
A modern ensemble with Chick Corea on electric piano is not necessarily the context in which we expect to hear Stan Getz give one of his all-time classic ballad performances. That, however, is exactly what we get here.
Anthony Braxton
What's New In the Tradition
1995 Steeplechase 37003
Original recording 1974
Braxton is underrated for his ability to interpret standards, and his ballad treatment of “Lush Life” is worth a listen for the way it deftly walks the line between edginess and tenderness.

- Noah Baerman

Chris Connor
Complete Bethlehem Recordings
Fresh Sounds Spain
Original recording 1953
Connor’s work for Bethlehem comes in and out of availability. This 2007 reissue of her 1953 10-inch LP, Lullabys for Lovers, compiles four albums from that period. On “Lush Life” she is backed by bassist Vinnie Burke’s quartet of guitar, accordion and drums with the addition of clarinetist/flutist Ron Odrich. The vocalist opens with just guitar while Odrich’s flute soars in the background before she settles into a gentle rhythmic groove with the quartet. Connor is above all a storyteller, and the way she rushes and slows the lyric lends it emotional impact. A masterful version of this great song.

- Sandra Burlingame

John Coltrane
Lush Life
Original Jazz Classics 131
Original recording, 1958, Prestige Records
Saxophonist Coltrane is joined by pianist Red Garland and trumpeter Donald Byrd for a hypnotic 13-minute take on the ballad.
Tony Scott
Lush Life
1996, Sony
Original recordings, 1981-1984
Tony Scott devotes the entire album to the song playing it on several reeds, singing and reciting the lyrics, combining it with a blues composition, and also contributing an outstanding solo piano version.

- Ben Maycock

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