Driving home on a brisk fall evening, the car slipping into the russet hues of the setting sun, I'm listening to Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" as recorded by Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane, a small masterpiece that begins with an arpeggio, stated matter-of-factly, by McCoy Tyner. Then comes Hartman's bass, velvety with a hint of gravel at the bottom, caressing Strayhorn's lyrics:
I used to visit all the very gay places
Those come-what-may places
Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life
To get the feel of life from jazz and cocktails...
Strayhorn, Duke Ellington's longtime musical collaborator, was gay, though of course the word here had a different meaning when he wrote it. The lyric perfectly evokes the 1960s cigarettes-and-cocktails world of John Cheever and "Mad Men," which is why it's surprising to learn that Strayhorn composed the song in the 1930s when he was just 16 (ah, genius). A few more bars of just Hartman and Tyner, and those gorgeous lyrics:
I thought for awhile that your poignant smile
Was tinged with the sadness of a great love for me
Ah yes, I was wrong
Again, I was wrong
Then, a pause, and Elvin Jones enters ever so quietly on the brushes, paired with Jimmy Garrison on bass, both men keeping plenty of space between the notes, and suddenly we understand that the song up to this point has been merely a prelude, and that its melancholy core really begins here. This is where we first hear Coltrane, just wisps of his sax in the background, supporting Hartman as he sings words that evoke a place and a moment at once urbane and down-at-the-heels:
Life is lonely again and only last year
Everything seemed so sure
Now life is awful again
A trough full of hearts could only be a bore
A week in Paris could ease the bite of it
All I care is to smile in spite of it
I'll forget you, I will while yet you are still
Burning inside my brain romance is mush
Stifling those who strive
So 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
Then comes Coltrane's solo, and a nice piece of work it is: The man who could almost literally blow other musicians off the stage with his horn here is measured and even gentle. He states the melody and circles it a bit but keeps things simple, knowing that sheets of sound would be, in this case, too much. Tyner, Jones and Garrison sense the uptick in energy, and hearing them work things out behind Trane is one of the great pleasures of a song that offers many.
And then the finish: Trane and company recede and Hartman comes to the fore to reprise the final stanza, this time with an odd high note on the final "too" that sounds ever-so-slightly off-key; the band is silent, and there's real tension as Hartman holds the note a moment longer. Then Jones re-enters on the cymbal, the band re-emerges, and the note is resolved. The tension gone, the last few bars wash over us as Trane plays a beautiful little filigree of notes that trail off into the end.
There's an impulse to link the song's sad brilliance to the fate of the principal musicians themselves: Coltrane and Strayhorn would both die young just a few years later. Hartman lived on but never enjoyed the success many felt he deserved, a victim, perhaps, of the racism of his time.
But on a late winter's day in March 1963, in Rudy Van Gelder's legendary New Jersey studio, Coltrane and Hartman recorded, in a single take, a tune that is not just an ode to lost love, but something much more: A vision of an elegant, romantic sensibility and what was in many ways a gentler world, one that has all but vanished.