“A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing”(*)
Composed and arranged by Billy Strayhorn.
Recorded by Billy Strayhorn for United Artists Records in Paris, France in January of 1961.
Billy Strayhorn, piano, directing: Michel Gaudry, bass; and the Paris String Quartet (two violins, one viola, one cello).
The story: There was something about French culture that fascinated Billy Strayhorn all his life. He wrote these words in the 1930s: “Life is lonely again, …A week in Paris will ease the bite of it, All I care is to smile in spite of it.” They became a part of Strayhorn’s lyric to his haunting song “Lush Life.” Strayhorn’s companion Aaron Bridgers, who lived in Paris for many years, made this statement about Strayhorn’s affinity for all things French. “From his high school days, Billy was a Francophile. He was fluent in the language and was thrilled with every trip he could make. (In Paris) nobody cared who you were or what you were. There was no judgment. That’s one reason why Billy and I loved it here.” (1) (Above right: Billy Strayhorn at Versailles. This photo was probably taken by Aaron Bridgers.)
Billy Strayhorn was in Paris when this recording was made because he had worked with Duke Ellington there on the music that was used in the feature film called Paris Blues, starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Sidney Poitier, Diahann Carroll and Louis Armstrong. While Strayhorn was working on that project, he was for whatever reasons experiencing negative emotions.
The American trombonist/arranger Billy Byers had been hired by the producers of the film to be an interpreter for Duke Ellington. According to Byers, “…Duke Ellington needed no translator because everyone spoke to him in English. So I wound up hanging out a lot with Strays.” (2) Strayhorn was drinking a lot. Byers continued: “I love to drink too. However, I couldn’t keep up with him. I had a habit of going to bed every night. He went on to the next day.” (3)
While working on the film, all of the actors were drawn to Strayhorn, especially the very beautiful Diahann Carroll. “Spending time with Strayhorn was something I could never forget. He was a beautiful, delicate little flower, just, you know, a genius. But a tortured genius. He was an unhappy person. His genius was so overwhelming that being in his presence was something you could never forget. …(T)here’s such a thing as feeling too much and hearing too much. He suffered from that. Strayhorn had the ability to perceive other people better than most of us, and what he perceived wasn’t always kind, particularly in relation to himself and the life he chose for himself.” (4)
After that project was completed, Strayhorn continued drinking and partying at the Mars Club in Paris, where Aaron Bridgers often played piano. One night at the Mars Club, Alan Douglas, a young American record producer, approached Strayhorn about making a recording of his own compositions. “He didn’t even think about it really. He just said ‘Why Not?’ I didn’t know if he was serious or he was drunk.” (5) The next day, Douglas firmed up the deal with Strayhorn by phone. Two days later, Strayhorn was at the Barclay recording studio in Paris with bassist Michel Gaudry and the Paris String quartet. He had prepared the music for the instrumentalists (and a chorus of singers who sang on some tracks wordlessly). After two extremely efficient three hour recording sessions on successive nights starting at midnight, Strayhorn had recorded enough music to fill an LP, which was called The Peaceful Side of Billy Strayhorn.
The music: The leading expert on Strayhorn’s music, Walter van de Leur, has summarized the history of Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing.” “Within months of joining Duke Ellington in New York in the winter of 1939, Strayhorn had written two ballads for Johnny Hodges, the Ellington orchestra’s star alto saxophonist: ‘Passion Flower,’ and ‘A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing.’ While there is evidence that ‘A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing’ made it into the band book as early as February of 1941, it wasn’t until 1946 that the Johnny Hodges All-Stars waxed the piece for Capitol Transcriptions. There is a kinship between ‘Passion Flower’ and ‘A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing’ that exceeds their botanic titles. Both pieces are built on similar musical ideas, such as very little harmonic movement, a technique found in other (Strayhorn) pieces as well. Throughout ‘A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,’ Strayhorn maintains a subdued and minor mood. As always, his writing is detailed and effectively expressive of the emotional content of this introspective composition.” (6)
In this performance, Strayhorn is featured on piano, accompanied by a bass and a string quartet, for which he wrote the minimalist music. The objective in this recording was to celebrate one of Strayhorn’s most beautiful melodies. Consequently, his playing in the first chorus is melodic, with some embellishment here and there. In the second chorus, he improvises as a counterpoint to the melodic strings. His finale is puckishly humorous, but oddly fitting.
Strayhorn was always critical of his piano playing. “In Paris, I made an album, and it sounded all right when I heard it there. …I don’t play much any more. … (P)laying requires — you’ve got to — it’s a thing itself. …If you know how to play the piano, you can play forever once you learn it. But I mean to really play, …I don’t feel that I’m playing. (7)
To my ears, Strayhorn’s playing on this recording is very good in a technical sense, but not perfect. Musically, his playing is utter perfection. It conveys very strongly the sense of joy and mystery one feels when seeing and appreciating the beauty of nature. This is intimate music, ideal for listening, thinking, dreaming.
The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Links and Notes:
(*) A melody remarkably like “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” was listed in the program for Ellington’s first Carnegie hall concert on January 23, 1943 using the title “Nocturne.” Duke, in the course of performance, excised that tune from that event.
(1) Strayhorn …An Illustrated Life, edited by A. Alice Claerbaut and David Schlesinger (2015), 28. Hereafter: Strayhorn …An Illustrated Life.
(2) Lush Life …A Biography of Billy Strayhorn, by David Hajdu (1996), 209. Hereafter Hajdu.
(3) Hajdu, ibid.
(4) Hajdu, 210-211.
(5) Hajdu, ibid.
(6) Strayhorn …An Illustrated Life, 46.
(7) Hajdu, 213.