John Coltrane's Lush Life album was the first jazz album I ever heard. I was 19 and had a dubbed cassette tape copy that I played until the tape wore thin.
Only years later, after I married my jazz loving husband, did I hear the recording of "Lush Life" featuring Coltrane on tenor sax and and Johnny Hartman on vocals. Whoa! Vocals? Lyrics? Until then, I didn't know the song had lyrics.
Because the instrumental version is etched on my brainpan, every time I hear Johnny Hartman singing, I'm a little startled. It always feels to me that the lyrics were added later, like color added to a classic black-and-white movie.
Which may be why I now focus so hard on the lyrics when I hear the song. There's a whole novel in there. A whole novel of lost romance, Paris, booze, good times, and sad living. Jazz as literature.
music and lyrics by Billy Strayhorn
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.
The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces,
with distingué traces that used to be there.
You could see where they'd been washed away
by too many through the day twelve o'clocktails
Then you came along with your siren song
to tempt me to madness.
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.
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.
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.