Who was Billy Strayhorn? And why does his music still hold such allure?

No single concert could fully answer those questions, of course, but “Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn” certainly went a long way toward addressing them.

Conceived to celebrate the centennial of the composer’s birth — on Nov. 29, 1915 — the grand event convened two superb singers, one nimble pianist, a sprawling chorus, a jazz orchestra and a dance troupe at the Auditorium Theatre on Saturday evening. In various combinations, these artists explored a swath of Strayhorn’s work, from masterpieces to novelties, ballads to blues.

At the center of it all stood the uncommonly charismatic vocalist Darius de Haas, who told Strayhorn’s story in song and narration, illuminating not only Strayhorn’s genius as composer but his struggles as man and artist. Because Strayhorn chose not to hide his identity as a gay man in an era when society did not tolerate that position, he never received a fraction of the attention and acclaim he deserved. And because he toiled in the shadow of his employer, jazz giant Duke Ellington, Strayhorn found himself laboring still further in the shadows.

That long-running injustice prompted the creation of a citywide Billy Strayhorn Festival that launched in September and culminated with the “Lush Life” concert. And though the program suffered from not exploring the large-scale orchestral work Strayhorn composed for and with Ellington, it reveled in the poetry of Strayhorn’s melodies, the sophistication of his harmonies and the ethereal beauty of his musical gestures.

Singer de Haas devoured the spotlight every time he stepped into it, the man radiating dramatic tension before he sang a note. In his opening selection, “Something to Live For,” the sheer ardor of de Haas’ delivery brought the house to a hush, his impact heightened when the Rookery Festival Chorus harmonized behind him (deftly conducted by Bruce Mayhall Rastrelli). Add to this the sometimes slinky, sometimes sensuous choreography of the Joel Hall Dancers, and you had a multifaceted Strayhorn homage that captured the intrinsic elegance of the man’s music.

If former Chicagoan de Haas at times produced a tad too much vibrato for one listener’s tastes, there was no question that he articulated the character and subtext of this work. When he embellished the lines of “Lush Life,” his melodic ornaments showed both the creativity of his methods and the elasticity of Strayhorn’s writing. At the same time, de Haas managed to convey the underlying architecture of one of the most complex, elusive and celebrated songs in the jazz repertoire.

Joan Curto may be best known for her work in Chicago’s intimate cabarets, but she flourished on the big stage, her ample alto projecting Strayhorn’s melodies without overwhelming them. The sumptuousness of her instrument and finesse of her phrasing suited the yearning quality of Strayhorn’s “Day Dream,” the male chorus echoing the lyrics in some moments, warmly backing her vocal lines in others. A jazz-tinged pas de deux that unfolded alongside her, courtesy of two Joel Hall Dancers, looked as smart as she sounded.

In “Satin Doll,” Curto benefited from the blues-tinged commentary of the accompanying jazz orchestra. She brought sass and attitude to “Maybe,” with sleek accompaniment from Alan Broadbent, whose pianism anchored the evening’s proceedings. If Broadbent offered a few dozen arpeggios too many, sometimes veering toward glibness, there was no denying the luster of his tone or the snap of his rhythms.

The evening’s most moving moment, however, came not in music but in words, when de Haas reflected on his personal connection to both Strayhorn (who died in 1967 at age 51) and Ellington.

De Haas’ mother, the great impresario and formidable jazz singer Geraldine de Haas, in 1974 launched the annual Duke Ellington celebrations in Grant Park, which eventually evolved into the Chicago Jazz Festival. Darius de Haas, a child at the time, participated in that landmark event, eventually finding inspiration not only in Ellington and Strayhorn’s music but in Strayhorn’s model of how a gay man ought to be able to live his life in freedom, and without fear.

In many ways, Strayhorn’s precedent made possible de Haas’ personal narrative and musical career, as has been the case for generations of musicians around the world.

That’s why the Billy Strayhorn Festival and the “Lush Life” concert carried such significance. For Strayhorn’s bittersweet story will resonate with young musicians (and others) for as long as the world values classics such as “Lush Life” and “Take the ‘A’ Train.”

Surely that will be a very long time.

By: Howard Reich

Originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune