Independent Lens presents Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life

Tue, 02/17/2009 - 10:00pm

Billy Strayhorn

Burt Goldblatt/ITVS

Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life, airing Tuesday, February 17 at 10 p.m. on WXXI-TV 21 (cable 11) and WXXI-HD (cable 1011 and DT 21.1), portrays one of American music's least known musical geniuses: the pioneering African-American jazz composer, arranger and pianist Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington's longtime collaborator and composing companion. Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life presents his fascinating story as it has never been told before, showcasing Strayhorn's gifts and illuminating the issues that prevented his receiving greater worldwide recognition. Terrence Howard hosts.

For nearly 30 years, from the late 1930s through his death in 1967, Strayhorn was a major force in shaping the Ellington sound, producing a body of work that has no rival in originality and range - from unforgettable tunes and jazz melodies to orchestral suites and soundtracks. He was the sole composer of many classic compositions, including the Ellington theme song, Take the 'A' Train, and the much-sung and recorded Lush Life (whose sophisticated melody and lyrics he composed when only in his mid-teens). Yet at the time of his premature death at age 51, few people outside the musical world were familiar with his brilliant accomplishments and genius. He was gay in an era when jazz players were homophobic, and open about his sexuality at a time when most gays remained closeted. Strayhorn was also active in the Civil Rights Movement when being an activist could lead to ostracism, violence - or worse.

As Ellington's collaborator, Strayhorn rarely received recognition for his musical contributions nor for the considerable profits he helped generate. Some believe that Ellington's publishers were opportunistic about credits and royalties, and that Strayhorn was not treated fairly; others insist Ellington provided Strayhorn with a shield during a time that was intimidating for homosexuals and lifted him from obscurity. Filmmaker Robert Levi's film navigates the grey areas of their complicated relationship and attempts to uncover the truth about these private, complex men. Levi incorporates rarely seen home movies, re-creations of Strayhorn, and a multitude of unpublished images from several 20th-century American photography masters to illuminate the Strayhorn story.

Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life features television broadcast premieres of recently discovered Strayhorn music as well as some of his best-known compositions, sung by Dianne Reeves and Elvis Costello, and interpreted by piano legend Hank Jones, pianist Bill Charlap, saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Russell Malone. Among the 30-plus compositions covered are Blood Count, Tonk, Fantastic Rhythm, So This Is Love, Satin Doll, Something to Live For, Lush Life, and more.