Friday, June 20, 2008

Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life - PBS Independent Lens film

Tonight, at 10:30 PM PBS WETA aired the documentary biography film directed by Robert Levi, “Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life” (85 min, Washington Square Films), as part of the "Independent Lens" (or "Independent Cuts") series. Strayhorn (1915-1967) was an African American jazz composer and pianist, and for much of his career the “power behind the throne” of Duke Ellington. Much of the film documents the way Strayhorn did much of the actual composition that Ellington got public credit for, and only over time (and after a brief separation) did Strayhorn start getting the public credit he deserved.

The film covers Strayhorn’s life in great detail, with comments by other composers such as Gunther Schuller and Don Shirley.

Strayhorn was raised near Pittsburgh in a steel town (although he was born in Ohio), among ten children, many of whom did not survive. He did not have a piano at home and his teachers discouraged his interest in music, which started out with the classics. Apparently he took an early interest in composing. He met Ellington when the famous performer came to Pittsburgh, and the relationship would grow quickly.

Strayhorn would demonstrate his composition talents in the early 1940s during the ASCAP strike, when none of Ellington’s music could legally be performed on the radio, but new music could. Ellington needed the radio broadcasts to sell vinyl records. Strayhorn and companions composed much of the music on a train tour, the locomotives of which are shown in the film. The movie, in fact, has much archival footage of Strayhorn, some of it in color of surprising quality.

Strayhorn was homosexual, and met a companion named Bridges, with whom he lived for about a decade in New York. In the 1940s, gay bars were often raided and gay life was carried out privately and underground, African American gay life all the more so. His relationships with other musicians or Ellington were not affected, however; he had a deep platonic relationship with one woman Lina Horne. Even after Ellington agreed to give him public credit for his work, at least one press agent refused to do so because Strayhorn was gay.

Strayhorn, even more than Ellington, sought merge classical music with jazz, and idea that made many people uncomfortable (although avant garde composers in both Vienna and France had also started to do so, sometimes even in twelve tone music). At one point, he developed and recorded a jazz adaptation of Tchaikowsky’s Nutcracker Suite, which Columbia Records produced. He composed a huge output of songs, including the one titling the film, as well as “Take the A Train”. He and Ellington collaborated on various musicals and shows, such as “Jump for Joy”. Ellington is credited with an orchestral suite called “Black Brown and Beige” but Strayhorn actually composed a lot of it at the last minute before performance.

Toward the end, Strayhorn became aggressive in the Civil Rights movement, meeting with Medgar Evers and Dr. Martin Luther King.

Strayhorn smoked like a chimney, and developed esophageal cancer, of which he would die at age 51. The film takes the viewpoint that Ellington gave him stability, but his creative talents might have gone farther if he had been on his own more.

Ellington has a major apartment building named after him in Washington DC, near the Lincoln Theater.

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