New film examines Billy Strayhorn's rich contributions to jazz
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Anyone familiar with Pittsburgh's rich jazz legacy will recognize the name Billy Strayhorn and his contributions to the 20th-century jazz canon.
Hear sound clips from the CD Lush Life: The Untold Story of Billy Strayhorn:
Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life
What: WQED's "Independent Lens" series.
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday.
But folks outside the cognoscenti might wonder: Who was Strayhorn, and why does he matter?
Before his death from cancer at 51 in 1967, Strayhorn shared a musical relationship with Duke Ellington that spanned nearly 30 years. His sound and originality contributed heavily to the Ellington oeuvre.
Strayhorn's best-known works are "Lush Life," "Chelsea Bridge" and "Take the 'A' Train," but Strayhorn composed scores of others, including entire musical suites, such as "Suite for Duo," a harrowing piece composed in three movements, for piano and French horn.
"Lush Life," which airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. on WQED, brings the life and career of the pianist and composer into focus and helps to rescue him from the artistic shadows of Ellington. There's also a companion CD titled "Lush Life," available on Blue Note records.
The biopic also confronts the pathos of a man who faced the struggles of leading an openly gay life before succumbing to excessive drinking and smoking.
Produced by Robert Levi and narrated by Terrence Howard, the film traces Strayhorn's life from his birth in Dayton, Ohio, in 1915 to his death. It talks about a young Strayhorn growing up in poverty in Homewood and attending Westinghouse High School, where the framework was laid for many of his seminal songs. It also mentions how he was initially introduced to Ellington by Gus Greenlee, a numbers runner who became owner of the Crawford Grill in the Hill District and the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the Negro Baseball League.
The film also features timeless photographs, home movies and the television broadcast premieres of recently discovered Strayhorn music, as well as some of his best-known compositions. All of the songs are sung by Dianne Reeves and Elvis Costello and interpreted by pianists Hank Jones and Bill Charlap, saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Russell Malone.
Among the more than 25 songs covered are "Blood Count," "Tonk," "Fantastic Rhythm," "Satin Doll" and, of course, "Lush Life," a song Strayhorn wrote at age 16 while a student at Westinghouse.
As Ellington's collaborator, Strayhorn rarely received recognition for his contributions and rarely worked with a contract. Some believe that Ellington's publishers were opportunistic about credits and royalties, and that Strayhorn was not treated fairly. Others insists that Ellington provided Strayhorn with a shield during a time that was intimidating for homosexuals and lifted him from obscurity.
"Being a practicing homosexual in those days was not acceptable," singer Jon Henricks says in the film. "In fact, it was totally unacceptable."
The jazz world was a man's world, and homophobia was prevalent on the bandstand. Strayhorn often had to hand-write charts for the entire orchestra because trombonist and transcriber Juan Tizol refused to copy Strayhorn's scores.
The film navigates through these gray areas and attempts to balance Ellington and Strayhorn's complicated relationship.
First Published February 4, 2007 12:00 am