Billy Strayhorn: Jazz Composer Gets His Due

"Take the A Train" was the Ellington Orchestra's signature tune. But the composer was Billy Strayhorn. Forty years after his death, a new documentary examines the life of the unassuming pianist and composer.

Guests:

Robert Levi, writer/producer/director of Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life

David Hajdu, author of Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn; music critic for The New Republic

Alyce Claerbout, Billy Strayhorn's niece; vice-president of Billy Strayhorn Songs, Inc.; executive director of Jeff Lindberg's Chicago Jazz Orchestra

Recommended Strayhorn: Career Highlights

Few American composers — in any category of music — were on a par with William Thomas Strayhorn. His ability to weave the intricate and sophisticated harmonies of classical music into the richness and swing of big-band jazz was unparalleled. (Just check out the nimble chordal movement in a tune like "Chelsea Bridge.") He excelled at composing melodies and writing lyrics with wit and poetry, as in his signature tune "Lush Life."

"With all respect to Cole Porter and Rogers and Hart and Jerome Kern, I love them all, they're great geniuses," singer/pianist Andy Bey said. "But Billy Strayhorn was a different kind of a genius because he was in the background."

When the 51-year-old Strayhorn died in 1967 after battling cancer, he was well on his way to the recognition he deserved. Certainly, Duke Ellington — with whom he had remained, off and on, for most of Strayhorn's 30-year career — emphasized his contributions to the Ellington orchestra in stage announcements, on LP covers, and on a posthumous tribute album to his friend and songwriting partner: And His Mother Called Him Bill.

To know Strayhorn's full story, check out the new television documentary Lush Life, airing as part of PBS's Independent Lens series, or read David Hajdu's biography of the same name. For those looking to hear his music, the titles listed below represent a good start.

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