Film Looks at Jazz of Composer Strayhorn Documentary filmmaker Robert Levi's latest work focuses on the life and times of jazz composer Billy Strayhorn. Strayhorn wrote some of the greatest jazz standards, yet he remains relatively unknown to American music lovers. Levi talks about the film with Tony Cox.
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Film Looks at Jazz of Composer Strayhorn

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Film Looks at Jazz of Composer Strayhorn

Film Looks at Jazz of Composer Strayhorn

Film Looks at Jazz of Composer Strayhorn

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Documentary filmmaker Robert Levi's latest work focuses on the life and times of jazz composer Billy Strayhorn. Strayhorn wrote some of the greatest jazz standards, yet he remains relatively unknown to American music lovers. Levi talks about the film with Tony Cox.

TONY COX, host:

We move now from the rough to the lush.

(Soundbite of song, "Day Dream")

Ms. DIANNE REEVES (Singer): (Singing) Daydreaming I walk along on earth.

COX: "Day Dream" sung here by Dianne Reeves was written by Billy Strayhorn. Billy Strayhorn was black, gay and one of the great composers of American music. He also wrote "Lush Life," "Satin Doll" and "Take the A Train." These songs are best known as part of Duke Ellington's repertoire, which means Strayhorn never quite got his due.

A new documentary hopes to change that. It spotlights the amazing talent of the man who served for three decades in Duke Ellington's shadow. The film is called "Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life." It airs tonight on PBS. Here's a clip.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life")

Unidentified Man: Strayhorn was very depressed. And he felt that by being Ellington's alter ego and in a way, in the highest sense of slave, that his own life and personality and creativity is somewhat suppressed.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: Robert Levi directed "Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life." I asked him, what he learned in the process about jazz in the 20th century.

Mr. ROBERT LEVI (Director, "Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life"): Well, I learned that 60 to 40 years back it was still possible to remain pretty anonymous and to actually do your thing, create incredible music on a really high level; be in demand and coveted by lots of different singers and musicians but still remain anonymous. That couldn't happen these days. It just wouldn't be possible in the information and infotainment era that we're living in right now.

But it was possible then and they did a great job of keeping Billy out of the spotlight and keeping him in the shadows.

COX: You said they. That's an interesting way of putting it. That sounds as if someone else was responsible for Billy not being in the spotlight. Is that what you meant?

Mr. LEVI: Well, I don't think that I would ever levy any kind of accusation that it was a purposeful act by Duke Ellington. But I think in terms of, you know, the managerial input and the marketing of that orchestra, it was important in - during those times, in that era, to keep focus on Duke Ellington as the go-to guy, the be-all, the do-everything guy. I think it just benefited the organization to have it be very Ellington-centric.

COX: There were three strains, to my mind, that kept popping up throughout your documentary about Billy Strayhorn - one, obviously, with the complex relationship with Duke Ellington; another, his own relationship with his own artistry, the music; and lastly, the sexuality, as a gay, black man in America during that time. Your documentary showed that that was an aspect that impacted him very, very deeply.

Mr. LEVI: You know, Billy was an outsider and had his own world. And very few people were privy to that world. Clearly, Billy, as a diminutive African-American person who was also homosexual, had faced hurdle after hurdle. It was very hard to get insight into the world that he lived in because it was a world that he had to be very protective of. It was a world that was not something that could be featured in his writing, in his conversations with people, even though he was openly gay.

So, you know, we did our best to kind of situate the viewer, not in the world but in a position to look at the tensions of that world, of the moments of elation, of the collaborative opportunities, not only was the straight biography of Billy Strayhorn, so to speak, a very hidden story.

(Soundbite of music)

But then to get into the backstory, who he was, how he came to be who he was, his sexuality, his friends, his colleagues, the loving world that he lived in, the people that embraced him and accepted him for who he was. That was a challenge and, you know, we tried to put ourselves in his world. We tried to position that world a little bit for viewers to experience. And I hope some of that came through.

(Soundbite of song, "Lush Life")

Ms. REEVES: (Singing) I used to visit all the very gay places, those come-what-may places. Where one relaxes on the axis of the real place to get the feel of life from jazz and cocktails. The girls I knew had sadden, sullen gray faces with distant gay traces.

COX: After watching it, I got the sense and I suspect others who will see this will get the same sense that wait, there's a question as to whether or not Duke Ellington took advantage of Billy Strayhorn or helped him, or protected him, or did a combination of all of those things because their relationship was so complex.

Mr. LEVI: Whether one man, namely Duke Ellington, could have, in fact, spent over half a decade touring, doing 200, 300 gigs per year and writing 2,000-plus songs, it's entirely possible - but he did it because he had a great, great likeminded collaborator who - it appears he was so close to. I think we've basically opened the forum for discussion as to what really occurred without making a serious, either indictment or pronouncement about how we feel it happened.

(Soundbite of song, "Lush Life")

Ms. REEVES: (Singing) I want something to live for.

COX: Robert Levi directed the documentary "Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life." It airs tonight on PBS.

Tomorrow, we look at another great American songwriter whose songs have stood the test of time - Bill Withers.

(Soundbite of song, "Lush Life")

Ms. REEVES: (Singing) What wouldn't I give for?

COX: That's our show for today. Thanks for being with us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of song, "Lush Life")

Ms. REEVES:(Singing) I'd say say it ought to be.

COX: I'm Tony Cox. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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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.