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.
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Billy Strayhorn: Jazz Composer Gets His Due

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Billy Strayhorn: Jazz Composer Gets His Due

Billy Strayhorn: Jazz Composer Gets His Due

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. And this is the music of Billy Strayhorn.

(Soundbite of music, "Take the A Train")

CONAN: Some of you may be saying, no, no, no, that's Duke Ellington's music, and you're right. "Take the A Train" was the Ellington Orchestra's signature tune, but the composer was Billy Strayhorn. He also wrote "Satin Doll" and "Lush Life" and hundreds of others in a life that was too short and often overshadowed by the charismatic Ellington.

Much of the time the unassuming pianist and composer stood out of the Duke spotlight, and Strayhorn's name was often left out of the credit lines. Tonight a PBS documentary called "Lush Life" focuses on the great Duke Ellington's great collaborator, on their deeply layered relationship, on the difficulties Strayhorn faced as a black homosexual in mid-century America and in the world of jazz, and on the great music he left behind.

Later in the program, the legal issues in the court-martial of Iraq war resister Lt. Ehren Watada, and your letters.

But first, Billy Strayhorn. If you have questions about his life, his music, or his complicated relationship with Duke Ellington, our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is We'll talk with the director of the movie in just a few minutes, but we begin with David Hajdu who wrote a biography of Billy Strayhorn. He's also a music critic for The New Republic and appears in the PBS documentary. David Hajdu joins us from the studios of member station WAER in Syracuse, New York. And thanks for braving the weather to come in and talk with us today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAVID HAJDU (Author, "Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn"): I'm happy to do it.

CONAN: Your biography and tonight's documentary are both titled "Lush Life," but the name could also as easily been Credit Where Credit's Due.

Mr. HAJDU: That's true. It's - we're long overdue to give Billy Strayhorn his credit. Duke was always quick to give Strayhorn credit for "Take the A Train" -which Strayhorn wrote shortly after he met Duke - and then became the Ellington Orchestra's theme. But as time went on, Strayhorn's name did get lost, and there were some major compositions credited to Ellington that Strayhorn had a major hand in, and that's part of the complex, very complex, and so tragic story about Strayhorn.

CONAN: He - Ellington was well-established when Strayhorn first approached him as a young man out of Pittsburgh.

Mr. HAJDU: You bet. Ellington had already proven that he was a genius and didn't need Billy Strayhorn before they ever met, which was in December 1938. And Strayhorn was looking for a break. He had been working in Pittsburgh but was also a fully developed musical force already at this point, and that's something that not many people knew. In fact I didn't even know when I started my book, and that was in 1984. I finished it 11 years later. It was published in 1996. But when I started out, I had bought in to what I had read about Strayhorn, which is that he hadn't done much before Ellington found him and groomed him in his image. And I was shocked to find, after a few years of research and going back to Pittsburgh and interviewing people with whom Strayhorn had played and under whom Strayhorn had - they had worked, that, boy, got mangled. I sound like Reagan for a minute there. It was a mangled syntax.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAJDU: But I was stunned to find out how much Strayhorn had done prior to 1938.

CONAN: That great tune "Lush Life," he wrote that when he was 16.

Mr. HAJDU: He started it when he was 16. He worked on it for three years and finished when he was 19. I interviewed a friend of his who worked with him at the pharmacy where he worked, a fellow by the name of George Greenlee who eventually introduced Ellington to Strayhorn, and he would - Ellington was -Strayhorn was working as a soda jerk or delivery boy. And Strayhorn would bring music paper with him and sometimes a blank piece of paper that he would write music staff - a music staff on, and he was working on that tune for years.

Originally he called it "Life Is Lonely," and it was inspired by his images of what the sophisticated life would be, based mainly on stories that he read in The New Yorker. He bought a subscription to The New Yorker because he was horrifically poor. His family was born in kind of - he was raised in Dickensian poverty in an alley behind the street where the white people lived, in an area of Pittsburgh called Homewood. But bought his own piano, bought his own music, and was touched by the hand of God. And by the time he was a kid, he was already writing masterpieces. In fact he - when he was in high school, he was in the orchestra club and he was playing original pieces during his rehearsal time that his teachers thought were works of the classical canon.


Mr. HAJDU: And when his teachers needed to be absent and couldn't teach the class, they'd turn the class over to Strayhorn to teach. This is when he was still a high school student.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. HAJDU: And as a classically trained musician, he brought something completely different to Ellington's orchestra.

Mr. HAJDU: Right, he was not only a classically-trained musician, because he did some time at a conservatory which is now closed, called the Pittsburgh Institute - Musical Institute, but he loved the theater, and while he was a teenager, he wrote a complete musical show - book, lyrics, music, orchestrations. It was produced and ran, not only in Pittsburgh, but throughout Pennsylvania for a few years, gave Billy Eckstine a start - it's called "Fantastic Rhythm." So he loved the theater, he loved classical music, he loved jazz, and in the work that he was doing as a young man in Pittsburgh, he was already beginning to combine them and process them through his own musical personality. So you hear work already like "Lush Life," which what is that? It's an art song, kind of like Brecht, a little bit jazzy but has a theater or cabaret component, too. You heard "Fantastic Rhythm," which is - has a bit of a Gershwin sensibility but with more authentic black feel. And then he was doing classical works, such as a tune called "Valse," which was lost for many years...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HAJDU: ...and became later the love theme of a movie called "Girlfight" in the 1990s. So here we have somebody who's bringing all these worlds together independently, at the same time - this is interesting - that Ellington was doing much the same kind of thing independently in New York. But their sensibilities were very different and simpatico. They were a perfect match because they were so different.

CONAN: Hmm, let's see if we can get some listeners in the conversation. We're talking about the great Billy Strayhorn, composer and pianist, associated for many, many years with Duke Ellington. Our number if you'd like to join the conversation: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is And we'll go - turn to Tom. Tom's with us from Utica, New York.

TOM (Caller): Yes, hello there.


TOM: I just had a quick question. Was - you had mentioned that there was tension in their relationship. I was just wondering if Billy actually had a crush on Duke and, you know, that was part of the tension. And if so, how did he deal with it.

Mr. HAJDU: Well, that's a question of many layers. First of all, the tension emerged relatively late in their relationship. When they first met, it was a perfect relationship in that here Duke Ellington is a giant in his own right, has the greatest orchestra in the history of American music - as far as I'm concerned, no matter what style you're talking about. And here's Strayhorn with the opportunity to write for this master and for this orchestra. It's an extraordinary opportunity.

He's happy to work anonymously behind Duke - or not solely anonymously sometimes, but with a bit of credit - because it was important for him to be true to his sexual identity. And he realized in those days, the late 1930s, early 1940s, that it would have been difficult to be a public figure and to be forthright about his sexual identity. To be true to his identity as a black, gay man, it would have difficult to be a public figure. He knew that and he was unwilling to make the kind of compromises a lot of other gay men and women made in those days, by pretending to be straight and women made in those days by pretending to be straight and, you know, marrying and all the compromises that we all know that so many people did. So it was a beautiful, perfect, exquisite arrangement for a while.

But what happened in time, by the late 1940s, early 1950s, is, you know, culture is a liquid, changing thing, and times changed a bit. Ellington's star rose in a large part because of some pieces that Strayhorn had written, such as "Beggar's Holiday" and a few other pieces for which he got no credit or like a nominal little wink in the booklet.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HAJDU: And Strayhorn began to have misgivings, and he left Ellington, and he worked - for over three years he didn't write a note for Ellington, and he tried to set up a career on his own and working with others. Ellington lured him back.

Now I didn't answer your question yet about whether Strayhorn had a - who - I don't - I mean who knows and who cares, really? I wasn't there, and there's no knowing. There was no evidence whatsoever of any kind of sexual relationship between these two individuals. They had - I think they had a relationship that transcended sex...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAJDU: ...I think they had a much deeper and much more intimate relationship because the most important thing to both of those men was their work, was their music. It was paramount to Ellington, paramount to Strayhorn, and they were intimate in that way.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HAJDU: And Ellington let Strayhorn in in his music in a way that he never let anybody else in. He worked more closely with Strayhorn than he ever worked - than he - he was closer to Strayhorn musically than he ever was to anyone else in any other way.

CONAN: Hmm, thanks for the call, Tom.

TOM: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's talk a little bit more about tonight's documentary. Robert Levi is the writer and director of the film "Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life" that airs tonight on PBS as part of the "Independent Lens" series, and he's joined us from NPR's bureau in New York. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. ROBERT LEVI (Director, "Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life"): Thank you. Thank you for having me here.

CONAN: You've collected an extraordinary number of, well, great performers, composers, musicians, all of whom knew Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, and of course members of his - of their families as well.

Mr. LEVI: Yeah, I think it was very important to have these people because Strayhorn, for whatever reason, didn't leave a whole lot of evidence behind. There were very few interviews with Billy, and the few that we found were not really very revealing or indicative of the kind of personality that he really had. I mean most people just oozed the warmth and the love they had for him, and I think a lot of that comes through in the film, and we were really blessed to have this incredible cast of characters available to talk to us on camera.

CONAN: Yeah, was it Quincy Jones who keeps referring to him as Sweet Pea?

Mr. LEVI: That's a nickname that Billy had. A lot of people for some reason want to know more about the character and how he got the name, but I think we all know that it's probably based on the character in the "Popeye" comic strip.

CONAN: Mm-hmm, the little - the small baby always trailing that long nightgown. We're going to have to take a short break. When we continue, we'll talk more about the jazz composer Billy Strayhorn and his role in Duke Ellington's music. 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us. E-mail:

Here's a little bit of the Billy Strayhorn tune "Lush Life" sung by Nancy Wilson. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Lush Life")

Ms. NANCY WILSON (Singer): (singing) While I'll rot, with the rest of those whose lives are lonely, too.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

We're talking about the life and music of Billy Strayhorn. He's been called a nearly invisible genius. A new documentary on PBS tonight helps to change that. To read more about some of Strayhorn's best recordings and to hear more of his music, you can go to

Our guests are David Hajdu, author of "Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn." Also with us, Robert Levi. He's the writer, producer, and director of tonight's film "Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life," as part of PBS's "Independent Lens" series. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a phone call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is And why don't we get - this is Jerry. Jerry's on the air with us from St. Louis, Missouri.

JERRY (Caller): Good afternoon.


JERRY: I'm glad to hear the topic of the show. I - it seems a lot of us I guess who study jazz are aware of the importance of Billy Strayhorn, but actually I was looking at a video of a late concert by the late Stan Kenton, and he actually introduced one of the charts as being Duke Ellington's "Chelsea Bridge"...

(Soundbite of laughter)

JERRY: even some of the more knowledgeable people still didn't get it right. But I always felt that Ellington was very effusive in his praise of Billy Strayhorn. And specifically I know in his autobiography, "Music Is My Mistress," one of the anecdotes I remember he pointed out in there is at the beginning of the first Sacred Concert, when he wrote for the phrase in the beginning God, and on the West Coast Billy Strayhorn also tackled the same phrase, and Ellington pointed out that the - that both of them began and ended on the same note, and of the six notes only two were slightly different. And in fact a lot of us I'm sure it will be in the documentary that many of the musicians really couldn't tell where Ellington had left off and Strayhorn had taken over and vice versa.

CONAN: (unintelligible)

Mr. HAJDU: Do you mind if I comment on that?

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

Mr. HAJDU: OK, first Duke was often effusive about - in his praise for Strayhorn, but not always. Remember that book was written after Strayhorn died, and he took his death very, very hard. Also the anecdote that you chose was one that demonstrates their commonality and in a way diminishes Strayhorn. In fact they had very different, unique, distinct approaches to music and sounded, when they were themselves, nothing like each other. Now Strayhorn, being on Ellington's payroll, could sometimes serve as Duke's executive I guess - or I don't know how to pronounce it...

JERRY: Surrogate?

Mr. HAJDU: ...amanuensis or something? He could do that, but...

Mr. LEVI: Amanuensis.

CONAN: Amanuensis, yes.

Mr. HAJDU: Amanuensis (unintelligible)...

Mr. LEVI: Guarantor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAJDU: But for the most part, he wrote in a very, very different style. And there was a period throughout the '50s when Ellington products and works were released when Ellington had the opportunity to be more effusive or to at least even acknowledge Strayhorn - when the score to "Paris Blues" was issued or the score to "Anatomy of a Murder" or the score to "Beggar's Holiday" - when he was kind of circumspect about the truth.


JERRY: How interesting. I look forward to watching the documentary.

CONAN: Well, Jerry, thanks very much for the call.

JERRY: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Let's see if we can get - this is Greg. Greg is on the line with us from San Francisco.

GREG (Caller): Hello, yes. My question is the harmonic sense of Billy Strayhorn, did he derive that from his studies in classical music? Or was that more due to his collaboration with Ellington? Because I know that they learned from each other, but did he get that sense from anywhere else?

CONAN: David Hajdu, you want to take a shot at that?

Mr. HAJDU: Yeah, they don't (unintelligible) leave the next few for my deeply esteemed colleague, Robert Levi.

CONAN: Surely.

Mr. HAJDU: On the issue of harmony, we - Strayhorn had some classical training. We hear in the pieces that he wrote before he met Duke, such as "Something To Live For," "Your Love Is Faded," "Lush Life," and some of the score for "Fantastic Rhythm," that he had a fully developed harmonic sense, and it was steeped not - in a general sense, in the European, classical traditional, but specifically in the Impressionists. Now Ellington could also do something in that vein, and he did before he ever met Duke, and so did many others. But Strayhorn's heart was in that Impressionistic sensibility. Ellington's heart was elsewhere.

GREG: Uh-huh. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Greg.


CONAN: And Robert Levi, let's turn to you again.

Mr. LEVI: Well, this is why I stay behind the camera.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, David Hajdu does some of the talking, but you've - again, when you went back to speak with members of Ellington's family and Billy Strayhorn's family as well, I wonder how well known to the families at the time was the fact that he was homosexual?

Mr. LEVI: I think it was well known. I mean I think David would probably agree, that he was not particularly closeted about that. He was basically somebody who was very honest at all times, that he let his preferences be known early on, that he didn't create any kind of subterfuge or try and camouflage what he was about, and I think he - and we see this in his music, too, that honesty was always a very important factor to Billy Strayhorn.

CONAN: The family of Billy Strayhorn has made it their mission to continue to sustain his musical legacy. Alyce Claerbout is his niece and vice president of Billy Strayhorn Songs, Incorporated. She also appears in tonight's documentary. She joins us on behalf of the Strayhorn family from our bureau in Chicago. And again, you, too, had some pretty cold weather. We appreciate your getting into speak with us today.

Ms. ALYCE CLAERBOUT (Billy Strayhorn's nice; Vice President, Billy Strayhorn Songs, Inc.): Good to be here. Thank you.

CONAN: Did you know your uncle well?

Ms. CLAERBOUT: I knew him quite well. I...

CONAN: What was he like?

Ms. CLAERBOUT: I lived in New York City, just three blocks from him, so I got a chance to hang around the band, and I also knew Duke Ellington. I walked and talked with both Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. CLAERBOUT: He was a very gregarious person, and that would - that's to the surprise of a lot of people because his public persona is that he was shy and retiring, and in some ways he was. But the Billy Strayhorn I knew was very gregarious. I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before I moved to New York as a teenager. And as we were growing up, Uncle Billy used to come home and visit us for Christmas. This is an example of his gregariousness.

Pittsburgh in that time, I lived in a little community, a very small community that was very self-contained. And it was one of those communities that if you left the door unlocked, you were pretty safe. You didn't have to worry about crime or anything like that. And in those days it was a four-hour flight from New York to Pittsburgh. So Billy would say - tell us his plane would come in sometimes at the Pittsburgh - what was the Pittsburg Airport - at about maybe after midnight or two o'clock in the morning or something. So we would not always be awake for him when he would come to the house, to greet him. So we would just leave the door unlocked, and he would just come in and start playing the piano and wake everybody up. And so we knew he was there. We'd all run down to meet him and start singing "Merry Christmas." That was kind of a real humorous way he had of approaching, you know, when he would visit. I have those memories.

And he was a wordsmith. He was very clever in his talk. He liked to sit around, chew the rag, talk about interesting things, and just have a good time - just kind of kick it around, so to speak. He had that quality about him. I remember that very, very clearly about him.

CONAN: Mm-hmm, and he, as you say, a gregarious person, but as you grew up later, did you understand his reticence? Was it reticence that prevented him from taking more of the spotlight?

Ms. CLAERBOUT: I don't know. I'm not even sure I was looking at him that way because, you know, this was my uncle who was a very gifted composer, and I wasn't thinking too much about whatever the politics was of his job. I knew he worked for a great person, Duke Ellington, and that was very exciting. I went to concerts, exciting concerts, great music and great times. But in terms of -what I was aware of is there was always a groundswell of curiosity from people that we knew about why he didn't get more credit for things that he wrote.


Ms. CLAERBOUT: And that controversy has been a controversy for all - for my entire life, as I remember it. I don't ever remember a time when that was not a controversy.

CONAN: And to some degree the controversy continues.

Ms. CLAERBOUT: Yes, so this film that's coming - going to be seen tonight is really kind of the - it caps years and years of those questions that have -it's not a new question. It's been kind of underground for a long time.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Robert Levi, let me ask you, did you encounter any sort of resistance when you set out to make this movie as its intentions became clear?

Mr. LEVI: Oh, yeah, there was tremendous resistance. I think that for the most part the people who were - or had been involved in this question were very reticent to come to the table and be put on the spot and discuss it. I think that the reviews that I've seen today really embody a lot of that same quality. There are people who have just adored the film and write about it effusively, and there are other people who've not written negatively, but you can sense a subtext of did this really need to come out, did this really - did there need to be this kind of film?

CONAN: In other words, they take it as criticism of Duke Ellington.

Mr. LEVI: I don't think it's necessarily criticism. I think it's an extension of something Mercer Ellington once said to me, is - when he was talking about his own feelings about his father and also, you know, feelings that Cab Callaway had, which there could really only be one Duke Ellington, which Mercer felt, I think, profoundly.

And possibly some of that spilled over onto Ellington's feelings about Strayhorn, that these were certain questions that didn't really need to be asked. We don't need to go there. There's just a certain amount of perpetual opposition to dealing with that.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Martin -Martin with us from Louisville, Kentucky.

MARTIN (Caller): Good afternoon. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MARTIN: I moonlight as a jazz columnist, so I wanted to first thank you all for featuring jazz on NPR, where it's dwindled to some extent over the last few years. And I also wanted to ask a question that sort of was related to what his relative was saying just a moment ago. Excuse me.

I'm wondering if - as a result of the biography, and now the PBS documentary -if there is going to be any reattribution of music that was formerly credited, you know, solely to Duke Ellington to expand the attribution to Billy Strayhorn.

CONAN: Alyce Claerbout?

Ms. CLAERBOUT: Well, you know, that's a very interesting question. One of the things - when I talk about Duke Ellington, I remind people that above all, he was a publisher. He owned a publishing company, and because he had a publishing company, he had an awful lot of power.

So a lot of the impact of Billy's diminished legacy was a result of the power that Duke Ellington had. He could choose what got registered to be copyrighted. He had the publishing rights to Billy's music. Now once you copyright something and it's registered, you can't change that. It's always - the names that are registered are always going to be registered that way.

And one of the difficulties in telling the story about Billy Strayhorn is it's very difficult to talk about his music and the credit he deserves without talking about Duke Ellington. And that's a very difficult thing. Any reassessment of Billy Strayhorn is automatically a reassessment of Duke Ellington for that reason.

I just wanted to say a word about my family members. We formed a company in the year 2000 - Billy Strayhorn Songs, Incorporated. My brother, Gregory Morris, who was Billy's executor, and my cousins Leslie Demus, Galen Demus, Larry Strayhorn and my aunt Susan Strayhorn, we form the basic board of this company.

The significance of that is there was a little known clause in the Sonny Bono amendment to the Copyright Term Extension Act that provided for original authors or their heirs to recapture the publishing rights from these big publishers.

And we took the bold step to terminate former publishers and recapture those publishing rights and to license and be in the business of licensing Billy Strayhorn's music on our own. We do that with a co-publisher, Dimensional Music Publishing. And a lot of people don't realize that - see, we now own the publishing rights to "Take the 'A' Train" and "Chelsea Bridge." It is no longer a Tempo - it is no longer owned by Tempo any more.

And one of the reasons we were able to work with Rob Levi in this film is because we were able to work a deal to extend rights for him to do this film. It made it possible to do this film. And we became publishers, and that gave us a certain amount of willfulness and power to be able to put Billy's music out in the - which is one of the reasons - you know, in addition to what David Hajdu has done in his landmark book and Walter van de Leur, who also worked with my brother to look at the original manuscripts and publish his book "Something to Live For" - we were able to work with everyone who has contributed to the recent revelations of Billy's music.

CONAN: Hmm. Martin thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

MARTIN: Thank you all. Bye-bye.

CONAN: And we're talking about the music of Billy Strayhorn and his life as well. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an e-mail question we have from LeRoy(ph). If this guy was so poor, how did he get his classical education?

David Hajdu?

Mr. HAJDU: Before I answer that, I want to add a thought to the last question. Do you mind if I do - is that kosher?

CONAN: Well, if you think up - what little time we have left, but go ahead.

Mr. HAJDU: OK. I just want to say I think there's a little something racist in the idea that there was not room for Ellington and Strayhorn. The cultural mediators of their day were white, and there was plenty of room for a great many major white composers, but for some reason they would only accept one major black composer. And the idea that there were two seemed unthinkable.

And that the idea these two can work in a collaborative, companionable way which is linked to black culture and to the communal sense that's important in black culture could to not be processed by the white mediators of the day. I say that as a white man with a kind of shame.

CONAN: Well, let me ask you, though, did Ellington and Strayhorn test that thesis?

Mr. HAJDU: Did they test the thesis?

CONAN: In other words, did he come - was he presenting himself as another great black composer along with Ellington to put the people to the test?

Mr. HAJDU: I don't think that they thought they had a chance. I thought they were wise enough to know that that's the way the system worked. They were both very, very astute men who wanted an ear, wanted the public ear, and knew that there's a value in playing the game as it was played in those days to get that ear.

Now, as to the point of how did Strayhorn pay for not only his piano but the music and his music lessons and - he worked as a soda jerker. He worked delivering newspapers. He saved every penny he could. He had the support of a mother who loved him dearly and encouraged him to play music, and Alyce could talk more about that. And he'd save up the money and paid for it.

Now, he only went for a year, and then he left. He didn't finish his studies there. But he saved up enough money from just working like a dog as a soda jerker and a newspaper delivery boy.

CONAN: Hmm. We're going to take another short break. When we come back, we'll continue with more about "Lush Life," the life of Billy Strayhorn, which appears on PBS tonight. And we'll be talking with David Hajdu, Robert Levi, and Alice - Alyce, excuse me, Claerbout. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Right now, we're talking about a PBS documentary that airs tonight called "Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life." Our guests include the director of that movie Robert Levi, who's also the writer and producer, biographer David Hajdu, the author of "Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn." And we're also speaking with Alyce Claerbout, who's Billy Strayhorn's niece, about the musician.

And one of the things, Alyce, that the film documents well is Billy Strayhorn's very difficult death. You were there with him at the time.

Ms. CLAERBOUT: Yes. That was a very painful part of the history. I remember attending his 25th anniversary at the New School of Social Work. He had that special concert, and his voice was very raspy. And I was just becoming aware of how ill he really was. And Billy Strayhorn was the first cancer death I had ever seen, so that was very, very difficult for me to see him suffering.

And we, his family members, we would go and sit vigil with him during his illness. But he always had a strong spirit underneath that. As you know, he continued to write music up into his death. And as a person he, you know, he exhibited great character because he knew how ill he really was. But whenever physical strength would allow him to do it, he tried to participate in life as fully as he possibly could.

The most heartbreaking memory I have is one day I was walking him - he wanted to go to Harlem. He loved to visit Harlem. He had friends in Harlem. And he needed to hail a cab, and he was a little weak, and he lived on Riverside Drive and I lived not too far from there and I came up to - and we were walking out to Broadway to catch a cab. And he was beginning to look very, very ill, and his clothes were hanging off of him because, you know, he had lost a lot of weight. And the cab driver, you know, wouldn't pick him up and told him he couldn't get into his cab, because he thought maybe he was a vagrant or something like that. I don't know. And that was very, very - that was very painful for me to see.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. This is Jacque(ph). Jacque's calling us from Detroit.

JACQUE (Caller): That is correct, and good afternoon everyone.

CONAN: Good afternoon.


JACQUE: First of all, I'd like to commend you for putting jazz on and highlighting, I believe, two of the best and the brightest that we have to offer modern civilized society. My question is two-fold. What would you hope that folks will take away from the documentary that will air tonight? And the second portion of that is how do you think it will affect - if it will affect their legacy?

CONAN: Robert Levi, why don't you try the first part of that?

Mr. LEVI: Well, I hope that it will reintroduce people to this incredible, unique, unprecedented collaboration that these two men...

JACQUE: The second portion of that is...

Mr. LEVI: Hello?

CONAN: Yes, we'll get to the second portion of it in a moment, Jacque. Stay with us.

Mr. LEVI: So as I said, you know, here's an unprecedented, unique, collaboration in the history of the arts - a collaboration that yielded so many incredible gems, songs that are as timeless today as the day they were written. And I really think - I think they will. I think the film, from what I could tell, is full of lots of different styles of music, different genres, idioms, mostly Billy's work, but also work that the two men are responsible for having created together.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And David Hajdu, the legacy question.

Mr. HAJDU: Well, that might be one more for Alyce.

Mr. LEVI: Well, I'd actually like to interject.

Mr. HAJDU: Good. Please.

Mr. LEVI: OK. Again, I think as Luther Henderson - who was one of the most incredibly wonderful people I'd interviewed - said that Billy loved to share above all else. He loved to share his music with the world. He loved sharing the experience of writing music by himself, of being able to contribute in his work with Duke Ellington. I think there wasn't so much of a competition outside of the playful competitiveness that the two of them had, and I think that the film ultimately celebrates not only Billy's work, but it certainly doesn't do it at Duke's expense. I think it elevates both of the legacies that these men are responsible for giving us in, you know, creating the finest work in American music.

CONAN: Thanks to you all very much. We appreciate your time today.

Mr. HAJDU: Thank you.

CONAN: And thanks for the film, as well.

Ms. CLAERBOUT: Thank you.

CONAN: Alyce Claerbout, who is Bill Strayhorn's niece; Robert Levi, writer/producer/director of "Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life," which premiers tonight on PBS; and David Hajdu, biographer, author of "Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn." When we come back, we'll be talking about the court-martial of an Iraq war resister.

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