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TV Tonight? Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 6, 2007 3:44PM

"Solitude." "Mood Indigo." "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing." Even Mary J. Blige covered "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me." These are all standards composed, of course, by Duke Ellington, arguably the greatest American composer of the 20th century. Yet he did not write his band's theme song, "Take the 'A' Train." That composition is by Billy Strayhorn. For 29 years he worked with Duke, shunning the spotlight even as he created or co-created some of the Ellington's greatest moments on record. Strayhorn was only 51 when he died of esophageal cancer. His best-known song "Lush Life," which he wrote while still a teenager, continues to live on in versions by the likes of Queen Latifah.

2007_2strayhorn.jpgAs part of the PBS "Independent Lens" series, tonight WTTW airs Robert Levi's new film Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life. Featuring performances by musicians such as Elvis Costello, Dianne Reeves, Hank Jones, Joe Lovano and Russell Malone, it examines the life of a brave and creative figure whose contributions to jazz have long been unfamiliar to many. It's perhaps no mystery why Strayhorn largely chose to live in the shadow of his employer: Ellington's amazing orchestra was always at the ready to perform a new composition; and not being at center stage drew attention away from the fact that, in a time of intense prejudice, Strayhorn was not only black but gay.

Reportedly one of Ellington's favorite studios was Chicago's own Universal Recording, which for many years was located at 46 East Walton not far from Michigan Avenue. Engineer Bruce Swedien remembers working with Strayhorn at a 1960 recording session with Duke in Chicago: "Billy 'Sweet Pea' Strayhorn lived a tremendously productive life. He influenced many people that he met, and yet remained very modest and unassuming all the while." In 2003 the Chicago Jazz Archives at the University of Chicago acquired a trove of newly discovered Strayhorn manuscripts, adding to their already impressive Strayhorn archive.

Oh, and "Take The 'A' Train?" Strayhorn allegedly finished writing it during a train trip from Chicago to Los Angeles. The lyrics are based on directions Elllington once gave him over the phone.

Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life premieres tonight at 10; it will be rebroadcast several times over the next few weeks.