- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2007

The most chilling image in Robert Levi’s revealing documentary “Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life” (premiering locally at 11:30 p.m. tomorrow on WETA-Channel 26) comes near its conclusion. We see the cherubic composer looking hollow and gaunt in a never-before-seen snapshot taken just before his 1967 death — fast-tracked by Mr. Strayhorn’s nonstop smoking and drinking — at age 51.

The picture surfaces within a montage of earlier archival footage recalling happier times during Mr. Strayhorn’s heyday as Duke Ellington’s musical alter ego. The two formed an emotionally complex partnership that would span nearly three decades — and, more often than not, keep Mr. Strayhorn in the shadow of the jazz icon.

When the end came, Mr. Ellington, consumed by grief, could not bear to attend Mr. Strayhorn’s funeral. Instead, he channeled his sorrow into an album titled “And His Mother Called Him Bill” — a loving tribute to the pianist he often called “the other half of my heartbeat.”

Yet despite the collaborators’ creative symbiosis, a question has lingered in the 40 years since Mr. Strayhorn’s death: Why did the classically trained composer and arranger (called “Swee Pea” by intimates) settle for such a small share of the charming and egocentric Mr. Ellington’s reflected glory?

Although the script for “Billy Strayhorn,” co-written by Mr. Levi and Robert Seidman, is less elegant than Geoffrey C. Ward’s for Ken Burns’ 2001 PBS classic “Jazz,” it is equally well-sourced. Buttressed by a superb companion CD on Blue Note featuring vocalist Dianne Reeves, tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and pianist Bill Charlap, the 90-minute film probes Mr. Strayhorn’s self-effacing persona through insightful interviews with an A-list of jazz greats and entertainers, including: Quincy Jones, Jon Hendricks, Don Shirley, Chico Hamilton, Clark Terry, Gerald Wilson, Eartha Kitt, Elvis Costello, Billy Taylor), author Gail Lumet Buckley (the daughter of Mr. Strayhorn’s close friend Lena Horne), music scholars, former loves and various Strayhorn family members.

We learn, for instance, that Mr. Strayhorn, the fourth of 10 children from a poor working-class family, labored without a contract or salary and received no royalties from “Take the A Train,” which became Mr. Ellington’s theme song. The tune, composed by Mr. Strayhorn in 1941 from the subway directions Mr. Ellington had given him to get to his Harlem home, remains to this day the most lucrative and recognizable tune in the vast Ellington oeuvre. (“Passion Flower,” “Something to Live For,” “Chelsea Bridge” and “Satin Doll” are just a few of the other Strayhorn contributions).

“Duke was somewhat complicit in his subordination of Strayhorn,” David Hajdu (author of the acclaimed “Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn”) says in the film. “He didn’t actively diminish him, but he allowed it. And I think it was a mistake. A mistake made by a great man who was capable of better.”

The long tango between the two began in late 1938. Gus Greenlee, owner of the Negro Leagues’ famed Pittsburgh Crawfords — and a kingpin in the Steel City’s illegal numbers racket — hastily arranged for the barely 5-foot-tall Mr. Strayhorn to play for the towering Mr. Ellington (born Edward Kennedy Ellington to a privileged District family in 1899) after the bandleader finished a performance at the city’s Stanley Theatre.

Impressed with his performance of the sophisticated and hauntingly bittersweet “Lush Life” (composed by Mr. Strayhorn when he was just 16), Mr. Ellington promised the young man he’d “find a way to insert you into my organization.”

Within weeks, Mr. Strayhorn — until then working as a soda jerk and delivery boy in a Pittsburgh drugstore while pursuing his musical dreams — bummed a ride with friends to New York. There, he lived with Mr. Ellington’s family before setting up house with pianist Aaron Bridgers, one of his first longtime loves.

Some speculate that although Mr. Strayhorn was openly homosexual within his circle of friends and family, he may have shunned the public spotlight during an era when same sex relationships simply weren’t tolerated and often led to intimidation and/or criminal prosecution.

“The jazz world was a man’s world, a place where homophobia was prevalent,” actor Keith David notes in the film’s narration. “Hostilities grew within the [Ellington] band.”

Wisely, Mr. Levi’s film avoids dwelling on Mr. Strayhorn’s sexuality, focusing, instead, on his musicianship and his later unsung work in the civil rights movement, activism that continued until his death.

There are a few glitches, chief among them the filmmaker’s use of actor Dule Hill (“The West Wing”) to portray a young Mr. Strayhorn in brief re-enactments that add nothing to the piece. You also wish that the vibrant Pittsburgh jazz scene that shaped Mr. Strayhorn had been fleshed out in greater detail.

Still, despite its flaws, Mr. Levi’s “Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life” is a rich portrait that at long last honors this neglected composer’s genius and enduring legacy.

WHAT: “Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life” on WETA Channel 26

WHEN: Tomorrow at 11:30 p.m.

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