Billy Strayhorn

Last week I went to an advance screening at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) of Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life, a new film about the short, creative, and ultimately kinda sad life of songwriter/arranger Billy Strayhorn. "Strays" or "Sweet Pea" as his friends knew him was part, some would say most, of the brains behind Duke Ellington's success in the forties and fifties. The film will be shown on PBS around the country in February.

If you haven't read it already David Hajdu’s book on Strays, also called Lush Life after one of his most famous tunes, is the go–to resource for all things Strayhorn. The author plays a large role in the film and is the de facto leader of the Strays–was–wronged school of thinking. At the center of this opinion is the notion that Ellington used Strays talent and took all the credit. Or even more damning Ellington willfully and deliberately killed any hope Strays had of a larger career and more personal recognition outside or after his work with Duke. There's no doubt that this most assuredly happened. Need a specific example? Sinatra wanted to hire Strays away but behind the scenes, Duke torpedoed the whole thing. What a team Francis Albert and Strayhorn would have made. But here was the real knockout blow for me: Billy Strayhorn never received a dime, not one dime, of royalties from "Take The A Train," which he wrote both the words and music for. Duke got it all. Unbelievable.

It's no secret that Ellington had his monstrous, ego-driven sides. Ever see the famous photo of Duke backstage perched in front of a dressing room mirror, smiling like a sultan, applying cold cream to his face? That told me what I needed to know. The man was a diva and divas need constant care and feeding. They also have really nasty sides. Jealous sides which is one thing the film implies about Duke's relationship with Strayhorn. He sort of enjoyed holding him back.

Strays on the other hand liked being in the background. He also liked, and this is one of the film's salient points, the lifestyle (i.e. cash and status) that being part of the Ellington thing afforded him. In other words he compromised his desire to be properly credited as an artist for the lifestyle that being Ellington's sidekick afforded him. The significance here is that when it comes to musical deals with devil, musical Faustian adventures, Strays path is one of the most monumental. You have believe that his legendary drinking and smoking habits which eventually killed him, had to have been driven by the churning emotions that this bargain engendered.

I had a few small problems with the film which overall is excellent. My biggest objection is that there was no context given as to where Duke's band stood in music world at the time Strayhorn teamed with Edward Kennedy Ellington. Basie was never acknowledged, nor was the ways in which Ellington and Strays music differed from that of the territorial bands. To make matters worse, the film makes numerous nave, Gee Whiz overstatements about how Ellington was such a crowning and seminal figure both in jazz and on the long road to African-Americans becoming transcendent stars. Ahh, gee Mr. Levi it seems to me that Louis Armstrong may be a larger example in both those categories. But Pops, like Basie, never even rates a single mention. No one in fact does. To give proper weight to Strayhorn and Ellington's achievements, a little context as to what was going on around them would have been a big help. Anyone unfamiliar with the history of jazz is gonna have a harder time understanding the weight inherent in the film’s subject.

But again if you don't mind the narrow focus (i.e. Ellington and Strayhorn existed in a vacuum), then the film is really well done. By the picture's end, around 1967 when Strayhorn died of esophageal cancer, a common killer for both alcoholics and smokers alike, the sadness of a life sort of half sold out and also cut short, is palpable. I saw tears in the eyes of some of the jazzbos around me, not to mention my own. The man was quite a talent. And yet another part of Pittsburgh's proud part in jazz history.