Ellington once described composer Billy Strayhorn as "my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head, and his in mine." The collaboration between Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn lasted nearly thirty years and produced some of the most remarkable and enduring American music of the twentieth century. But while Duke Ellington's name and image are familiar to many Americans, Billy Strayhorn remains relatively unknown to the public. With NEH support, filmmaker Robert Levi has brought Strayhorn's work and life into view with the documentary Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life.
The film investigates Strayhorn's legacy through interviews with friends and colleagues, as well as scholars of his music and his era. The film features new performances of Strayhorn classics by musicians such as Bill Charlap, Elvis Costello, Hank Jones, Joe Lovano, and Dianne Reeves.
A portrait emerges of Strayhorn as a sensitive and complex man who had a deeply ambivalent relationship with his employer, friend, and collaborator Duke Ellington.
Strayhorn was born on November 29, 1915, in Pennsylvania to a steelworker father and a university-educated mother. He grew up in poverty; despite not having an instrument in his home, the young Strayhorn took private music lessons and quickly became a skilled pianist.
While he was still in high school, Strayhorn began writing short pieces, songs, and even a musical called Fantastic Rhythm. Strayhorn encountered Ellington for the first time when he was eighteen. On Thanksgiving Day in 1934 he went to a screening of the movie Murder at the Vanities in which the Ellington orchestra had a small feature. Strayhorn recalled, "Ellington played his version of Liszt's Rape of the Rhapsody, which he called Ebony Rhapsody. He played a chord in the orchestration that I couldn't figure out. I had a dream that one day I would ask him about it. But something deeper was happening. Something inside me changed when I saw Ellington on stage, like I hadn't been living until then."
Three years later, Strayhorn was working as a soda jerk when he arranged a meeting to show his compositions to Ellington with the help of Gus Greenlee. a numbers runner in Pittsburgh.
In the film, Ellington recalls that meeting. "A friend of mine, Gus Greenlee, came to me one day and says, 'I got a young kid. He writes good music. I'd like you to hear some of his stuff and see what you think of it.' [I replied], 'Well, there's a piano. Tell him to sit down and play something.' So, the little boy sat down and started playing and he sang a couple lyrics and man, I was up on my feet."
"I would like to have you in my organization," Ellington told the younger composer. "I have to find some way of injecting you into it after I go to New York."
Hearing nothing further from Ellington for several months, Strayhorn set out for New York. Strayhorn tracked down Ellington in Harlem and soon became like one of Ellington's family. He lived at Ellington's apartment with Ellington's son Mercer and his sister Ruth. While the Ellington orchestra was out on tour, Strayhorn stayed behind to write and to study Ellington's scores.
Strayhorn became absorbed in the culture of 1930s Harlem. He was sometimes a participant in the jam sessions at Minton's Playhouse, which included many of the early innovators of bebop, including Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach. Bud Powell. and Thelonious Monk.
Living in New York allowed Strayhorn to flower as a musician. It was also the first time he could live his life openly as a gay man, an option not available to him in Pittsburgh.
In the film, historian George Chauncey gives an idea of what this might have meant to Strayhorn. "There are really two things you've got to keep in mind about gay life in the forties. On the one hand it was an incredibly oppressive time. Gay bars were being raided all the time. Thousands of men were being arrested every year in New York City alone. …