PBS Strayhorn Profile Leaves Duke Beheaded
Byline: Ted Cox
America's greatest composer has a hard time of it on PBS tonight.
Then again, maybe it's simply that America's greatest composer finally gets the recognition he deserves.
That begs the question, of course, who is America's greatest composer? And PBS' "Independent Lens" poses the idea that maybe, just maybe, it was Billy Strayhorn, who surrendered most of the credit for his work to the man generally granted that prestigious title, Duke Ellington.
First things first, however. Let's agree, for sake of argument, that Ellington is the greatest American composer. He certainly has been considered such in academic circles for at least the last 25 years or so, since jazz threw off the shackles of being considered "jungle music" and was finally, formally granted the critical stature it had long deserved.
Ellington wasn't just a bandleader. He was an incredibly astute bandleader, able to create songs that showed off the abilities of his musicians in a way that created complete musical compositions. So don't talk to me about Aaron Copland, much less Charles Ives. With intricate, harmonically complex, thematically ambitious compositions like "Ko-Ko" and "Harlem Air Shaft," as well as longer forms like "Black, Brown & Beige" and the later "Far East Suite," Ellington pretty much kicks their longhair butts around the block.
Like Shakespeare, he worked in a collaborative medium in a way that exploited the skill of his colleagues, making everyone better and the finished product best of all, and as with Shakespeare the question is often raised: Who actually wrote the work?
It's been almost 400 years since Shakespeare died, only 30 since Ellington did, yet with both there is abundant gray area. The fact is that for almost 30 years Strayhorn worked with Ellington as a pianist, arranger and composer. They were collaborators, and the work they created was magnificent. Ellington wrote plenty of tunes before even meeting Strayhorn and plenty more without him. Yet Strayhorn unquestionably wrote what is generally considered Ellington's theme song, "Take the 'A' Train," and other masterpieces like "Satin Doll." There is no denying that the music Ellington's big band created was at its peak when Strayhorn was involved, best heard today on the compilation from the early '40s known as "The Blanton-Webster Band."
It seems clear they had a relationship that was as complex as it was productive. Yet history hates a mystery, and while PBS might love the British program "Mystery!" its documentaries abhor mysteries as well. In "Lush Life," airing at 10 p.m. today on WTTW Channel 11, the PBS series "Independent Lens" sets out correct the imbalance in acclaim Ellington and Strayhorn received.
So, for the most part, the Duke gets trashed while Strayhorn is championed. …