PBS airs Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life tomorrow (Tuesday) night. And there’s plenty reason to watch. The documentary includes talking-head commentary from David Hajdu, Gunther Schuller and Luther Henderson, as well as many others. There are performances of Strayhorn tunes by Elvis Costello, Joe Lovano, Dianne Reeves, Bill Charlap and Hank Jones. And the film includes great old footage of the Ellington Orchestra and Strayhorn performing. The program advances the now fairly well rehearsed narrative, the under-appreciated-genius-who-was-wronged-and-held-back-by-Duke-Ellington theory, which I find a little annoying. People take mild swipes at Ellington for any number of alleged shortcomings, character flaws and tendencies: his lack of musical training, his vanity, his womanizing, his inclination to soak up the glory, credit and revenue when he capitalized on the talents of others. And maybe Ellington was out of line in trying to sabotage and keep Strayhorn within his organization, but I just don’t think it’s cool to disrespect the Duke. Strayhorn was clearly a genius, and his tunes are so lush and harmonically wonderful and sophisticated. And he certainly struggled in Duke’s shadows, and maybe didn’t get his fair share of the cash. But let’s not forget, Ellington had already written “Mood Indigo,” “Echoes of Harlem” and “Sophisticated Lady” before Strayhorn came around. That said, Strayhorn’s story is amazing: openly gay, cultivated, with a great sense of style, he impressed Ellington at their first meeting by playing him “Lush Life,” which he’d written as a teenager. He wrote “Take the A Train” based on directions to Ellington’s uptown apartment. He drank and smoked like crazy. He and Ellington’s son Mercer practically overhauled and wrote an entire Ellington orchestra songbook of material in the 40s during a radio composers strike. He guided Ellington toward his third golden period in the 60s with the many ambitious long-form suites. So, if like Miles Davis once said, everyone should take a special day to give thanks to Duke Ellington, why not throw in another special day to thank Billy Strayhorn.
All tracks written by Billy Strayhorn, except “Such Sweet Thunder,” which was written by Strayhorn and Ellington.
“U.M.M.G. (Upper Manhattan Medical Group)” - Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, from And His Mother Called Him Bill
“Day-Dream” - - Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, from And His Mother Called Him Bill
“Such Sweet Thunder” - Duke Ellington and his Orchestra
“Chelsea Bridge” - Ben Webster
“Tonk” - Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington piano duet