The Film

A black-and-white image of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, wearing matching pinstriped suits, pattered ties and handkerchiefs tucked into their jacket pockets

Billy Strayhorn, to me, stands alone with Duke Ellington as a model of what having it all together is all about, where your technique is second nature and is driven by passion alone.
‹Quincy Jones

From the 1940s to the 1960s, Billy Strayhorn was one of the forces behind the sound of the renowned Duke Ellington Orchestra. BILLY STRAYHORN: LUSH LIFE tells the story of this pioneering African American composer, arranger and pianist. Strayhorn helped produce a body of work that has no rival in originality and range—from unforgettable tunes and jazz melodies to orchestral suites and soundtracks. He was the sole composer of many classic compositions, including the Ellington theme song, “Take The ‘A’ Train,” and the widely recorded “Lush Life.” Yet at the time of his death in 1967 at age 51 from esophageal cancer, most people were unfamiliar with his musical accomplishments and genius.

Today, historians and scholars agree that Billy Strayhorn remains one of the most under-recognized American composers in history. Born in 1915, Strayhorn chose to live openly as a gay black man. It was perhaps this decision—and his lifelong devotion to Ellington—which contributed to his near anonymity as a major American composer. Ironically, Strayhorn is the composer of many of the world’s most defining and recognizable jazz standards. While Ellington is arguably the most influential and celebrated jazz composer of the 20th century, Strayhorn is unrecognized. BILLY STRAYHORN: LUSH LIFE poses answers to the question of who was Billy Strayhorn, and why is he still relatively unknown?

The little boy started playing and he sang a couple of lyrics and, man, I was up on my feet!
—Duke Ellington, regarding Billy Strayhorn

Strayhorn was openly gay during a highly homophobic era. He was active in civil rights before it became a popular cause. Yet, as courageous as he could be, Strayhorn found it a challenge to receive a fair share of the unique musical achievements and the considerable profits he helped to generate. On the surface, their partnership seemed perfect. Ellington's ebullient charm led him instinctively to the spotlight, while writers speculated that Strayhorn shied from a more public role, both to maintain his privacy and to avoid being persecuted for his homosexuality. Recent scholarship, however, challenges this assumption, asserting that Strayhorn lived an openly gay life and deeply enjoyed concert performances.

BILLY STRAYHORN: LUSH LIFE not only emphasizes the vast contributions Strayhorn made to Ellington’s oeuvre, but also features his own newly discovered compositions, with world premieres of his music featuring singers Elvis Costello and Dianne Reeves, pianists Hank Jones and Bill Charlap, saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Russell Malone. With interviews, performances and archival footage, BILLY STRAYHORN: LUSH LIFE showcases Strayhorn’s gifts and illuminates the issues that deprived him of deserved recognition.

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