Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life

to have its television premiere on PBS, Tuesday, Febuary 6 at 10 PM

Visit the program companion website 

(San Francisco, CA) — BILLY STRAYHORN: LUSH LIFE portrays one of American music’s least known musical geniuses: the pioneering African American jazz composer, arranger and pianist Billy Strayhorn, best known as Duke Ellington’s long-time collaborator and composing companion. BILLY STRAYHORN: LUSH LIFEpresents his fascinating story as it has never been told before, showcasing Strayhorn’s gifts, and illuminating the issues that prevented him from receiving greater worldwide recognition. BILLY STRAYHORN: LUSH LIFE will have its television premiere on the Emmy Award-winning PBS series Independent Lens, hosted by Terrence Howard, on Tuesday, February 6 at 10 PM (check local listings). 

For nearly 30 years, from the late 1930s through his death in 1967, Strayhorn was a major force in shaping the Ellington sound, producing 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 much sung and recorded “Lush Life” (whose sophisticated melody and lyrics he composed when only in his mid-teens). Yet at the time of his premature death at age 51, few people outside the musical world were familiar with his brilliant accomplishments and genius. 

He was gay in an era when jazz players were homophobic, and open about his sexuality at a time when most gays remained closeted. Strayhorn was also active in the Civil Rights Movement when being an activist could lead to ostracism, violence—or worse. As Ellington’s collaborator, Strayhorn rarely received recognition for his musical contributions, nor for the considerable profits he helped generate. Some believe that Ellington’s publishers were opportunistic about credits and royalties, and that Strayhorn was not treated fairly; others insist Ellington provided Strayhorn with a shield during a time that was intimidating for homosexuals, and lifted him from obscurity. Levi’s film navigates the grey areas of their complicated relationship, and attempts to uncover the truth about these private, complex men. 

Filmmaker Robert Levi incorporates rarely-seen home movies, re-creations starring Dulé Hill as Strayhorn, and a multitude of unpublished images from several 20th century American photography masters to illuminate the Strayhorn story. The film features television broadcast premieres of recently discovered Strayhorn musicas well as some of his best-known compositions, as sung by Dianne Reeves and Elvis Costello, and interpreted by piano legend Hank Jones, pianist Bill Charlap, saxophonist Joe Lovano, and guitarist Russell Malone. 

Among the 30-plus compositions covered are “Blood Count,” “Tonk,” “Fantastic Rhythm,” “So This Is Love,” “Satin Doll,” “Something to Live For,” “Lush Life,” and others. BILLY STRAYHORN: Lush Life is co-produced with Washington Square Films, and features a companion CD, which will be released by Blue Note Records on Tuesday, January 23. For inquiries regarding the CD, contact: Diana Nazareth, DL Media 416/815-8883 

The BILLY STRAYHORN: LUSH LIFE interactive companion website ( features detailed information on the film, including an interview with the filmmaker, and links and resources pertaining to the film’s subject matter. The site also features a Talkback section for viewers to share their ideas and opinions, preview clips of the film, and more. 

Writer/Producer/Director Robert Levi is the recipient of three Best Script nominations from the Writers Guild of America for his documentary work. His film, Duke Ellington: Reminiscing in Tempo, premiered on PBS’s American Experience series, received an EMMY, in addition to many other awards, and later played on A&E’s Biography. His work has been seen at film festivals worldwide including Berlin, London, Melbourne, Munich, AFI, and others. He wrote, produced, and directed Mott Street, a 35mm dramatic film short for PolyGram. As Director of Photography, he collaborated with many celebrated directors, including Norman Jewison, Sidney Pollack, and Nick Broomfield, and taught cinematography at Columbia University’s Graduate Film School. He began his documentary career as Production Manager and Camera Assistant on the Oscar winning prison feature film, Scared Straight

Press Contact:
Mary Lugo: 770/623-8190,
Cara White: 843/881-1480,
Voleine Amilcar, ITVS: 415/356-8383 x 244,
Randall Cole, ITVS: 415/356-8383 x 254,

Posted on January 4, 2007