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By Peter Galvin
If jazz legend Billy Strayhorn were straight, his work may have not been underrecognized.
A companion soundtrack to the 90-minute documentary film about the pioneering composer, arranger and pianist, “Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life,” will take a hard look at the intolerant society Strayhorn infiltrated his music with and his complex relationship with Duke Ellington. The documentary debuts nationally as part of PBS’s Independent Lens series on Feb. 6.
“Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life,” the soundtrack, features 15 Strayhorn compositions performed by several of today’s jazz stars including Bill Charlap, Joe Lovano and Dianne Reeves, as well as piano legend Hank Jones and special guest Elvis Costello.
Grammy Award-winning vocalist Reeves, who also plays the most prominent musical role in the film, performs six songs on the album, including some of Strayhorn’s most defining works such as “Lush Life.”
Question: How did you get involved in this project?
Dianne Reeves: I was asked to be involved by one of Billy’s family members. They told me that they would be doing some Strayhorn music that no one had ever heard before, and they asked me if I would be interested in recording some of those songs. Of course, I said yes.
Q: What is your favorite Strayhorn song?
D.R.: I don’t have a favorite song. All of his melodies are extraordinary, and the words are always very interesting. You know, the majority of Strayhorn’s songs have a kind of sadness. They’re about not being able to find the love you desire. Like in the song “Azure,” which I don’t do on this album, he’s saying, “I’m not worthy.” All of the songs are so exposed and so revealing.
Q: Do you think that sadness comes from the fact that he was gay at a time – in the ’40s and ’50s – when homosexuality was still very much a taboo subject?
D.R.: Absolutely. But I also think that sadness came from the fact that he was a genius. Although jazz gave him an opportunity to express some of that genius, I think he knew he was capable of so much more. Ultimately, his life was beholden to what the culture was dictating at the time.
Q: I have read both that he lived as an openly gay man and that he was closeted about his sexuality. Do have a sense of which of these views is more accurate?
D.R.: I have also heard that he was openly gay and that he wasn’t. However he lived, I don’t think he got where he wanted. All of his lyrics state that over and over again.
Q: Did you ever speak to anyone who knew Strayhorn in his jazz heyday?
D.R.: Most of the people that knew him are all gone. All of my information was second-hand. I once sang at a tribute to Lena Horne, and I was hoping to speak to her about Billy because I know she knew him well, but we didn’t get the chance.
Q: I know that he and Duke Ellington had a close personal and professional relationship. It’s always amazing to me that Strayhorn’s sexuality doesn’t seem to have been an issue between them.
D.R.: The jazz world was very different back then than it is now. The jazz community was like an extended family. A lot of people were very accepting in that world. It was a very intimate community, very protective. It was really about your abilities and the fact that you were able to speak this particular musical language. Billy was not judged in that world.
Q: What about today? Are gay people accepted in the jazz world?
D.R.: The culture is not as rich and as tight as it used to be. The jazz world is much more spread out, and it doesn’t have that intimacy that it used to have. Certain jazz musicians have come out, and people gladly play with them and work with them. Someone like Gary Burton has had no problem. People really want to work with him.
Q: I know you are going to be releasing a new album this year. It will be your first album in six years that contains original compositions. Will these be songs that you wrote?
D.R.: Yes. It is very difficult for me to write, but it’s necessary. I work a lot and I have to shed off that performance part of me to be able to get down to my own bare place to work on music. That takes a minute for me. I just can’t write when I am on tour.
Q: You played a jazz singer in the movie “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Did you enjoy that experience?
D.R.: I was very comfortable because I was doing what comes naturally to me. It was fun to pretend to be in the ’50s, to dress up and have this kind of fantasy.
Q: Going into last year’s Grammy Awards, you were the only artist to have won three consecutive Grammys in a vocal category. And then you won your fourth. It’s an amazing accomplishment. Are awards important to you?
D.R.: In the jazz community, it means a lot. It’s my peers who are voting for me, so that part feels good. But you know, next year, someone else wins. The most important thing is the journey, developing creatively and continuing to have an audience. Awards are nice to receive, but you have to move on from there.
Chris Azzopardi contributed to this report.
“Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life”
Album: In stores now
PBS debut: Feb. 6