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Gay jazz genius is finally getting his due
Singer Dianne Reeves talks about Billy Strayhorn and his music

by Peter Galvin

Billy Strayhorn collaborated on a body of work that has virtually no rival in originality and range. Photo: Burt Goldblatt
“Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life,” a 90-minute documentary film about the pioneering African-American composer, arranger and pianist, debuted nationally as part of PBS’s Independent Lens series on Feb. 6.

The film presents Strayhorn’s fascinating life as it has never been told before, showcasing his talent and passions, as well as taking a hard look at his complex, 29-year working relationship with legendary bandleader Duke Ellington.

Strayhorn was a 23-year-old piano prodigy when Ellington, recognizing Strayhorn’s genius, tapped him to become his chief collaborator in 1940. The partnership produced a body of work that has virtually no rival in originality and range — spanning from unforgettable standards and jazz compositions to orchestral suites and theatrical scores.

The documentary also tackles the issues that prevented Strayhorn from receiving the recognition he deserved for his tremendous talent, particularly the fact that he was a gay man in a world still very much intolerant of homosexuality. Sadly, Strayhorn died from esophageal cancer in 1967 at the age of 51.

On Jan. 23, Blue Note Records released the companion soundtrack to “Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life.” The album features 15 Strayhorn compositions performed by several of today’s jazz stars including Grammy-winning vocalist Dianne Reeves, piano legend Hank Jones, Bill Charlap and Joe Lovano. Special guest Elvis Costello contributes lyrics and sings, as well.

These vibrant performances are also captured on camera and featured throughout the documentary. Reeves, who plays the most prominent musical role in the film, performs six songs on the album, including one of Strayhorn’s most defining works, “Lush Life,” rendered acoustically with the stunning support of guitarist Russell Malone.

Here, Reeves talks about the haunting beauty of Strayhorn’s music, the sadness and longing conveyed in his lyrics, and the possible impact his homosexuality had on his life and his work.
How did you get involved with 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.
What is your favorite Strayhorn song?

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.
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?

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.
I have read both that he lived as an openly gay man and that he was closeted about his sexuality. Do you have a sense of which of these views is more accurate?

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.

Did you ever speak to anyone who knew Strayhorn in his jazz heyday?

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.

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.

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.

What about today? Are gay people accepted in the jazz world?

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.

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?

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.

You played a jazz singer in the movie “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Did you enjoy that experience?

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.

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?

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.

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