Winner 2007

Independent Lens: Billy Strayhorn — Lush Life

Robert Levi Films, Independent Television Service, Washington Square Films

Billy Strayhorn is one of America’s least-known musical geniuses, a jazz composer, arranger and pianist who worked in the shadow of the renowned Duke Ellington, contributing such signature classics as “Take the ‘A’ Train’ and “Lush Life” to the Ellington oeuvre. The Independent Lens biography elevates Strayhorn and explores the primary reason he isn’t better known. Strayhorn was openly gay in an era when even free-spirited jazz musicians tended to be staunchly homophobic. Ellington, who instantly recognized Strayhorn’s precocity, gave him an outlet for his music, albeit at a price. Strayhorn didn’t share equally in the credit or the profits of his musical contributions. The filmmakers use reenactments, sparingly, along with archival photos and film, interviews with musicians who knew him and Ellington, and performances of Strayhorn songs. The result—a fascinating, poignant narrative about the relationship between these two complex, musical giants—achieves a musicality of its own. This biography has rhythm. It swings. For its lyrical revaluation of a great American musical artist, Independent Lens: Billy Strayhorn—Lush Life receives a Peabody Award.


Executive producers: Sally Jo Fifer. Producers: Joshua Blum, Robert Levi, George Seminara. Director: Robert Levi. Writers: Robert Levi, Robert Seidman. Cinematography: Fred Murphy, David Sperling. Web designer: ITVS Interactive.