Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Tribeca ’10: Billy and Aaron (Short)

As an audition, a young Billy Strayhorn wrote “Take the A Train,” which quickly became Duke Ellington’s beloved theme song. Yet until only recently, many jazz fans were unaware of the nature and extent of his contributions to the Ellington band’s book. The trade-offs Strayhorn made in his career are the subject of Rodney Evans’s short film, Billy and Aaron, which screens as part of the “Hard Core” programming block at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Duke Ellington took the bows and most likely a disproportionate share of the credit for his “collaborations” with Strayhorn. In return, he offered the musician-composer financial security and protection to live relatively open, despite the homophobic prejudices then not uncommon on the jazz scene. It was a bargain Strayhorn evidently made an uneasy peace with, as he explains to his friend-colleague-lover Aaron Bridgers on the eve of the latter man’s departure for Paris.

Evans uses Strayhorn’s standard “Lush Life,” a lyrical expression of worldly disillusionment, as the fitting touchstone for B&A. Performed by Aaron Diehl, a talented young jazz pianist with a strong affinity for Ellingtonia, it sets the perfect tone of elegant regret. However, the film’s somewhat coarse look is a bit at odds with the sophistication of its subjects. Still, it is a well conceived portrait of the musicians, featuring strong performances by Brandon Delagraentiss and Ignaro Petronilloia as Strayhorn and Bridgers, respectively.

Thanks to David Hajdu’s biography, a PBS documentary, and a host of tribute CDs, Strayhorn’s contributions to American music are generally well known by most jazz listeners today. Strayhorn, who would eventually join Bridgers in Paris, died tragically early. One of the best tributes to “Strays” was indeed the first, And His Mother Called Him Bill, recorded by the still grieving Ellington and his Orchestra. Everyone should become acquainted with the music of Strayhorn (and Ellington). Hopefully, B&A will intrigue Tribeca patrons to seek out further listening. It plays again as part of the “Hard Core” program on Thursday (4/29) and Sunday (5/2).