Quick: Who penned Duke Ellington's familiar theme "Take the A Train"? Nope, it wasn't the flamboyant Ellington. Instead, it was BILLY STRAYHORN (1915-1967), the mild-mannered dude who often seemed to hide behind his horn-rims.
Strayhorn was much more than a mere Watson to the Holmes of Duke Ellington. Strayhorn, who wrote or arranged most of the Ellington songbook after 1939, survived as a double-minority—black and gay—and led a rich life separate from the blaring, macho world of the typical traveling jazz musician. But, though Strayhorn certainly deserved headliner status, he worked brilliantly and sometimes anonymously in the shadows. A fantastically detailed biopic, airing Tuesday, Feb. 6 at 10 p.m. on UNC-TV, finally penetrates the cloak of mystery surrounding jazz's quintessential underdog. Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life, directed by Robert Levi as part of the PBS Independent Lens series, will remind many of a Ken Burns-style documentary, combining crisp interviews and narration with vivid black-and-white still photos that magically seem to move.
Lending the 90-minute film a contemporary texture, Levi commissioned new performances of Strayhorn's best-known works by pianists Bill Charlap and Hank Jones and vocalist Dianne Reeves, who sounds more like departed diva Sarah Vaughan with each passing year. The accompanying soundtrack CD, also titled Lush Life and out on Blue Note, is solid enough, but the documentary is absolutely essential for anyone who adores great American music. —Joe Vanderford
DAN BRYK is finally ready to take America by song: Two weeks ago, Bryk—who moved to North Carolina from Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, five years ago—received a work visa from the American government. Bryk has been writing and recording steadily since arriving in the state, but he's had to curb his label and touring pursuits until given the government's green light. Plans to form a road band are in the works, and Bryk says Pop Psychology should be out sometime later this year. Meanwhile, look for Bryk at Local 506 on Friday, Feb. 2 with the The Last Town Chorus. Listen for him on Jersey City's WFMU 91.1 on Friday, Feb. 16 at 8 p.m. (www.wfmu.org).
Ohio label Tract Records recently released a four-way split CD featuring Black Swans, The Virginia Reel, Pink Nasty and Chapel Hill's THE STRUGGLERS. The band is currently finishing the follow-up to 2005's You Win.
Months after the release of their Ace Fu debut Be He Me, buzz for Raleigh's ANNUALS continues to grow: The band cracked David Menconi's mystifying Great 8 in last week's News & Observer (along with Southern Culture on the Skids, who have been a band longer than Annuals frontman Adam Baker has been alive), and they were announced as finalists for "Indie Rock Album of the Year" in the PLUG Awards. Annuals have a new British-only EP out, Big Zeus. —Grayson Currin