duke ellington - the nutcracker suite

full disclosure - i have never listened to the real tchaikovsky original, never seen the nutcracker ballet, played this version several times, and am writing this RTR while tucked away in the top corner of the middle school gymnasium bleachers between 6th grade boys basketball games.  i'm also not much of a big band enthusiast, although i acknowledge duke ellington's stature in the history of this music and revere billy strayhorn.  as i understand it (with some insight from the strayhorn biography lush life), these two gentlemen worked side by side in many capacities.  ellington took most of the credit for the band's repertoire, earned and otherwise.  he obviously assembled the group and kept things afloat and did his fair share (?) of writing/arranging and band leading. i've always thought that strayhorn was the brains behind the brawn. he was excited to reimagine the nutcracker, and bore the brunt of the burden in the writing and arranging of this suite (man, i'm using lots of words that start with "b").  columbia records chose to feature strayhorn prominently in the art work and the liner notes.  it is said that billy preferred to be in the shadow of a dead composer (tchaikovsky), and embraced this opportunity.  i love billy, and my heart bleeds for him whenever i think of his struggles.  

there is so much joy in the writing and playing.  i can't help but love this.  toot toot tootie toot has great dry staccatos in the clarinets.  peanut brittle brigade is really swinging. the drummer is driving this band.  the balance is good, horns are in tune, and the solo moments are in character.  the ascending cascade lines in the ensemble are seamless.  is this tenor soloist paul gonsalves?  i don't recognize his sound, but am guessing based upon the year and personnel.  i don't have the knack of instant recognition that most jazz enthusiasts possess.  i wish i did.  i also wish i played trumpet so i could kiss off those high parts at the end of tunes.  

i'm sort of watching a basketball game U12 while writing this, waiting for my son's next game (he plays the winner of this matchup).  ellington's band succeeded because of the writing, the integrity of the playing, the era in which they rose to prominence, and the continuity within the ensemble.  harry carney, johnny hodges, tricky sam, cootie, and many others stuck with this band for a long time.  i imagine that if these kids on the basketball team all stick it out and play for years to come, they will have similar success - founded in continuity and teamwork and leadership and getting better because others in your troop are getting better.

the clarinet playing is dynomite.  dynamics that taper away in the entr'acte are to die for.  i like how the opening to the volga vouty is abrasive and powerful.  great execution, as you would expect.  johnny hodges on this solo?  sounds like his vibrato, yet without the slippin'-and-slidin'.   yeah!  #11 at the bottom of the voicing in carney's part.  makes me laugh. how many other musical inside jokes am i missing because i don't know the original inside and out?  when i have played this (and will do again tonight with my good friend russ kramer's band) i sub soprano saxophone for clarinet.  i hate that i do that - the color is totally not right.  i need to bone up on my clarinet playing.  there's ellington playing the #11 in the bottom several times now in chinoiserie.  this confirms my suspicions - i'm definitely missing something.  

this recording makes me like swing music.  maybe it's like sushi - people think they don't like it, and then try some really good stuff from a high end restaurant and quickly change their mind.  does this mean that i'm listening to crappy swing bands playing mediocre material?  i also think i'm not in love with playing it either, but do it on occasion to get reacquainted with it in my head and in my chops.  russ is really into good big band, but may be my only friend that digs this stuff.  he turns me on to lunceford, fletcher, oliver, maria, bobby brookmeyer, woody, and even some kenton. he has really helped me with my own big band, in terms of choosing repertoire and general concepts.  all i want to do is improvise and, while there are times for that in this type of ensemble, there are many other things to consider.  

russ is allowing me to play the 2nd book on these, which gets me just one solo for the night.  but... i get to close the concerts with plenty of space on arabesque cookie. great swing literature and some blowing space - i'm a lucky guy.  on a side note - i don't like the original cover for this album. white sweaters?  why is billy looking down, forlorn?  i guess prefer it over the reissue, with ellington alone on the cover.  


  1. Thank you so much for your comments on the Ellington/Strayhorn adaptation of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite". Thank you also for the insight on Billy Strayhorn's contribution to that work.

    The original scores are now being published by Alfred Publishing. This version acknowledges Strayhorn by titling the set "Strayhorn/Ellington". At least six of the nine movements were arranged by Strayhorn, two by both Strayhorn and Ellington and one soley by Ellington.

    We are proud of this publication because it was the result of a collaboration between the Strayhorn and Ellington estates, based on original manuscripts in the Strayhorn Repository and the Smithsonian Ellington repository. It was further checked against the original 1960 recording for accuracy.

    As far as the reissues, I was as concerned with the replacement of the famous Gordon Parks photo featuring both composers to the present sketch. What was even more disturbing to me was the replacement of the photo of both Ellington and Strayhorn on the Ellington tribute album "And His Mother Called Him Bill" with a sketch only of Ellington. These decisions were made by Ellington promoters to try to establish Ellington's "singularity" as the most significant twentieth century composer for his 1999 centennial.

    Thanks to David Hajdu's book, "Lush Life: A biography of Billy Strayhorn" then later Walter van de Leur's book "Something To Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn" there is now a written record that sets the record (no pun intended) straight.

    These comments are not meant to diminish Ellington's place in history--he will always be a significant figure and he should be. But it is heartening that Strayhorn is being recognized for his tremendous contribution to the canon of great composers. That is all we want--no more and no less.


    A. Alyce Claerbaut
    Billy Strayhorn Songs, Inc.

  2. Your comment about big band like sushi…..don’t you think that the bottom line is that what we’re all about is finding good music, regardless of genre? We sometimes get caught in our “barbeque” or “steak” ruts and don’t try things that are new, but I think that eventually our taste buds want something different (Cajun calamari?). I know I want to grow my comfort zone and find things to listen to that are new and challenging. I also don’t want to waste my time listening to music that I don’t deem worthy of giving up part of my life to hear. Therein lies the rub (and spare change). We sometimes do the proverbial “judging the book by the cover” and ignore something because we are familiar with something else presented by the artist or we are not familiar at all with it and can think of 10 million things that we would rather spend our time with than taking the chance with something new.