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"Tchaikovsky to Strayhorn to Ellington"
Why Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's Nutcracker Suite is essential holiday listening
One of my favourite clips on YouTube is a joint interview from 1966 with Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein, two of the towering figures of 20th century music. Part of the discussion centres on the growing convergence between jazz and classical music.
Ellington: What I have been trying to do is to de-categorize this American music. It’s American music, or the stuff that we’re in anyway. It’s gotten to the point where the modern contemporary composer and the guy who is supposedly the modern jazz composer, they all come out of the same conservatories. And it’s very difficult to find a place to draw the line.
Bernstein: Well, you were certainly one of the pioneers in that.
Ellington: Oh, yeah, well I didn’t come out of the conservatory.
Bernstein: No, but you were one of the first people who wrote so-called symphonic jazz.
Ellington: I had a conservatory in the Capitol Theater. Sit there and listen to the symphony before the picture.
Bernstein: Maybe that’s the difference between us. That you write symphonic jazz and I write jazz symphonies.
As Bernstein makes clear, Ellington was no stranger to the tools of the classical composer. He employed them with brilliance: tone poems (‘A Tone Parallel to Harlem,’ for starters), suites (Far East Suite, one of countless examples), and the concerto form (Ellington’s modus operandi of writing for the individual voices in his orchestra is an argument that almost all of his compositions can be considered a concerto, in one way or another). Consider also Billy Strayhorn, Ellington’s musical soulmate and close collaborator for over a quarter-century, and impressionism (‘Chelsea Bridge,’ for just one exhibit).
The intersection of jazz and classical has also included such things as “Third Stream” music, George Gershwin’s stabs at symphonic forms as well as the works of composers such as Ravel, Copland, Bernstein and many others.
There is also the tradition of jazzing up the classics. Taking a classical composition and retooling it for the jazz audience. Few pieces have proved as durable or adaptable to this approach than Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and no one has succeeded as much in doing so than Ellington and Strayhorn in 1960.
The idea to create a jazz suite out of The Nutcracker was Strayhorn’s and it satisfied Columbia’s (Ellington’s label at the time) desire for a prestige product that could make a splash. He worked on crafting the arrangements in New York, conferring with Ellington over the phone wherever his band was appearing in preparation for a record date in early June. Based on reedman Jimmy Hamilton’s description of the sessions quoted in David Hajdu’s indispensable Lush Life, Strayhorn largely called the shots on the project.
“Billy was very, very greatly involved in the recording. He had quite a few musical ideas all prepared for us, and we had to do them very exactly. [Russell] Procope was supposed to play this strange little whistle. [Juan] Tizol played the tambourine. It was his ideas, and everybody was very happy with the results—I mean, Duke and everybody who was involved.”
What resulted, The Nutcracker Suite, is an unquestioned triumph, a seasonal delight to revisit each Yuletide and above all, a reaffirmation of the Duke Ellington Orchestra as a nonpareil ensemble. The melodies may be Tchaikovsky’s, but the milieu is all Ellington and Strayhorn’s. To hit that point especially home, each piece, save for the Overture, was retitled in the lingo of Ellingtonia. The Arabian Dance is ‘Arabesque Cookie.’ The Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy is ‘Sugar Rum Cherry.’ The Dance of the Reed Pipes rechristened as ‘Toot Toot Tootie Toot.’
To get a flavour for the recording, check out this amazing five-minute promotional video from Columbia Records with label president Goddard Lieberson and featuring Ellington and the orchestra (though Strayhorn is name-dropped briefly, he is, as was the norm, absent from the proceedings).
For all of Ellington’s reputation of running a loose ship and occasionally being less than completely prepared for a record date (his songbook collaboration with Ella Fitzgerald a prime example), The Nutcracker Suite bursts forth with imposing, tight musicianship, collectively as well as individually. Hear the ensemble passages of ‘Toot Toot Tootie Toot,’ in which the trumpets dig in with supreme swagger, the buoyant reed work at the start of ‘The Volga Vouty’ and the aplomb with which the various sections of the band tackle the ‘Peanut Brittle Brigade,’ a high-octane run-through of Tchaikovsky’s famous Nutcracker March.
Sam Woodyard’s hand drums provide a sensuous syncopation for ‘Sugar Rum Cherry,’ punctuated by Harry Carney’s baritone and Paul Gonsalves’ tenor followed by the clarinets of Jimmy Hamilton and Russell Procope. Gonsalves, Ellington’s star tenor for over 20 years, also has a dreamy interlude suggesting that Tchaikovsky’s Sugar Plum Fairy has gone beatnik. He also tears it up on ‘Peanut Brittle Brigade,’ launching his solo seemingly already in mid-flight and climaxing with a rollicking series of cadenzas. As the final orchestral blast is ready to be sounded, one can almost see Ellington, up from the piano (he has a fine solo on the piece) and pointing to the studio ceiling, a sign for his men to go for broke. They do and a classic performance has been waxed. Contrast it with the music box-like delicacy of ‘Chinoiserie’ and the Pas de deux that Gonsalves and Hamilton engage in, the precise articulation of each note the musical equivalent of a ballet dancer’s pirouette.
Along with charts that command the listener’s attention is the opportunity to luxuriate in the world of the Duke’s men. The ‘Entr’acte,’ a quick recapitulation in the middle of the suite of the Overture, offers Gonsalves, altoist Johnny Hodges, Carney, trombonist Lawrence Brown and Hamilton brief turns in the spotlight.
Brown is the star of ‘Dance of the Floreadores’—Ellington and Strayhorn’s reimagining of the Waltz of the Flowers—as he blows Tchaikovsky’s melody, bubbling over with impeccable swing. Ray Nance’s tart trumpet is heard to great effect on the Overture, ‘Peanut Brittle Brigade,’ and ‘The Volga Vouty.’ One wishes he would have had a chance to fetch his violin from its case to add to the smouldering mood of the suite closer, ‘Arabesque Cookie.’
At its start, Russell Procope trades in his alto and clarinet for a bamboo whistle which immediately signifies we are in for something special. Bassist Aaron Bell then establishes the song’s snake-charmer of a rhythm, soon joined by Juan Tizol on tambourine, Sam Woodyard on the toms and Harry Carney’s bass clarinet twinned by Hamilton’s clarinet. The sounds paint a portrait of wandering in an undulating, unending desert. Over the horizon, Johnny Hodges unleashes a solo full of bluesy riffs, his trademark glissandos butting up against Ellington and Strayhorn’s voicings for a delicious study in contrasts. After Hodges, the mood dies down and the orchestra recedes into the distance like Omar Sharif’s entrance in Lawrence of Arabia in reverse. As Tizol gives one final shake of the tambourine, the piece as well as the suite ends. Where did the orchestra go? Was it all an illusion? An elaborate mirage conceived by Tchaikovsky, and Ellington and Strayhorn, stretching across a century of time to forever fascinate us? As always, it’s up to each listener to decide. To these ears, it stands as one of Ellington and Strayhorn's finest achievements.