JAM CHRISTMAS FOLLIES
The Nutcracker Suite
JERRY FLOOR NOTE:
In late 2020, I received a call from my friends, Louie Strike and Molli Hull. They were very excited to tell me that they had just heard the Ellington Nutcracker Suite, and they were wondering if I were aware of the “Suite” by Duke Ellington.
I told them that I was aware of the “Suite” but had really never heard it. Molli suggested that I hear it and call them back. She also suggested that the “Suite” would be a wonderful annual performance for a Christmas setting of some sort. To my surprise, Louie and Molli purchased the entire “Suite” and I discovered it on my front porch.
We presented the “Suite” in our first JAM Christmas Follies in 2021. It was a wonderful addition to our Follies and we have made it a traditional inclusion ever since.
A SHORT OVERVIEW:
The original cover for the 1960 big band album, “The Nutcracker Suite,” presented three people as the authors, all with equal font size and inhabiting the same line: “Ellington. Strayhorn. Tchaikovsky.” It was as if to announce a convergence of historical import, like a world summit or long-awaited crossover comic.
This was not just any old Christmas album, that commercial phenomenon of repackaging holiday hits. By adapting Tchaikovsky’s score for jazz orchestra, Ellington was poised to both widen the appeal of his band and cement his status as a genius composer. (UIndy performs “The Nutcracker Suite” on Dec. 7.)
But on that cover, sandwiched between the man who, along with Benny Goodman and Count Basie, popularized jazz as America’s greatest art form, and the composer of one of the most-performed ballets in history, is a name that’s unfamiliar by comparison. It’s a name that, until 1960, never appeared on a piece of album art alongside Duke Ellington in such prominence.
Who was Billy Strayhorn? “The Nutcracker Suite” was his idea, after all. Many know him as Duke Ellington’s longtime collaborator, composer and arranger, who was no more than a no-name kid from a poor black family in Pittsburgh until one day, backstage before a show, Ellington heard him play Ellington on the piano, and he did it better.
The marquee at the Apollo advertises Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite December 11, 2014 in New York. The musical performance will take place December 13, 14, 2014 at the Apollo.
Strayhorn devotees had, of course, suggested an alternate narrative: that Strayhorn was the true genius behind Ellington’s showmanship. Strayhorn composed popular tunes, such as “Take the ‘A’ Train,” then Ellington, perhaps by circumstance, received credit for it. It’s a correction to the myth of the singular creative genius, a message about how the great names in our collective consciousness owe tremendous debt to people we’ve never even heard of.
The Salt Lake City Jazz Orchestra is honored to present this magnificent work.