Duke Ellington's Nutcracker Suite

It's a challenge to transform the Nutcracker Suite's romantic orchestra into jumpin' jazz melodies, but that's exactly what Duke Ellington and his collaborator, Billy Strayhorn, did.

Ellington's band members were not so sure that a classical ballet could become a cool-cat jazz number. But Duke and Billy, inspired by their travels and by musical styles past and present, infused the composition with Vegas glitz, Hollywood glamour, and even a little New York jazz.

CD recording of the Ellington/​Strayhorn composition included.

Publishers Weekly
Putting a jazzy spin on the holiday, Celenza tells the true story of how Duke Ellington recorded his rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. Tate’s mixed-media artwork keeps tempo with Celenza’s vibrant writing (“A little Vegas glitz appeared here and there.... Hollywood glamour mixed with the Harlem Renaissance as each dance tune fell into place”), incorporating piano keys, musical notation, swirling colors, and Nutcracker motifs spiced up with a big-band flavor. An upbeat Christmas book about breaking boundaries and experimenting with new ideas. Includes a recording of Ellington’s suite. Ages 6 9. (Nov.)

Kirkus Reviews
Drawing from letters, memoirs, photos, film and recordings, Celenza presents a spry account of the 1960 composition and recording of a decidedly swinging Nutcracker Suite. Laced with invented dialogue and crisply delineating the close collaboration between Ellington and his brilliant, classically trained friend, Billy Strayhorn, the narrative traces the piece from radical idea to work in progress to exuberant recording session. Such a bold departure--classical ballet into jazz suite--required convincing: Both the recording exec and the band were initially dubious. Text and art sync around the premise that the musical traditions and global influences of the cities in which Duke and "Strays" worked--L.A., New York, New Orleans, Vegas--infused the evolving composition with distinct rhythms and cultural metaphors. The brilliant music cues Tate's full-bleed mixed-media pictures. Bold ink strokes outline and define figures--Duke's quizzical forehead and Strays' distinctive cheekbones are expressive squiggles--and create movement across paint-spattered spreads studded with stars, snowflakes and musical notes. The palette marries rich violet-blues with hot, harmonious yellows, sepia and crimson. The delightful accompanying full-length CD is a must-listen, since text and art mesh with it in genuine symbiosis, song by song. Indeed, the absence of a track list--ideally, integrated within the relevant page spreads--is a missed opportunity for deepening context. Still, real cool. (author's note) (Picture book. 6-9)

New York Times
In 1960, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn reinvented Tchaikovsky’s holiday ballet classic as a jazzy, brassy “melting pot of musical styles past and present.” Celenza, a musicologist, loosely reimagines the recording sessions; spread by spread, each movement takes off. Tate (“Black All Around!,” “She Loved Baseball”) mixes lively images of the musicians playing with scenes that evoke, alternately, the “Russian Dance,” (now “The Volga Vouty”) and “Waltz of the Flowers” (“Dance of the Floreadores”). The book includes a CD recording of the song.

Selected Works

Books, Music History
By examining politics, immigration patterns, economics and technology in explaining the largely forgotten Italian connection to jazz, the book will attract readers interested in music history, Italian-American culture, the Fascist era in Italy, music technology, and the evolution of popular music.
“This is a tautly written, readable and fascinating volume, casting new light on familiar figures from start to finish.”
–Classical Music
Niels W. Gade (1817-1890) was an influential musical figure in 19th century Denmark. This work presents an in-depth study in English of Gade's life and works. It describes the evolution of Gade's compositional style as reflected in his early orchestral and chamber works and re-evaluates his role as a nationalist composer. It investigates Gade's literary and musical roots, and studies Gade's "search for the poetic" by presenting descriptions of seven works represented in Gade's compositional diary.
Edited Books
Music as Cultural Mission: Explorations of Jesuit Practices in Italy and North America elucidates how the performing arts have played a seminal role in the cultural mission of the Society of Jesus. Drawing on unpublished archival documents, music, and dramatic texts performed in Italy and North America over the last four centuries, the volume features the work of leading scholars in Italy and the United States and offers a broad view of the Jesuits' influence on musical and theatrical practice.
St. Hans' Evening Play is the second complete overture composed by Niels W. Gade (1817-90), undoubtedly the most prominent figure in nineteenth-century Danish music. This edition marks the first scholarly edition of this important work.
Children's Picture Books
"Zig and zig and zig. Maestro Death keeps time." A friend's poem and a visit to the catacombs underneath Paris in 1872 inspire composer Camille Saint-Saëns to write a now-famous orchestral piece echoing the sounds of dancing, clacking skeletal bones.
A heartwarming story of friendship, imagination, and the transforming power of music.
An upbeat Christmas book about breaking boundaries and experimenting with new ideas. Includes a recording of Ellington’s suite. (Publishers Weekly). The Nutcracker Suite has never been so hip!
Johann Sebastian Bach encourages Count Keyserlingk to take in a talented young orphan named Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. The Count is an insomniac, but hearing Goldberg play the harpsichord soothes him. Soon the Count challenges Goldberg to combine all the music he's learned and throw in a riddle. Under Bach's tutelage, Goldberg successfully plays a difficult piece that becomes known as Goldberg Variations. "[T]he story is wonderfully told in the tropes and manner of a folktale." — Booklist
It's 1924, and with just a few weeks' notice, George Gershwin has been asked to compose a new concerto that exemplifies American music. In his search for a new melody, Gershwin realizes that American music is much like its people -- a great melting pot of sounds, rhythms, and harmonies. JoAnn Kitchel's illustrations capture the 1920's in all their art-deco majesty.
When Beethoven learns he is going deaf, he is determined to write a great symphony. As war rages in Europe he thinks he has found his inspiration in the heroic deeds of Napoleon. But has he?
Modest Mussorgsky is deeply saddened by the death of his friend, Victor Hartmann. In his grief, Modest turns his back on his dream of bringing the glories of the Russian people to the world through his music. His friends must find a way to help Modest deal with the loss of Victor and inspire him to compose again. "[A] new gem for music lovers." — Booklist
A fictionalized telling of the true story behind Haydn's Farewell Symphony brings to life the long summer Haydn and his musicians spent at Esterhaza, the summer palace of Prince Nicholas of Esterhazy. When the musicians become homesick they devise a way to convince the prince it's time to go home.