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Harlem Nutcracker, Part 1

David Berger


In 1975 I was hired to play trumpet and transcribe Duke Ellington’s Night Creature for the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. Ailey had danced with Ellington 20 years earlier in the TV production of A Drum is a Woman, and remained a lifelong fan. After the initial success of Night Creatures, Alvin decided to do a full season of Ellington. I became a busy beaver between all the writing and rehearsing.


While rehearsing Black, Brown And Beige, I found myself on a break sitting on the City Center stairs next to Alvin. He told me that he was cancelling the performance of BBB. I asked why, since the music is so great. He said that he wasn’t happy with his choreography.


I had recently gotten a copy of the Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker and asked Alvin if he would be interested in choreographing it. He declined. When I pressed him on it, he said, “Too many Nutcrackers in the world.” That was disappointing, but I still thought it would be great material for a dance company—and a moneymaker to boot.


When I told my buddy Alan Campbell about all this, he suggested that I expand the 31-minute Ellington/Strayhorn score to include the rest of the two-hour Tchaikovsky score. I loved this idea, but didn’t know any other dance companies that I thought would be right for the piece.


Fast forward 13 years to 1988. By this time I was conducting the newly-formed Classical Jazz Orchestra, which would become the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. After our initial concert, we met to program the concerts for the following summer. In our Ellington concerts we would perform The Nutcracker. I thought that was a bit out-of-season for August, but the audience loved it anyway.


So did the reviewer from the New York Times. Choreographer Donald Byrd read the review, made a few phone calls and eventually connected with Duke’s sister and publisher Ruth. He told her that he would like to choreograph The Nutcracker. Ruth told him that I had the music, and he should speak to me. I got a call from Donald, and we did the proverbial lunch.


I didn’t know Donald or his work, but I asked Duke’s granddaughter, dancer/choreographer Mercedes Ellington about Donald, and she was very complimentary. Donald had a small company in New York that was cutting edge. He said that he wanted to create a show that his grandmother would love—interesting coming from such a modern artist. He gave me a video of some of his work. And then I pitched the idea of a full-length Nutcracker, for which I could compose/arrange the rest of the score.


He loved my idea, and we agreed to speak once I had a chance to watch his video. When I got home, I watched and thought that it was a bit avant-garde for the Nutcracker, but it was very good. We spoke on the phone and I signed on. He informed me that he would have to raise a lot of money, and that this would take years.


Sure enough, four years later, I got a call from Donald that the Nutcracker was a go. The only problem was that he had to get a series of grants that would spread the development of the show over three years. Basically, we would do a showcase in 1994, a workshop version in 1995 and the full show in 1996. Furthermore, in order to get the grants, he needed to enlist the services of two other composers—one to write gospel music and one to compose hip-hop music. I expressed my doubts as to how this could work. He told me not to worry. He would make it work.


Next he asked that I present sketches for my 40 minutes of music. I wrote about 50 minutes worth and played it for him on the piano. He loved all my jazz versions of the Tchaikovsky themes and told me to keep going. He set a deadline for all three composer/arrangers. The gospel composer unexpectedly died before turning in any music and we never saw any hip-hop music, so I was given the entire show, as I had originally pitched it to him.


I arranged the score in about six weeks during the fall of 1995. We then did a workshop version using minimal sets and costumes, a cut-down cast and a piano trio in the pit. I believe there were six performances, which were good enough to raise the money to get us to the full-blown show the following year.


I’ll never forget the first production meeting. The heads of each department were in attendance: set design, costumes, props, stage manager, company manager, lighting, sound, etc. We were all excited about the project. Donald told us to create the show of our dreams and not to worry about the money—he would figure that out. As before, I was worried, but I had a feeling that this would be an artistic success.


When I asked for a budget for the band, Donald asked me what I would need to hire the top New York musicians for our week in Brooklyn at BAM, and then travel with our pianist and drummer on the road, picking up local musicians to fill out the orchestra in each city. In some cities this would mean using professionals and in others college students.


Both my score and the Ellington/Strayhorn movements were beyond the abilities of most college bands, but I travelled to each city a month ahead to rehearse each band. The results varied.


The dancers rehearsed with piano and drums for five weeks in New York before we went to the state-of-the-art Gammage Theater at Arizona State University for the final week of rehearsals, tech rehearsals, dress rehearsals and opening night. We got a bit behind schedule, and wound up burning the midnight oil. I completed a few extra charts that were added at the last minute. The day before opening night, there was a power failure in Gammage, which took a day to fix. Technology, ya gotta love it!


We got to do a dress rehearsal of the first act the afternoon of opening night, but the first time I saw the second act was at the premiere. I was quite nervous prior to the performance, to say the least. As a conductor, it’s always a good idea to know what the cues look like on stage.


Before the first performance, Donald, the dancers, stage managers and I formed a circle on stage, held hands and said much needed prayers. I thanked everyone for making my dream come true. I was overcome with emotion. The wonderful dancer Elizabeth Parkinson was standing on my right and squeezed my hand.


I then walked down to the pit, took my bow, began the Overture, and let the music take over. Parts of costumes flying across the stage notwithstanding, we got through the performance, and at the end of the night, we knew that we had something very special.


To be continued…



Three announcements:


I. Christmas Big Band Music

Our three favorite arrangements from Harlem Nutcracker are now available in print: Attack Of The Ghouls, Midnight Stroll, and Snowflake Joys. Perfect material for big bands to play during the Christmas season. Listen and see the scores.


II. DBJO at Dizzy's

The David Berger Jazz Orchestra with special guest, tenor saxophonist Harry Allen will be performing Four Brothers: The music of Stan Getz, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims and Gerry Mulligan at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola Tuesday, November 27 and Wednesday, November 28, 2018. Sets at 7:30 and 9:30.  Reservations recommended.



Conductor/Arranger: David Berger

Guest Soloist: Harry Allen, tenor sax

Saxophones: Jay Brandford, Matt Hong, Mark Lopeman, Mark Hynes, Carl Maraghi

Trumpets: Bob Millikan, Brian Pareschi, Irv Grossman, Brandon Lee

Trombones: Wayne Goodman, Willie Applewhite, Sara Jacovino

Piano: Isaac ben Ayala

Bass: Marty Jaffe

Drums: Jimmy Madison


Four Brothers celebrates the music of four iconic saxophonists who rose to prominence in the late 1940’s and early ’50s, and whose careers continued to be intertwined over the next four decades. Each was most significantly influenced by Lester Young but found his own unique voice. David Berger has arranged 24 of their signature small group recordings and arranged them for his 15-piece jazz orchestra without losing the spirit and character of what made this music central to the jazz canon. Guest tenor saxophonist Harry Allen has embraced and internalized the style and content of all four of his idols and joins Berger and his mighty band dedicated to our American heritage of swing and blues.


III. DBJO at Swing 46

Also, our band will be performing for dancing at Swing 46 Sunday December 2 from 8:30 to 11:30. We hope to see you there.

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