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Harlem Nutcracker, Part 2

David Berger

(If you missed part one, you can read it here)




After our premiere in Arizona, we hit the road, spending a week each in a few cities before we returned to New York for our much-awaited homecoming at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.


I had Jimmy Madison on drums and Isaac ben Ayala on piano with me. I could never have done it without them. They were the backbone of the show. No matter what musicians we picked up in our travels, they held down the fort, gave the dancers the tempi they required and infused unrelenting, authentic swing for two solid hours, eight shows per week.


Each time we got to a new city, we had to teach the local band the entire show and get them up to speed in one very long day before the tech rehearsal with the entire cast and crew the following day. Then we had just enough time to eat dinner before opening night.


At one point Isaac succumbed to the grueling schedule and complained to Jimmy and me. Before I could come to the show’s defense, Jimmy, in his passionate way, explained that although we were working our asses off, we were being paid handsomely and were creating a monumental work of art that would keep us employed for years to come. Isaac backed down, and rejoined our team—so much so, that he took on more and more responsibilities as time went on. I was being pulled in several directions at once, having to do numerous media interviews in each city, so Isaac took over rehearsing the local choirs—a task he loved. The choirs loved him back.


As we went from town to town, the dancers would tell me how much they loved the music. They had rehearsed with just piano and drums for so long that hearing a band play the full arrangements was a revelation to them. I would always thank them, and then add, “Wait ’til New York.” On the road, we were always under-rehearsed and often had to deal with inconsistencies in the local personnel. The band in New York was hired before the tour. I wrote the music with them in mind. This was our lineup:


Reeds: Jerome Richardson, Jerry Dodgion, Bill Easley, Frank Wess, Joe Temperley

Trumpets: Bob Millikan, Ryan Kisor, Tom Harrell, Steven Bernstein

Trombones: Britt Woodman, Art Baron, Wayne Goodman

Piano: Roland Hanna

Bass: Peter Washington

Drums: Kenny Washington


Donald Byrd told me to hire my dream band. I was just following orders. At the last minute, Frank Wess backed out—“Too much contract.” I was lucky to get Ralph Lalama to take his place. Rehearsals were a revelation in most respects, but without Jimmy and Isaac, the band had only the charts and me to rely on. I’m not faulting Roland and Kenny. They are two of the greats in our music, but they didn’t shape the show with the dancers like Isaac and Jimmy did. Just before opening at BAM, Roland had a conflict and needed to back out. Isaac was available and regular order was restored. Temperley had to miss the last couple of shows to fulfill a commitment with Wynton Marsalis. I got my buddy Bobby Keller to fill in.


Peter Washington’s mother went into surgery in LA, which caused Peter to miss the final Sunday show. Dennis Irwin sight-read the show flawlessly and with such spirit and energy, that he got a standing ovation from the band at intermission. I’ve never seen anything like that before or since. When Peter was unavailable for our next set of gigs, Dennis stepped in and stayed with us for 11 joyous years.


The three networks, CBS, NBC, and ABC sent their crews to the tech rehearsal Tuesday afternoon and five days later they each gave us beautiful pieces on their Sunday morning shows. Joel Siegel from ABC greeted me with, “I had Duke’s Nutcracker record when I was a kid. I love this show.”


Sometimes as a jazz musician, I feel that the world is oblivious to the music I love and the great musicians who dedicate their lives to pouring their hearts and souls into our art form. And then there are times when I feel the warm public embrace that our music deserves. This had been my experience conducting the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. It’s rare in our business for newspapers, magazines, radio and TV to give us attention.


Every city we went to met us with generous puff pieces in all their newspapers and then good-to-rave reviews. I’m talking two-page spreads with photos. Audiences ranged in age from 4 to 94 in every shade of black, brown, beige and white. I knew we had each audience when they would start clapping their hands on beats 2 and 4 starting on the third bar of our Overture. They stayed with us for two solid hours and gave us thundering applause as we played Sweets Repeats (bows). When Elizabeth stepped forward and pointed to the orchestra in the pit, the audience acknowledged that this was a true collaboration of music and dance. They couldn’t see the musicians, but they certainly heard us.


A word about Donald Byrd: I worked with Alvin Ailey for five years. When Alvin died, I never thought that I would have the opportunity to work with a genius choreographer again, but as soon as I saw the first Nutcracker rehearsal, I knew that lightning had indeed struck twice. Donald’s choreography is physically demanding and beautiful to look at, but more than that, its structure deeply reflects the details and spirit of the music. But the best part is that Donald knows how to tell a story, how to develop characters, and most of all, how to speak to the humanity deep inside us. I don’t want to give away the ending of the show, just in case you get to see it one day, but even after conducting hundreds of performances, it takes all I’ve got to hold back the tears and do my job.


Harlem Nutcracker thrilled audiences all over America for four Christmas seasons. We would tour for six or eight weeks each year, sitting in each city for a week, which for a jazz musician who is used to one-nighters, is like being on vacation. For the third and fourth season we took the entire New York band on tour. The music grew every day in the ways that only jazz has the freedom to grow.


Wherever we went, our fellow jazz musicians would come to see the show—Max Roach (who was on our board), Clark Terry (who by this time was blind, but was so overcome with emotion that he cried during the performance at BAM), Buddy Collette, Quincy Jones and many others. The expressions of love were overwhelming.


By the fourth season, the writing was on the wall. We finally secured a Broadway theater, but it turned out that the theater was too small to fit our sets. Even worse, we were deeply in debt from going over-budget in the original mounting of the show. This kept us from advertising sufficiently, and we finally gave up the ghost in January, 2000.


Since then, I’ve received emails every year from fans all over the country asking when and where Harlem Nutcracker will be this year. Kids who came to see it 20 years ago want to bring their kids. Parents want to bring their grandchildren. There have been a couple of attempts to restage the show. We came close a couple of years ago. There was a meeting of all the original presenters. After everyone told their horror stories of all the things that went wrong 20 years ago, each presenter said that they would have us back in a heartbeat.


Our jubilant message of family immersed in the American imperative of swing is needed now more than ever. It took 60 years for Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker to become a Christmas staple (thanks to George Balanchine). Hopefully Harlem Nutcracker will return sooner than that. A lot of us miss it. In the meantime, our CD will be played at Christmas parties and in homes all over America next month. I understand there is even a bootleg version of the CD in China. How about that!




Buy the CD of the original Harlem Nutcracker music:

Harlem Nutcracker CD cover


Now available: select big band charts from the Harlem Nutcracker, composed and arranged by David Berger:

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  • Ginny Hoffman on

    Fascinating story. Such an exciting part of your story, David. Thanks for sharing it.

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