It all started in 1975. A friend of mine was in a record store where he saw a reissue of Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite and bought two copies—one for him, and one for me. When he gave me my present, I asked him if it was any good, whereupon he told me that it was fantastic. I listened and was immediately in love with the arrangements.
At the time, I was arranging and playing trumpet for the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. We were performing Night Creatures, The Mooche, Liberian Suite, and several other Ellington pieces that Alvin had choreographed.
On a rehearsal break at City Center, I found myself sitting on the stairs and drinking a cup of coffee with Alvin. I told him that I had a great idea for a new piece—Ellington’s Nutcracker. He declined.
DB: You always need money. Everybody loves The Nutcracker. It’ll be a big hit.
DB: Don’t you like the music?
AA: I love it.
DB: Then what’s the problem?
AA: Too many Nutcrackers in the world.
Naturally, I was disappointed. I told a buddy about this, and he suggested that instead of just staging the Ellington and Strayhorn charts (which are the second act dances), why not arrange the rest of the Tchaikovsky score, and do a full length 2-hour show? Great idea, but I didn’t know any choreographers besides Alvin who would be right for this music.
Fast forward 14 years. In the summer of 1989 I conducted the Ellington Nutcracker with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall. We got a very nice review in the New York Times. Donald Byrd (the choreographer, not the trumpet player) read the review and contacted Ellington’s sister Ruth, telling her that he would like to choreograph the piece. Ruth told Donald to call me.
Donald and I did the proverbial lunch, whereupon I told him that I was not only interested, but I had a better idea—a full length Nutcracker. Donald loved the idea and was in. He told me that this would be very expensive, and that it would take him a few years to raise the funds. He assured me that he was serious, and I shouldn’t forget about the project.
Five years later, Donald called me on the phone. To be honest, I had forgotten all about the Nutcracker. He explained that it would take us three years to bring it to the stage. Step one was a showcase of the Ellington/Strayhorn music. The next year we would do a stripped-down workshop version of the show. Finally, a year later, we would premiere the entire piece and tour it around the country.
This all sounded great, but there was one catch—in order to get the grants that would fund the project, he needed to enlist two other composers besides me. One would write gospel music, and the other, hip-hop. When I expressed my doubts as to how all this music could be integrated, he said to trust him—he would make it work. I was dubious.
He told me to go ahead and sketch out some of the themes for 50 minutes of the show. I went ahead and wrote and played them on the piano for Donald. He loved them and told me to keep going. He set a deadline for all the music to be completed. In the meantime, the gospel composer suddenly died, and the hip-hop guy never turned in any music, so the whole show fell on my shoulders—just the way I had originally envisioned it.
Our showcases were wildly successful. Donald’s choreography was brilliant. As planned, he raised the money for the full production. At the first production meeting, Donald told the heads of each department that he wanted us to create the show of our dreams. And so we all did. The sets and costumes were amazing, to say the least.
Donald told me to hire the top New York jazz players for our week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The rest of the tour, I would bring our pianist and drummer with me and pick up college or professional bands in each city. The idea was to write the music for the New York cats and do the best we could on the road. I went to each city beforehand to rehearse the music, so that when we came in with the show, they would be prepared.
For the first few weeks on the road, the bands scuffled with this very difficult music. The dancers kept telling me how much they loved the music, and all I could tell them was to wait until we got to the Apple, and then they would hear what it really sounds like. Nevertheless, wherever we went, audiences loved the show. When we played the Overture, by the third bar, the entire audience would be clapping on two and four. I knew we had a hit.
Sure enough, when we got to New York a few weeks later, the band ate up the music. We appeared on all the Sunday morning TV shows. CBS Sunday Morning proclaimed Harlem Nutcracker a new holiday tradition—an American classic. When we got to Los Angeles, we performed Snowflake Joys on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Our show was a sensation.
We toured for four Christmas seasons. For the final two we took the entire 15-piece New York band with us along with the 24 dancers and 15 crew members. This all got expensive and there wasn’t enough money to advertise properly, which meant the end of the line for the production.
We recorded a CD of about half the show in 1999. People ask me every year when Harlem Nutcracker is coming back. Children who saw it want to bring their children. There have been several near misses. This December we are starting the process all over again. We will do a workshop in Seattle and then next year another workshop, to be followed by a full production and tour.
In the intervening years, there have been numerous dance companies and jazz bands around the US performing some of the music from the show. My own band performs several of the movements every Christmas season. To prepare for this next production, at Donald’s suggestion, I re-wrote the eight Ellington and Strayhorn movements, so that the entire score is now all my music. Well, sorta. It’s my take on Tchaikovsky, Strayhorn and Ellington. You can’t do much better than them for standing on the giant shoulders to stand on.
When we toured back in the ‘90s, jazz musicians came to see the show theaters all around the country—Quincy Jones, Max Roach (who was on our board), Buddy Collette, Coleridge Taylor Perkinson, Clark Terry, and many others. Clark was blind by the time he saw us in Brooklyn. He couldn’t see what was happening on the stage, but the music brought him back to his days playing with Ellington. He was so moved, tears streamed down his cheeks. I guess we did something right.