It’s a week before Thanksgiving and I’ve been seeing the same car commercial on TV every day for a couple of weeks. The background music is a nice jazz piano version of Joy To The World. The payoff is that the car is a Christmas present. Already? I love Christmas as much as anybody, but can’t we be respectful and at least wait until the day after Thanksgiving? Where are our manners?
You’re surprised when I say that I love Christmas, right? I’m not a Christian. I was brought up Jewish, but as a teenager developed an aversion to organized religion, which hasn’t changed. But that has nothing to do with the Christmas spirit. That’s what I love, especially in New York, especially when it is snowing. It’s Charles Dickens’ London transposed to America. Everyone seems happy and friendly. Even I’m happier and friendlier to everyone.
I throw a party every year the Sunday before Christmas and invite my band and a few other close friends. It had become a tradition until last Christmas. I was so depressed about the Presidential election results and the prospect of our highest office being turned over to a corrupt boor whose purposes were to make as much money off of his office as he could and eventually become dictator. Somewhere around January or February, I raised my spirits to a cope-able degree of depression and concern. I can’t let Trump spoil Christmas this year.
As a child, my parents didn’t want to deny us Santa Claus, so we celebrated Chanukah (a minor holiday that American Jewish parents elevated, so that their kids wouldn’t hate them for depriving them of Christmas) and also got Christmas presents from Santa. Once we realized that Santa wasn’t real, he stopped bringing us presents. We spent Christmas Eve with our next-door neighbors, the Gilmours, and exchanged gifts with them. They weren’t religious, but they had a tree.
As a little kid, I always envied them. That decorated tree looked and smelled so good, but more than that, I loved the warmth and camaraderie our two families shared. Ah, the Christmas spirit—an excuse for all of us to get together. It was a scene worthy of a Hallmark card. The rest of the year we had worries, problems, and disagreements, but on Christmas Eve, all negativity was left behind. That’s some powerful stuff, that Christmas spirit!
In the mid-1970s, a friend gave me a copy of Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite record. I immediately fell in love with it. About a year later, I began my 5-year stint working with Alvin Ailey. At that time we were performing a lot of Ellington music. I was hired to transcribe and orchestrate the music as well as to play trumpet in the 45-piece orchestra.
One afternoon in 1975, while on a rehearsal break at City Center, I was sitting in the stairwell drinking a cup of coffee while Alvin was smoking a cigarette. I suggested to him that he should choreograph the Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker. He declined. I asked him, “Don’t you like it?” He said that he loved it. Then I asked him, “Why not? It would be a money maker.” His answer was, “There are too many Nutcrackers in the world. Not interested.” I never brought it up again.
Still, I couldn’t help but think that this music needed to be choreographed. Although I worked with a number of other choreographers at that time, I couldn’t imagine anyone else who would do the music justice, and so I sat on my idea.
In the summer of 1989, Stanley Crouch suggested that we perform the Nutcracker with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra as part of our Classical Jazz series. I transcribed the music and conducted it that summer. The audience loved it, even though it was out-of-season. Choreographer Donald Byrd read a review of the concert in the New York Times and called Ellington’s sister, Ruth, on the phone to see how he could get the music and the rights. Ruth told Donald to call me.
And so, Donald and I did the proverbial lunch, where I suggested that we create a full-length 2-hour Nutcracker rather than the 31-minute Ellington/Strayhorn second act dances. I proposed that I arrange the rest of the Tchaikovsky score in the same spirit. Donald loved the idea, but added that this would be a big financial undertaking. He would have to raise a lot of money, and it would take years. He asked if I could wait, and then added that I shouldn’t forget about the project. I assured him that I wouldn’t forget.
At that time I was busy conducting the Lincoln Center band along with many writing projects, in addition to a heavy teaching load. Five years later, Donald called and asked if I was still interested. It had been so long, that I had completely forgotten about our Nutcracker. He told me that he had gotten funding, but it was complicated. We would need to do three workshops over the next 3 years, and then finally, we would tour for 6 weeks in the fall of 1996. OK, I could deal with that.
The other complication was that in order to get the funding, he needed to involve two other composers who would contribute Gospel music and hip hop. Wow! I hadn’t counted on that. I was disappointed and expressed my concerns over how all that diverse music could make a unified score. He assured me that he would make it work, so I agreed.
He set up deadlines for musical sketches and assigned me 50 minutes of music, which was the bulk of the score. I excitedly got to work and after a few weeks met with Donald to play my ideas for him on the piano. He loved all of them and told me to keep writing. In the meantime the Gospel composer died and the hip hop guy never turned in any music, so I wound up with the entire score.
I’ll never forget the first production meeting. There were about a dozen people, including the heads of each department: music (me), costumes, sets, props, stage manager, et al. Everyone was excited about the project. This was going to be an artistic triumph. Each of us knew it. Donald said, “I want you to create the show of your dreams. Leave the money up to me. I’ll make it work.” As great as that sounded, and as inspired as I was, I knew deep down that we were in trouble.
Each workshop was a smashing success. Everyone (including Donald) created the show of his or her dreams. We opened at Arizona State University in November 1996 after a week of rehearsals in 95-degree weather. There was a power outage in Gammage Auditorium, so we never did get to dress rehearse the second act.
I don’t remember ever being scared on an opening night, but this time we were too under-rehearsed. I had no idea where to look on stage for my cues. A few minutes before the premiere, Donald, the dancers, Betsy (our stage manager) and I formed a circle backstage and held hands. Donald made a short inspirational speech. Then I thanked everyone and told them that they had made me incredibly happy beyond my wildest dreams. I was feeling pretty emotional at that moment when I felt Elizabeth Parkinson give my right hand a little squeeze. I did all I could to keep from becoming a blubbering idiot. We had a show to put on.
I saw the entire second act for the first time on opening night. Props and parts of costumes were flying all over the stage. It was 95 degrees outside (not what I would call Christmassy), and yet, we knew that this show was special—really special.
After leaving Tempe, we played a week each in several other cities before we returned to New York to do a week at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music). This was the unofficial opening week. On the road I only took Isaac ben Ayala and Jimmy Madison (our pianist and drummer) and picked up a band in each city. Now that we were in New York, we finally got the musicians that I had written the music for. Many of them had been in the original Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with me. Donald insisted that I hire the top New York players, and so I did.
For the past few weeks, the dancers kept telling me how great the music sounded. I thanked them and told them, “Wait ’til we get to New York.” After the first performance, at BAM, they all came up to me and told me that now they understood what I was talking about.
We were on all the TV networks that week: CBS Sunday Morning and NBC’s and ABC’s Sunday morning news format shows as well. They filmed our tech rehearsal and then interviewed Donald and me. I’ve done enough interviews in my life to know when the interviewer is sincerely interested and when it’s just an assignment. The first thing that Joel Siegel said to me was that he has always loved Ellington’s recording and was thrilled to see it on the stage. The CBS piece dubbed our show “a new American classic.”
Audiences around the country loved the show. We toured for four Christmas seasons. It was expensive traveling with 15 musicians, 24 dancers, a 13-man crew and two big trailers of sets, costumes and props. Our advertising budget always took a back seat to artistic demands, and so ended one of the greatest shows I ever saw. There have been a few attempts to remount it, and we came pretty close last year, but it hasn’t happened yet.
I hear from some of the kids who saw the show back then. They are adults now and ask me when they can take their children to see it. The parents from 20 years ago now want to bring their grandchildren. After all, it’s an American classic. As we old Brooklyn Dodger fans used to say, “Wait ’til next year.”
If you can’t wait until whenever that “next year” comes, I have two suggestions that might hold you over for a bit. Our band will be performing at Swing 46 in New York City on December 21st and 28th. Our first set on both those evenings will be devoted to music from Harlem Nutcracker. After that we will perform two regular dance sets. Every year our drummer’s wife, Sylvia, buys a dozen Harlem Nutcracker CDs and gives them out as Christmas presents. They look great under the tree and make for perfect sounds at your Christmas party or for just playing around the house to get you into a swinging Christmas spirit.