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A Christmas Waltz with Duke Ellington

Revisiting—and dancing to—his urban, plummy twist on Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker

Cover of Duke Ellington's album The Nutcracker Suite
Cover of Duke Ellington’s album The Nutcracker Suite

I was in a Starbucks recently, alone, after a long day of work. It was one of those early December evenings—say, 6:30—when it feels like it’s been dark for longer than it actually has, on account of the winter solstice’s approach. I get the Christmas blend because I love Christmas, though that means you have to wait while they do the pour-over, but you get a lot of good jazz around this time at my Starbucks, so I don’t really mind.

As I looked out the window into a bluish-gray Boston December, Duke Ellington’s Harlem twist on Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” from The Nutcracker, began to play on the sound system. I am not a man who dances in public. But when I checked myself in the middle of the store, the tables having been removed on account of COVID, I realized that I had been waltzing, solo, to Ellington and his men, particularly Harry Carney’s bass clarinet that infiltrates your entire being with the crepuscular wonder of Christmas. I wondered how long I had been at whatever I was doing.

“Catchy,” I said, to a barista who had apparently been watching for some time. “It’s Duke Ellington.” I don’t think she knew what the hell I was talking about.

But that’s okay. It’s Christmas. Let’s be broad-hearted. Let’s share with each other what we love, and have others share what they love with us. Is that not a most Ellingtonian way to be? Besides, a lot of Ellington buffs aren’t especially familiar with his album The Nutcracker Suite, cut in late spring 1960 and released in the the fall for a classical-jazz Christmastide.

The record tends to get lost in the discussion of jazz and Christmas, in part because jazz’s relationship with the holiday is exceedingly vocal-based. You won’t lack for instrumental Christmas jazz, if that’s your thing, but it’s never had the mainstream airings that, say, Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas recordings do.

In popular music, we like words for the holidays, perhaps because that’s closer to the caroling tradition. Songs with lyrics are more folksy, communal, ideal for that enlivening, warming spirit that makes us wish to grab a mug of steamed cider, raise it high, and sing along with what we hear. But Ellington, being Ellington, fashioned something that no one else in jazz could have.

Even jazz giants usually break down into one of two broad categories. They’re either masters of melody or masters of rhythm. For instance: Miles Davis, melody maven. Count Basie, rhythmic juggernaut. You can’t slot Ellington into either category predominantly; indeed, you can’t slot him much at all. He was a jazz musician I’m comfortable with calling a kind of classical musician, a populist, an avant-gardist—one of those artists that you think more and more of the older you get. You have to move through the tiers of his artistry.

It makes a certain amount of sense that Ellington the sublime melodist and Ellington the rhythm inducer would find such candy-caned succor in this most famous of ballets. Tchaikovsky was similarly unslottable, if you will, and was to ballet as Ellington was to jazz. So here we are, with me dancing away in the coffee shop to portions of the work of both men.  

There is a rhythm to ballet music that inevitably puts images in your mind of human movement, even if you’ve not actually seen the ballet in question. Movement is ingrained in the music; otherwise the music wouldn’t serve its true purpose. Remember, Ellington wrote for ballrooms, to get people moving, and I bet you he and Pyotr could have had a merry glass or two of the nog together, discussing the ways in which their respective approaches to dance music overlap.

Even more than Halloween, Christmas is our holiday of the night. With the former, we’re still invested in sun-dappled leaves (autumn requires the sun to show off its better aspects), but come Christmas, that focus shifts to the visible breath coming out of your mouth under moonlight, the skeletal forms of old oaks below a sky that one remembers looking toward as a small child and thinking about just whom will be streaking across it. This is Ellington’s Nutcracker milieu, but the trees are those of an urban park, not the magical forest, or a Rankin-Bass Christmas village.

Billy Strayhorn worked with Ellington on the arrangements, and clearly both men decided to apply the blues to Tchaikovsky. They stretch his melodies, lengthen the tempi, provide a lot of rubato opportunities for the likes of altoist Johnny Hodges, with an evident directive of “Take it as slow and bluesy as you wish, you wise kings of jazz.”

Tchaikovsky’s “Sugar Plum Fairy” dance is bell-like, with a sort of elfin whimsy, in a pleasing minor key. It’s almost a ghost song, but more like a sprite song. A haunting that’s delicious, not fearful. For some reason, I picture Ebenezer Scrooge cutting a slow jig in his robe and slippers when I hear it, maybe not needing those blatant ghostly visitations after all. But Ellington puts some tar and rubber into his setting of this particular dance. Makes it plummy, a dark, warming porter of a reframing.

As you listen to a number like “Peanut Brittle Brigade,” you realize that Ellington and Strayhorn’s efforts would be perfect to choreograph a modern urban adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s ballet. That’s one of the key differences with the 1960 suite—it’s not set in a comfortable, sprawling abode where wealthy parents hire a magician for entertainment, or the Narnia-type snowy woods in which Clara and her come-to-life nutcracker have their adventures. It’s urban, real, lived-in, with a street sound. Not at the level of Miles Davis’ On the Corner—another urban suite of sorts—but in the way of walking through Harlem or Boston’s South End as the days become ever shorter.

It’s a very embraceable Nutcracker, without the obvious class divide of the ballet that so many have attended. Ellington gives us the dances from Russia, China, that expansive seasoning that forms what’s tantamount to a talent show within the ballet. Everything eventually halts, as people from various regions dance—show their wares, as it were—for Clara. It’s akin to a jam session for dancers, and I’m sure Ellington loved the conceit. His band makes it feel downright neighborly, as if you’ve invited the kids from next door over to watch a holiday film with your kids, or the lonely man across the hall for a seasonal snort of the good whisky.

A quiet, human Christmas, the kind that can have you dancing all by yourself in a lonely Starbucks.

“You said this was by a duke?” the barista asked me when my coffee was ready and it was time for me to make my grand jeté out into the Boston night.

“After a fashion,” I replied, thinking Duke Ellington was a very wise man.

Colin Fleming

Colin Fleming writes fiction and nonfiction on myriad topics—art, film, music, sports, literature—for a wide range of publications. He also talks regularly on the radio for the likes of NPR and Downtown with Rich Kimball. His most recent book, Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls (Tailwinds), was published in 2019, with an entry in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club to follow in 2020. Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com (where you’ll also find his unique online journal, the Many Moments More blog) and on Twitter @colinfleminglit. He lives in Boston and has contributed to JazzTimes since 2006.