Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite

Duke and StraysIn 1960 Duke Ellington recorded an album titled Three Suites, which featured a jazz interpretation of “The Nutcracker Suite” by Tchaikovsky. The works on the album were arranged by both Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. This is not the first time that “classics” were given a jazz treatment and selections of the Nutcracker had been arranged and recorded previously by a number of big bands starting in the 1930’s. The Ellington/Strayhorn version is the most often performed jazz version today. Selections from the suite have enjoyed widespread popularity around the holidays (as has the original by Tchaikovsky).


Duke Ellington's Nutcracker Suite – Episode 1

Duke Ellington's Nutcracker Suite – Episode 2

Duke Ellington's Nutcracker Suite - Episode 1

On this podcast I do a side by side comparison between the original by Tchaikovsky and the Ellington/Strayhorn version. A number of the Duke’s original members of his 1938-1941 band performed on the recording including: Lawrence Brown, Juan Tizol, Johnny Hodges, and Harry Carney. These are not “jazzy” versions of the suite, but often newly composed music in the spirit of the original reflecting the vision of both Ellington and Strayhorn coupled with the unique sound of the Ellington Orchestra. The soloists are just outstanding.
OvertureDuke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn
Peanut Brittle BrigadeDuke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn
Dance of the Reed PipesTchaikovsky
Toot Toot Tootie TootDuke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn
Russian Dance (Trapek)Tchaikovsky
Volga VoutyEllington/Strayhorn

Duke Ellington's Nutcracker Suite - Episode 2

On this podcast I will compare the remaining 4 selections from both suites. The Ellington/Strayhorn versions of the suite reflect their respect for the original work. More importantly it shows an understanding of how to transform a classic while allowing it to maintain its relevance and integrity by making it more accessible to wider audiences. This 1960 version, with its unique jazz interpretion by two of the 20th century’s most important American composers, remains as popular as ever today.
Arabian DanceTchaikovsky
Arabesque CookieDuke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn
Waltz of the FlowersTchaikovsky
Dance of the FloreadoresDuke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn
Dance of the Sugar Plum FairyTchaikovsky
Sugar Rum CherryDuke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn
Chinese DanceTchaikovsky
ChinoiserieDuke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn

Duke Ellington’s Train Songs

duke_ellington-portrait-c1930-ed1-t30The train (or the image of trains) has been a metaphor for the road to freedom in African American culture. Going back to the Underground Railroad during the Civil War, the train has represented a road to freedom and a better life. In the early 20th century one of the few high paying (and glamorous for the time) jobs available to African Americans was working on the railroad in a variety of capacities. Duke Ellington was fascinated with the railroad from early in his career and often made literary and musical reference to trains in his compositions for his orchestra. He often used the word in titles and was able to create the image of slow of fast moving trains in music. Very clever indeed—he is not the first composer to do this, but this was one often an underlying theme in his work. In the mid 1930’s the Ellington Orchestra travelled in two Pullman cars, thus avoiding drafty and uncomfortable busses and avoiding the indignity of not being able to check into certain hotels. On the podcast I will examine his most memorable train related works.

Duke Ellington's Train Songs - Part 1

Choo Choo (Gotta Hurry Home)The Washingtonians1924
Daybreak ExpressDuke Ellington1933
Way LowDuke Ellington1939
Jack the BearDuke Ellington1940

Duke Ellington's Train Songs - Part 2

This is the 2nd installment of Duke Ellington’s train themed works. Some of the pieces are entirely devoted to recreating the sound and image of a train. Other works contain only a short inference to the train theme at various points in the composition. Musical imagery was one of Ellington’s strengths; after all he was also a painter.
Across the Track BluesDuke Ellington1940
Happy Go Lucky LocalDuke EllingtonDeep South Suite1946
Build That RailroadDuke EllingtonLive at the Hurricane1950
Track 360 (a.k.a. Trains)Duke EllingtonBlack, Brown and Beige1958
Loco MadiDuke EllingtonThe Uwis Suite1972

Benny Carter

Benny-Carter 3Born 1907 NYC, arranger, composer, bandleader, alto saxophonist, and trumpet player, Benny Carter had one of the longest and most celebrated careers in jazz that spanned some 70 years until his death in 2003. A true original, he was a pioneer alto sax soloist and one of the most important and innovative arrangers in all of jazz.

Benny Carter - Episode 1

Benny Carter's works were performed by Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Paul Whiteman, and many other renowned bandleaders of the pre swing and swing era. Carter gives us the “sax soli” i.e. a method of writing for the saxophone section that highlights the tone, full sound, and dexterity of the instrument.
When the Lights are LowBenny Carter and His Swing Quartet1936
P.D.Q. BluesFletcher Henderson Orchestra (arr. by Benny Carter)1927
Six of Seven TimesLittle Chocolate Dandies (Benny Carter Orchestra)1929
Keep a Song in Your SoulFletcher Henderson Orchestra (arr. by Benny Carter)1930
Somebody Loves MeFletcher Henderson Orchestra (arr. by Benny Carter)1930

Benny Carter - Episode 2

Benny Carter enjoyed great popularity as a bandleader, arranger/composer, and soloist in the 1930’s. He spent 3 years in the mid 1930’s in Europe recording and performing with many expatriate American musicians as well as many celebrated European jazz musicians. His popularity as an arranger and soloist were known world-wide by this time. I will play some of his most memorable recordings that feature his arranging skills, as well as his soloing.
Krazy KapersThe Chocolate Dandies with Teddy Wilson1933
Lonesome NightsThe Benny Carter Orchestra1933
Symphony in RiffsThe Benny Carter Orchestra1933
New Swing StreetBenny Carter and the Ramblers1937