Book Review: Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite

Anna Harwell Celenza, with Don Tate, Illustrator. Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite. Watertown, Massachusetts: Charlesbridge, 2011. 32 pages.

In early 1960, Duke Ellington and his collaborator, arranger and composer Billy Strayhorn,
Ellington's Nutcracker Suite
decided to step out of the jazz mainstream and record a version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. In Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite, Anna Celenza lets young readers learn a little bit about how this remarkable recording came to be made.

Celenza’s prose and Don Tate’s brilliantly-colored illustrations tell the story of Ellington’s “Nutcracker” and also capture the personalities of both Ellington and Strayhorn, making the collaboration and the music it produced as fresh as it was a half-century ago.

The book has a Vegas connection, too: the idea for the album comes to Ellington and Strayhorn while the orchestra is playing the Riviera. Tate’s illustration of Strayhorn, Ellington, and producer Irving Townshend in a booth at the Riviera is a true midcentury-modern gem.

In addition to getting to learn about how the two came up with the idea for the album, we learn how they wrote the arrangements–lots of long-distance phone calls between Los Angeles, where Ellington was working on a film score, and New York. Along the way, they drew on the history of jazz to that point and several locales. You really can hear some New Yorker swagger in “Toot Toot Tootie Toot,” and I love that “Dance of the Floreadores” was inspired by Vegas high rollers.

The best part of the book might be that it contains a CD of the music, so even if you don’t already own the album, you can play it for your little ones.

This is a wonderful introduction to both the Nutcracker Suite and the music of Duke Ellington for young readers. They’ll be thanking you some day for reading–and playing–Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite for them.


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