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  • Donny Thompson, M.S., NPA

Duke Ellington’s “The Nutcracker Suite” Presented by Jazz Outreach Initiative's “JOI Jazz Orchestra”

Along with Holiday Favorites Performed by Clint Holmes and Kenny Rampton

Tuesday, December 21, 2021 | Starbright Theatre | 6:00pm

By Donny Thompson, M.S., NPA | Sunday, Nov. 21, 2022 | Las Vegas, NV

In early 1960, some 68 years after Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky penned his famous “The Nutcracker” ballet, Duke Ellington and his famous band were in residency in Las Vegas at the Riviera Hotel. While there, Ellington and his longtime collaborator, composer, and arranger, Billy Strayhorn received a call from Columbia Records producer, Irving Townsend. Townsend offers Ellington complete freedom to write and record anything he wants if he signs with the Columbia label. Duke suggests a concept to “create music that can’t be categorized.” Since Ellington likes to perform dance music and Tchaikovsky’s work is a ballet, Strayhorn suggests they reinvent the holiday classic, “The Nutcracker Suite”.

The Christmas Eve setting of “The Nutcracker Suite” and its message of, “Dreams can come true if you believe,” made the Romantic-era Russian ballet a favorite holiday tradition then as it remains today. The similarities in challenges for both Tchaikovsky and Ellington, audiences craving variety, shifts in mood and style, and yet a sense of continuity, gave the project its legs. By May 1960, the work was completed. It would be the first time Billy Strayhorn’s name would share equal billing with Duke Ellington.

The Christmas season concerts and accompanying album were a commercial success. Critics and audiences understood the themes while embracing the recasting of jazzy beats and the picked-up notes, and marveling at how well the duo had recreated the work, turning it into a perfect blend of equal parts Tchaikovsky and a jazz masterpiece uniquely Ellington. Despite being conceived in Las Vegas in 1960 and debuted at Christmas of that year, the music scores themselves weren’t published until 2010. While it is likely the piece has been performed at some point in Las Vegas over the past six decades, JOI has found no written record of such live performances until now especially since the score's later publication.

The Nutcracker Suite” was a hit release, but fell into relative obscurity against Duke’s more frequently performed hit list. Only since publication in 2010 have jazz orchestras and combined symphonic and jazz orchestras more regularly programmed the work. Jazz Outreach Initiative hopes to perform this annually for the public to enjoy as a supplement rather than a substitution for the traditional annual classical performances produced by fellow nonprofit arts organizations. JOI believes, “Dreams can come true if you believe!”


Jazz Outreach Initiative’s “JOI Jazz Orchestra” will perform selections from Duke Ellington’s “The Nutcracker Suite” along with holiday favorite Christmas songs sung by multi-GRAMMY® nominated headliner, Clint Holmes with jazz trumpet master and JOI Co-founder and Artistic Director, Kenny Rampton (Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis). Songs will include a selection from the recently donated original charts of the Glenn Miller Orchestra’s multi-platinum Christmas album series, “In The Christmas Mood,” along with other holiday favorites. Former member of the Glenn Miller Orchestra and long time local musician and arts supporter, Dale Thompson, donated the original album scores from his private collection.

As part of the JOI Jazz Orchestra’s mission to celebrate the enormous talent of the local jazz community, Rampton has commissioned original arrangements for the JOI Jazz Orchestra and Clint Holmes from nationally renowned local musicians and composers, Nathan Tanouye and Jorge Machain who are also members of the band. These arrangements include Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music” classic, “My Favorite Things” arranged by Tanouye, and Katherine Kennicott Davis’s classic Christmas carol, “The Little Drummer Boy,” arranged by Machain. An interesting connection between the two songs is that the “Sound of Music” song was performed by the Von Trapp Family characters while the first recording of “The Little Drummer Boy” in 1951 was debuted by the actual Von Trapp Family Singers.





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