Duke Ellington's Nutcracker Suite works on me like a time machine. I’d call it nostalgia, but I was only four years old when it was first recorded. At that age I had little knowledge of a world beyond my family and home. I certainly had no awareness of Duke Ellington.
I did not begin listening to Ellington until I was in my twenties, and I should probably be waxing nostalgic about the 1980s when I first fell in love with Ellington's music rather than a time when Eisenhower was president. However, that is not how Ellington's music affects me. It does not take me back to a time in my own life when I first discovered the music's soulful elegance, it takes me to the time of its recording, a time when big band music was an integral part of American culture.
My faux nostalgia therefore comes from a longing for an era when Ellington's music was heard with ears more acclimated to big band music. I yearn to hear Ellington's music as an unalloyed product of its time, to hear it without the iconic adulation that came from a later age. I am envious of those who heard Ellington's music when it was first performed, before it was reshaped by familiarity. How groundbreaking and imaginative it must have sounded when it was new.
In 1965, a music jury voted to make Ellington the first African American and first jazz artist to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. The Pulitzer committee, to its everlasting shame, refused to accept the recommendation and decided not to give an award for music that year rather than recognize Ellington. Not until 1996 was an African-American (George Walker) awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music. In 1997, Wynton Marsalis became the first person to win a Pulitzer for composing jazz.
“Critics have their purposes, and they're supposed to do what they do, but sometimes they get a little carried away with what they think someone should have done, rather than concerning themselves with what they did."
– Duke Ellington
The Nutcracker Suite, arranged by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn,
performed by ARC Studio Jazz Ensemble & The Sacramento Jazz Orchestra
The Nutcracker Suite, performed by Steven Richman conducting the Harmonie Ensemble,
followed by a performance by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra