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Duke Ellington's Nutcracker Suite

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By: Anna Harwell Celenza / Illustrated by: Don Tate

Hop-a-tooty and slim-slam-a-booty.

The hippest cats of jazz-a-tooty were Duke Ellington and his friend Billy Strayhorn. Together they composed some of the swingingest sounds in jazz and big band music, and people loved to dance to the music of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. When a music producer offered Duke a recording contract and said he could do anything he wanted, Billy, a classically trained musician, suggested Duke tackle Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, but with a twist.

The Sugar Plum Fairy became the sultry Sugar Rum Cherry, the Dance of the Reed Pipes became Toot Toot Tootie Toot, like a calliope at Coney Island, and the Waltz of the Flowers became the Dance of the Floreadores—like the flashy big spenders in Vegas. The rest of Tchaikovsy’s masterpiece was introduced to the musical influences of the great American cities of 1960: Las Vegas, Harlem, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and more.

Don Tate’s vibrant, exciting illustrations swirl across the page like the sounds of Duke and Billy’s modern Nutcracker dreams. A CD recording of the Ellington/Strayhorn composition is also included.

Look Inside the Book:

Author & Illustrator Bios:

Anna Harwell Celenza, author

Anna Harwell Celenza is a musicologist and the author of several books for adults and children regarding music history and the history of art. Her children’s books include The Farewell Symphony, Pictures at an Exhibition, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, and Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Anna lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

Read more about Anna.

Don Tate, illustrator

Don Tate is the award-winning illustrator/author of more than 25 books for children. He illustrated She Loved Baseball, Ron’s Big Mission, and Summer Sun Risin’. Don lives in Austin, Texas.

Read more about Don.

Awards & Honors:

  • Bank Street College of Education's Best Children's Books of the Year
  • CCBC Choices 2012
  • Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Seal Book Award

Editorial Reviews:


On a night in 1960, legendary musician and band leader Duke Ellington, along with his collaborator Billy Strayhorn, decided to jazz up Tchaikovsky’s Christmastime staple, Nutcracker Suite. Ellington’s new record producer was skeptical; audiences wanted jazz, not ballet. “My listeners want me, and I won’t let them down,” Ellington responds in this fictionalized re-creation of the three-day recording session of his singular interpretation. Drawing from liner notes and titles of musical movements, Celenza fills in facts and imagines Ellington’s eclectic inspirations as he transforms, for example, Tchaikovsky’s Sugar Plum Fairy into Sugar Rum Cherry, a West Indian film star. The author, a musicologist, also picks up on musical points of reference throughout the narrative, identifying influences from New Orleans jazz to the sounds of the Harlem Renaissance. Tate’s mixed-media illustrations celebrate the sensuous pleasure of Ellington’s creation with warm colors and loose lines. To deepen their sense of Celenza’s exuberant descriptions and Tate’s jazz-era–inspired art, readers will want to listen to the accompanying CD. — Courtney Jones

Kirkus Reviews

Drawing from letters, memoirs, photos, film and recordings, Celenza presents a spry account of the 1960 composition and recording of a decidedly swinging Nutcracker Suite.

Laced with invented dialogue and crisply delineating the close collaboration between Ellington and his brilliant, classically trained friend, Billy Strayhorn, the narrative traces the piece from radical idea to work in progress to exuberant recording session. Such a bold departure—classical ballet into jazz suite—required convincing: Both the recording exec and the band were initially dubious. Text and art sync around the premise that the musical traditions and global influences of the cities in which Duke and “Strays” worked—L.A., New York, New Orleans, Vegas—infused the evolving composition with distinct rhythms and cultural metaphors. The brilliant music cues Tate’s full-bleed mixed-media pictures. Bold ink strokes outline and define figures—Duke’s quizzical forehead and Strays’ distinctive cheekbones are expressive squiggles—and create movement across paint-spattered spreads studded with stars, snowflakes and musical notes. The palette marries rich violet-blues with hot, harmonious yellows, sepia and crimson. The delightful accompanying full-length CD is a must-listen, since text and art mesh with it in genuine symbiosis, song by song. Indeed, the absence of a track list—ideally, integrated within the relevant page spreads—is a missed opportunity for deepening context.

Still, real cool.

The New York Times Book Review

In 1960, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn reinvented Tchaikovsky's holiday ballet classic as a jazzy, brassy "melting pot of musical styles past and present." Celenza, a musicologist, loosely reimagines the recording sessions; spread by spread, each movement takes off. Tate, ("Black All Around!," "She Loved Baseball") mixes lively images of the musicians playing with scenes that evoke, alternatively, the "Russian Dance," (now "The Volga Vouty") and "Waltz of the Flowers" ("Dance of the Floreadores"). The book includes a CD recording of the song.

Los Angeles Times

Duke Ellington's band transforms the classical ballet into a cool-cat jazz number with Vegas glitz and Hollywood glamour. A CD recording of the Ellington/Billy Strayhorn composition is included.

Publishers Weekly

Putting a jazzy spin on the holiday, Celenza tells the true story of how Duke Ellington recorded his rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. Tate’s mixed-media artwork keeps tempo with Celenza’s vibrant writing (“A little Vegas glitz appeared here and there.... Hollywood glamour mixed with the Harlem Renaissance as each dance tune fell into place”), incorporating piano keys, musical notation, swirling colors, and Nutcracker motifs spiced up with a big-band flavor. An upbeat Christmas book about breaking boundaries and experimenting with new ideas. Includes a recording of Ellington’s suite.

School Library Journal

When Ellington signs a record contract in 1960, he teams up with fellow musician Billy Strayhorn, and the two composers create a new spin on Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite. The classical masterpiece is a holiday favorite and tinkering with something so well known is a bit risky. Ellington's band is not keen on tackling it, but he is not dissuaded. Even the record executive is skeptical until he hears the band recording in the studio. This fictionalization of Ellington and Strayhorn's daring collaboration is well told, and the illustrations convey the hip, cool feeling of the time. An author's note provides more information, and a CD of the piece is included. Anyone who pops the CD in for a listen is sure to see Ellington as the jazz giant he was. Music teachers will love this package to compare and contrast versions of the Nutcracker, thereby helping children understand what the classical and jazz genres are. Pair it with Jack Prelutsky's The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns (Knopf, 2010) for more insight into interpreting another artist's work. —Joan Kindig, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA


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Hardcover with CD
ISBN: 978-1-57091-700-4

Ages: 6-9
Page count: 32
11 x 8 1/2

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