Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Listening to music is liberating. For me, it’s like reading a book: sometimes I like to do it alone; sometimes I like to share the experience with friends. That’s why I wrote Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite. For years, I’ve enjoyed listening to the music of Ellington and his friend and collaborator Billy Strayhorn (aka Strays). It’s like they’re my old friends. In good times and bad, I find myself turning to their music. This tune, “Giggling Rapids” is one of my favorites.

You can’t help but feel good as the saxophones and brass bounce along. Duke wrote the tune as part of a ballet called The River for Alvin Ailey and the American Ballet Theater. In 1970, they performed The River at Lincoln Center.
Another favorite, completely different in mood, is Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom.” He used to love hearing Duke play it. Me too.

Shortly after Strayhorn’s death in 1967, Duke and a few of the band members recorded this beautiful tune for a tribute album titled And His Mother Called Him Bill.

At Georgetown University, I teach classes about classical music and classes about jazz. But like Duke and Strays, I wish those two styles of music weren’t always divided into separate categories. I guess that’s why I’ve always been fascinated by musicians who try to bridge the two styles: composers like George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, and now Wynton Marsalis.

My love of music is what inspires me to look for the story behind the notes. That’s the driving force behind all of my children’s books: from Bach and Beethoven to Gershwin and Ellington. For me, the best thing about writing the books is sharing the stories with others: adults, my college students, and most of all with eager young listeners. Nothing is as wonderful as listening to a great piece of music with a child. That’s why there’s a CD in the back of each of my books. Listen to the music together; then talk about what you hear. How does the music make you feel? Does it tell a story with notes? Listening to the "Nutcracker Suite" can be especially fun with kids. While doing the research for Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite, I got to know an array of fabulous musicians: the “cats” in Ellington’s band. As Strays used to say: “They’re beyond category!”
You can see the band in action here, playing an excerpt from their "Nutcracker Suite":

Ballet music has never been so hip!
And teachers: If you’re interested in bringing jazz into the classroom, check out this fabulous website, Let Freedom Swing, with videos and study guides:
And don’t forget, when you learn a tune, you’ve got a friend for life. It will always be there for you, in good times and bad!


Anonymous said...

This is a beautiful and informative post! "Lotus Blossom" was my favorite clip; thank you for including it. The book seems just wonderful, and offers a different side of both Ellington and Tchaikovsky...

Eileen said...

My mom used to take me to see the Tchaikovsky Nutcracker at Christmas, but somehow I missed the Duke Ellington version. When is the book's official release date?

(and nothing quite like the moment when a little kid realizes classical music is pretty cool)

Charlesbridge Publishing said...

Duke Ellington's Nutcracker Suite is available now!