Duke Ellington: Iconic American Musical Voice


Boston Ballet Music Director MISCHA SANTORA reflects on the life and legacy of Duke Ellington, one of the greatest jazz composers and bandleaders of his time.

Irlan Silva, Paul Craig, and Lia Cirio in Sugar Rum Cherry

Photo by Brooke Trisolini

Nutcracker Suite album

Duke Ellington “composed some of the most enduring music of the 20th century, producing more than one thousand lasting works” (NPR). Today, his recordings remain among the most popular jazz songs of the big band era. “Many of his compositions are incredibly complex and sophisticated,” Boston Ballet Music Director Mischa Santora explains. “I consider him to be simply one of the most important American musical voices.”

Early Life and Career

Born as Edward Kennedy Ellington on April 29, 1899, “Duke” Ellington was raised by two musical parents in Washington, D.C. He began playing piano at the age of 7 and was just 15 when he wrote his first composition “Soda Fountain Rag.”

By the 1920s, Ellington performed in New York nightclubs as the bandleader of a sextet, which later grew to a 10-piece ensemble. In 1939, Billy Strayhorn joined the band as an arranger, composer, and sometimes a pianist. The two worked well together and Strayhorn had a large influence on much of the compositions that followed. “Strayhorn has contributed significantly to many works,” Santora added.

Ellington won numerous Grammy Awards, was awarded the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1964. “During his lifetime he was obviously a very important musician, but he also became an ambassador for the United States,” Santora explains. “He and his band would go on world tours sponsored by the U.S. State Department in hopes of promoting the country, diversity, and jazz.” Ellington continued to compose and perform until his death in 1974.

Nutcracker Suite

Later in his career, Ellington became intrigued with the possibilities of composing jazz within classical forms. In 1960, Strayhorn and Ellington composed a jazzy rendition of Tchaikovsky’s score of The Nutcracker. “This used to be standard operating procedure for composers. They would recognize other composers by transcribing and transforming their pieces. It was a sign of respect,” Santora says.

Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite features nine pieces, and while there are moments that sound familiar to Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky’s score, “sometimes it is so different that it’s almost unrecognizable. That’s the art of variation and improvisation,” Santora says. “Tchaikovsky has these relatively quick and upbeat tempos. Ellington takes those melodies and rhythms and stretches it out. Suddenly it becomes a relaxed, jazzy, walking based type movement, which completely changes the character, but it’s the same music.”

The Gift (Dec 16–Jan 9), the second program of Boston Ballet’s virtual season, features choreography by Company dancers set to Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite.

Seven Boston Ballet dancers choreographed new works to Ellington’s music for the program. Choreographer and Principal Dancer John Lam says, “It has been inspiring not only to create a new visual interpretation of this piece, but to explore the magnificent counterpoints and interplay among the voices in Ellington’s virtuosic band.” Santora adds, “It’s not difficult to start tapping your foot because the energy and the swing is so infectious. I think the best way to watch this program is to kick back, relax, and have a drink. I think that’s what Ellington would say too.”

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