It’s a short walk from the SFJAZZ Center to the War Memorial Opera House, which is where the evening-length ballet The Nutcracker made its North America premiere in the winter of 1944. An immediate sensation, the production unleashed an army of Nutcrackers large and small that march across the country come the holidays, turning Tchaikovsky’s spirited score into an enchanting soundtrack for the season. In 1960, at the urging of Billy Strayhorn, the Duke Ellington Orchestra recorded The Nutcracker Suite (Columbia), a brilliant jazz interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s music.
While largely forgotten today, the popular album marked a watershed in one of American music’s most consequent and productive partnerships, as Ellington gave Strayhorn equal billing for the first time on the album’s cover. For bassist, composer, and arranger Marcus Shelby, Ellington and Strayhorn’s Nutcracker Suite arrangements offer an ideal vehicle for his talent-laden jazz orchestra, an ensemble he modeled after Ellington’s.