Get Jazzed: New ‘Nutcracker’ Blends Symphony Sounds with Duke Ellington

Get Jazzed: New ‘Nutcracker’ Blends Symphony Sounds with Duke Ellington

Ellington and Gardner

ON DEC. 12 at Jones Hall, the Houston Symphony Orchestra teams up with the 15-member Jazz Houston Orchestra for a special performance of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite and Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s witty, re-imagined big band version of the ubiquitous, 19th-century classic.

If the thought of yet another performance of The Nutcracker puts you to sleep faster than a bowl of spiked eggnog, then this is the concert for you; movements from Tchaikovsky will alternate with those of Ellington, giving the audience a chance to hear a familiar piece of music in an entirely new way. (As an added bonus, Houston’s favorite bow-tie-wearing meteorologist Khambrel Marshall will narrate the performance.)

And this being Ellington, there will be soloing, something you rarely hear outside of a cadenza in performances of classical symphonic works. “That’s very true,” says Vincent Gardner, founding Artistic and Education Director of Jazz Houston. “You used to hear soloing in orchestral music two or three hundred years ago, but somehow, it slowly was phased out.”

Founded in 2017 by Gardner and his wife, Jazz Houston is just one of two institutions in the US supporting a resident jazz orchestra, the other being Jazz at Lincoln Center, an organization Gardner has been a part of for 23 years. Experiencing first-hand the growth of JALC from a summer concert series to full-fledged constituent of Lincoln Center and non-profit organization that operates its own performance space, Gardner was inspired to create something similar. “While most major cities will have an orchestra, a ballet, and an opera company, but most don’t have a counterpart organization that cultivates jazz,” says Gardner.

After considering other parts of the U.S., he chose to do it in Houston, where there is a philanthropic base, a jazz-loving community, and a long legacy of the music. “Texans and Houstonians have had a major part of every era of jazz music,” says Gardner, echoing Houston artist and DJ Tierney Malone’s assertion that you cannot talk about jazz and not talk about the great state of Texas.

Born in Chicago, and raised in Hampton, Va., Gardner and his wife now call Houston their home, and are committed to developing more opportunities and professional environments to ensure Houston jazz musicians are able to stay in Houston and sustain a professional career.

“The city is ripe for it,” says Gardner. “It’s a great environment.”

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