Seeger Chapel steeple against an orange sunset

JCSO, jazz ensemble to do different take on ‘Nutcracker Suite’

Press Tempo Writer

MILLIGAN COLLEGE — Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite is one of the most well-known and popular Christmas pieces in the world. Thousands of symphonies and ballets do it every holiday season.

Another performance is scheduled for this weekend — “But this is not your regular Nutcracker,” Rick Simerly said.

Simerly, the eminent trombonist and music professor at Milligan College, will direct the Milligan College Jazz Ensemble as it teams with the Johnson City Symphony Orchestra to put on an unusual version of the famous musical work Saturday at 8 p.m. in Seeger Chapel.

The two groups will share the stage — and a crowded stage it will be — as the JCSO performs the traditional version of each movement, followed by the Milligan Jazz Ensemble doing the Duke Ellington swing version of each movement.

“It’s really an engaging performance,” JCSO director Tom Stites said. “No more than a handful of people in this area have ever heard this, and even fewer have heard it live. It probably won’t ever be repeated here again, or maybe once in a decade.

“It’ll be a different feeling, to hear the classical version of each song and then the jazz version, and to be able to hear where this came from originally before Duke Ellington did it.”

Ellington collaborated with Billy Strayhorn in 1948 to rewrite and rename each movement, done in sort of a tongue-incheek way. Stites calls it “genius being interpreted by another genius.” Tchaikovsky’s “The March” becomes “Peanut Brittle Brigade” in the Ellington version; “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” is “Sugar Rum Cherry” and so on.

Simerly, a nationally known trombone performer, recording artist and teacher, will have a couple of distinguished soloists joining the Jazz Ensemble — Rich Willey on trumpet and Phil Thompson on saxophone.

It’s part of the JC Symphony’s schedule of concerts involving guest performers and unusual approaches to the music. Just three weeks ago, the JCSO hosted guest bassist Edgar Meyer for a performance that was a smash.

“The guest artist idea has certainly made things a lot more fun,” Stites said. “How many players can play like Edgar Meyer can? I’ll never hear another person like him.

“We’re trying to put out a program where, when you look at the entire season, there’s something for everyone — classical guitar, jazz, it runs the gamut of musical experiences.”

Stites said the Ellington-Strayhorn version of Nutcracker was created when swing was at its height, but the swing era faded shortly after that and the piece “kind of fell into obscurity,” he said. In the 1990s “Wynton Marsalis rediscovered it and did it with the New York Philharmonic playing the original music. I heard about it and it sounded like a great idea, and when I heard it live done by the Chicago Symphony it blew my socks off.”

About a year ago, Stites began putting this concert together. He contacted Simerly to handle the jazz part of the performance. “I trusted him completely on that,” Stites said. “He’s a national talent who just happens to be in our neck of the woods.”

There are a couple of interesting aspects of this performance in Seeger Chapel. Both bands will be on stage at the sam time — about 90 people. The Jazz Ensemble will be seated in front on a tiered area that will be hydraulically lowered slightly below the rest of the stage, so the jazz players will not be blocking the view of the JCSO.

There’s also the matter of each group performing, then sitting down for a while as the other group plays. That’s unusual for bands during a performance.

“At first we were confused about how we were going to do all this,” Simerly said, “but I think it’s going to work out fine.”

The two orchestras will have only one rehearsal together, on Friday, and the newness of the whole presentation and setup surely adds an edge of uncertainty to how everything will turn out.

“I think it’ll be a great show, especially with these soloists,” Simerly said.

Willey played for years in New York, backing up Mel Torme, among others, and was in Maynard Ferguson’s Big Bop Nouveau. He teaches at Clemson and UNC-Asheville. Thompson, a professor of clarinet, saxophone and flute at Winthrop University, has performed for more than 30 years with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra and is a regular performer in Broadway shows that come to Charlotte.

Thompson will also do a free woodwind clinic at 3 p.m. at Milligan prior to the show.

Tickets are $30 for adults, $10 for students. For tickets or more information, call JCSO at 926-8742 or visit

Johnson City Press Article

Posted by on November 29, 2007.