Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder: Shakespeare and jazz

Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington, photographed by William P. Gottlieb at the Aquarium in New York, between 1946-1948. Library of Congress.

It’s been 60 years since Duke Ellington recorded Such Sweet Thunder, a jazz suite based on Shakespeare’s plays. Eleven songs are linked to Shakespearean characters like Othello and Lady Macbeth, and the final number is a tribute to Shakespeare himself.

Published below is an excerpt from “Jazzing Up Shakespeare,” an essay written by Douglas M. Lanier for the Folger’s Shakespeare in American Life exhibition catalog in 2007.

Listen also to this interview with Douglas Lanier on the Folger’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast.

Duke Ellington conducting during the recording session for Such Sweet Thunder. © Don Hunstein.
Duke Ellington conducting during the recording session for Such Sweet Thunder. © Don Hunstein.

Jazzing Up Shakespeare

By Douglas M. Lanier

Duke Ellington created a milestone in the relationship between jazz and Shakespeare with his 1957 jazz suite Such Sweet Thunder. By the mid-1950s, the precipitous post-war fall of swing and rise of bop, changes in personnel in his band, and a creeping conservatism in his repertoire had made Ellington seem a relic of jazz’s past. His career’s second chapter, most jazz historians agree, began with his band’s electrifying performance of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, a performance which prompted the press to dub Ellington an elder statesman of jazz.1

Such Sweet Thunder was composed a year later, after a series of concerts for the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare Festival, performances which affirmed Ellington’s stature as a hip classic. Stratford’s invitation of jazz musicians of an older generation to the festival reinforced the perception that pre-bop jazz now constituted an art form akin in cultural stature to Shakespeare. Ellington’s suite acknowledges this act of legitimation, but it also deepens the affinities between Shakespeare’s art and Ellington’s own, suggesting in several ways that the analogy is not superficial but thoroughgoing.

In his program notes for the first performance of Such Sweet Thunder, Ellington worries that, as classics, he and Shakespeare labor under the misperception that their arts are for the cultural elite, making some reluctant “to expose themselves and join the audience.” In the 1930s and 1940s, swing had been seen as the very voice of popularization, reaching (problematically) across racial divides and rendering whatever it touched modern, American, and immediately appealing, but in 1957 the “classicizing” of Ellington’s music by linking it to Shakespeare risked making jazz a coterie form, the property of connoisseurs. In his program notes Ellington seeks to navigate these concerns.

On the one hand, he stresses that “whether it be Shakespeare or jazz, the only thing that counts is the emotional effect on the listener”—no special knowledge is required. The power of the performance’s “immediate impact on the human ear” aligns both Ellington and Shakespeare with popular culture and potentially democratizes their respective audiences. On the other hand, Ellington claims that his art and Shakespeare’s are sufficiently sophisticated to reward repeated encounters, an assertion which differentiates their arts from mere pop ephemera. Here Ellington articulates the musical ambitions of his later career—to create a music with the prestige and virtuosity of other classics and the inclusive immediacy of popular culture.

Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder consists of eleven numbers, each of which is linked to Shakespearean characters:

“Such Sweet Thunder” [Othello]
“Sonnet for Caesar” [Julius Caesar]
“Sonnet to Hank Cinq” [Henry V]
“Lady Mac” [Lady Macbeth]
“Sonnet in Search of a Moor” [Othello]
“The Telecasters” [The Three Witches and Iago]
“Up and Down, Up and Down, I Will Lead Them (Up and Down)” [Puck]
“Sonnet for Sister Kate” [Katherine]
“The Star-Crossed Lovers” [Romeo and Juliet]
“Madness in Great Ones” [Hamlet]
“Half the Fun” [Cleopatra]

A final number, “Circle of Fourths,” added later, offers a musical tribute to Shakespeare himself.

The suite addresses the challenge of wedding Shakespeare with African-American music in several ways. First, the suite is entirely instrumental, sidestepping the issue of setting Shakespearean language in an African-American idiom. Even so, in a few cases the sections have a conversational quality, as in the opening number “Such Sweet Thunder,” which musically depicts the seductive stories Othello tells Desdemona. In fact, Ellington tends to choose characters known for their oratorical power or verbal facility, a quality mirrored in his witty arrangements and in the sections’ playful titles.

Second, Ellington thinks of Shakespeare as a portrayer of individualized personalities. He conceives of his suite as a series of musical portraits of Shakespearean characters, ending coda-like with a portrait of Shakespeare himself—it is essentially a suite of solos. The well-worn conception of Shakespeare as primarily a creator of distinctive characters accords with Ellington’s own compositional methods, for he famously used the distinctive sound of individual band members as a starting point for his compositions. Strikingly, Ellington plays down the tragic trajectories of Shakespeare’s plots, reserving indication of their fates for a single ominous final note or unresolved chord. Emphasis falls rather on the vitality of their distinctive voices, even when, as in his “sonnets” for Othello and Kate, those voices engage in a blues-laden lament.

Most importantly, Ellington stresses Shakespeare’s affirmation of black characters and his works’ formal affinities with African-American music. Ellington’s suite begins and ends with black characters—Othello in “Such Sweet Thunder” and Cleopatra in “Half the Fun” (as the liner notes wryly observe, Antony seems to be on hiatus). A third portrait, “Sonnet in Search of a Moor,” also concerns Othello, this time depicting his tenderness and pathos rather than his oratorical skill. All three portraits actively celebrate black erotic power—as the pun on “a moor / amour” suggests—defying stereotypes of black sexuality by stressing these characters’ sly charm and sophistication. Since Shakespeare is popularly known as a poet of love, this emphasis on black sensuality also provides a rationale for placing Othello and Cleopatra at the center of his artistic achievements. And Shakespeare’s depictions of blacks, Ellington’s portraits suggest, are affirming—Ellington barely acknowledges Othello and Cleopatra’s tragic ends, and Aaron from Titus Andronicus and the Prince of Morocco from The Merchant of Venice are nowhere to be found.

Ellington also foregrounds Shakespeare’s women in his suite, particularly those women who are verbally assertive or subversive—Lady Macbeth, Katherine Minola, the three witches, Cleopatra. The parallel between Shakespeare’s spunky women and his black characters becomes clearest when Ellington musically quotes from “Such Sweet Thunder” in the opening and closing phrases of his “Sonnet to Sister Kate.” When he turns to “The Star-Crossed Lovers,” Ellington gives the majority of the beautiful melody line not to Romeo but to Juliet, portrayed by Johnny Hodges’s alto sax.

Ellington’s assertion of the affinity between Shakespeare’s art and the black experience also extends to artistic form. Throughout are little musical touches that elegantly transpose Shakespearean styles and forms into an African-American musical idiom. The suite includes four “Sonnets,” each of which sets a fourteen-line melody (a Shakespearean “sonnet”) into what is a modified twelve-bar blues framework, that most quintessential of African-American musical forms. Puck’s taunting of the lovers in “Up and Down” is portrayed by mocking call-and-response sequences between dissonant instrumental pairs and Clark Terry’s solo trumpet, and in its original release the piece ends with Terry musically quoting “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”

“Circle of Fourths,” the final number which traverses all the musical keys in less than two minutes, slyly suggests an analogy between Shakespeare and Ellington himself. If Shakespeare was renowned for his universal poetic facility, his ability to mime any verbal idiom, so too Ellington demonstrates his ability to think in any musical key and freely, deftly move between them.2 Ellington’s sophistication and craft in the arrangements thoroughly rejects the notion that transposing Shakespeare into an African-American idiom leads only to travesty.

The suite’s title, Such Sweet Thunder, makes the point forcefully and wittily. The phrase is taken from Hippolyta’s description of Hercules’ baying dogs in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (4.1.111–5):

…never did I hear
Such gallant chiding: for, besides the groves,
The skies, the fountains, every region near
Seem’d all one mutual cry: I never heard
So musical a discord, such sweet thunder.

This phrase acknowledges the historically denigrated status of African-American music, the idea that jazz was mere “discord”—Ellington’s early jazz was originally dismissed as “jungle music.” But the phrase also asserts the possibility that such “thunder” could be labeled “sweet,” the adjective most often applied to Shakespeare’s style. It is telling, then, that the title “Such Sweet Thunder” is used both for the entire suite and for the opening number in which Othello, a black man like Ellington, tells “the sweet and swinging, very convincing story” of his life with which he wooed Desdemona, a story so compelling that, Ellington notes with pride, the Venetian Duke declares “if Othello had said this to his daughter, she would have gone for it too.”3

  1. For biographical details, see John Edward Hasse, Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington (New York: Da Capo, 1993), as well as Ken Vail’s comprehensive Duke’s Diary: The Life of Duke Ellington, 1950–1974 (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2002), esp. 103–13.
  2. For a detailed musical analysis, see Stephen M. Buhler’s “Form and Character in Duke Ellington’s and Billy Strayhorn’s Such Sweet Thunder,” in Borrowers and Lenders 1.1 (2005), at http://atropos.english.uga.edu/cocoon/borrowers/request?id=118083
  3. This quotation and other details about the suite are taken from Irving Townshend’s liner notes for Such Sweet Thunder, Columbia Legacy CK 65568 (1957).