Skip to main content
Shakespeare & Beyond

Duke Ellington's Such Sweet Thunder: Shakespeare and jazz

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.
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.

  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
  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).


[…] by Shakespeare. Using the album with students, for which the Folger Shakespeare Library has some excellent resources, can take the kinds of conversations one has about tone, plot, characterization, intertextuality, […]

If You're Teaching Shakespeare, You Might Want to Start with Duke Ellington | Gradgrind's — April 30, 2019

[…] Festival St. Louis, Nine Network of Public Media, Jazz St. Louis, and The Big Muddy Dance Company. Ellington’s 1956 jazz suite is made up of twelve songs inspired by Shakespeare’s plays and characters; In St. […]

What's on at Shakespeare theaters in September - Shakespeare & Beyond — September 20, 2019

[…] learn more, check out the full podcast episode, Duke Ellington, Shakespeare, and Such Sweet Thunder, and read an excerpt on our blog from Douglas Lanier’s essay, “Jazzing Up […]

Such Sweet Thunder: The musical sonnets in Duke Ellington's Shakespeare suite - Shakespeare & Beyond — December 3, 2021