Duke Ellington, Shakespeare, and Such Sweet Thunder

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 112

In 1956, Duke Ellington gave a series of concerts at Ontario, Canada’s Stratford Festival. Afterward, festival staff asked the legendary composer—at that point, one of jazz’s elder statesmen—if he’d consider writing a piece about Shakespeare. A year later, Duke Ellington premiered and recorded Such Sweet Thunder, a suite of twelve tunes inspired by the Bard and his characters. We talked with University of New Hampshire Professor of English Douglas Lanier about the suite, the second chapter of Ellington’s career, and how they reflect shifting cultural perceptions of jazz.

Lanier, who is also a musician, has written widely about Shakespeare and modern popular culture (in fact, that’s the name of his 2002 book: Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture), and is an expert on pop adaptations of Shakespeare’s works. He wrote about Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder for our 2007 exhibition, Shakespeare in American Life. Lanier is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.  

Read Lanier's essay, "Jazzing Up Shakespeare," on our Shakespeare & Beyond blog. 

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published January 8, 2019. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode, “I Never Heard So Musical A Discord,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Jennifer Swiatek and Phil Richards at KCRW public radio in Santa Monica, California. Actors Morgan Duncan and Craig Wallace recreate the minstrel performance in this episode. They were originally recorded for the Shakespeare In American Life public radio documentary.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: In pretty much every generation, there’ll be someone who’s declared “The Shakespeare of Whatever”—usually whichever art form is most popular at the time. Normally, the artist will just brush off the idea. “Who, me?” But sometimes an artist takes the mantle and embraces it. “I am the Shakespeare of Jazz.” And sometimes, history decides that the artist is right.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. The artist we’re talking about is the great Duke Ellington. In 1956, Ellington, and his arranger, Billy Strayhorn, were performing in Ontario, Canada, home of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival. After meeting with festival staff, Ellington made an announcement: the following year, he would come back to Stratford and perform a brand new suite of music based on Shakespeare’s characters, plays, and sonnets.

He called the piece Such Sweet Thunder; twelve numbers, each linked to a Shakespeare character. Since its first performance, jazz historians have hailed Such Sweet Thunder as a monumental work that inspired the idea that jazz is America’s classical music.

We asked in University of New Hampshire English Professor Douglas Lanier to talk about Such Sweet Thunder because he can do it from a unique perspective. Doug is someone with both the musical training and the knowledge of Shakespeare to do justice to this unique work of art.

We call this podcast I Never Heard So Musical A Discord. Doug Lanier is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: Well, how did Ellington get hooked up with this Canadian Stratford Festival?

DOUGLAS LANIER: It’s interesting. He went to Stratford in 1956 as part of a concert series that they were doing. A lot of the music was classical, and that itself is interesting, in that Duke Ellington was, at this time, beginning to be seen as a kind of classical music rather than simply as a jazz performer. So, he goes to Stratford and the Stratford Festival organizers liked what they heard so they said, “Would you do a piece for us that is linked to Shakespeare?” And Ellington and his writing partner, Billy Strayhorn, were both Shakespearean aficionados and they said, “Yes, we’d love that.” They spent the next half year rereading all the works of Shakespeare and then recorded the project in the spring of ’57, and also gave the first live concert of it in New York Town Hall.

BOGAEV: So you said both Billy Strayhorn and Ellington were Shakespeare aficionados. What does that mean?

LANIER: Apparently, this is according to various biographers and other sources, particularly Strayhorn was able to quote passages from Shakespeare. Ellington, apparently, a little less so, but my sense of it is that he caught up in the next year.

BOGAEV: Okay, so Ellington says at one point that he and Billy Strayhorn sat down and they watched these plays at Stratford and they were really inspired. Which performances and which plays were they so inspired by?

LANIER: Oh, that I can’t tell you. Though he really does manage to sample Shakespeare’s greatest hits. So there’s Midsummer—from the comedies there’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

[CLIP from Such Sweet Thunder: “Up and Down, Up and Down”]

LANIER: There’s Taming of the Shrew.

[CLIP from Such Sweet Thunder: “Sonnet for Sister Kate”]

LANIER: From the tragedies you’ve got Hamlet and Macbeth.

[CLIP from Such Sweet Thunder: “Lady Mac”]

LANIER: Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar.

[CLIP from Such Sweet Thunder: “Sonnet for Caesar”]

LANIER: And Othello, of course. Othello is a major influence there. My suspicion is that it was some collection of that group, but the truth is, I don’t know.

[CLIP from Such Sweet Thunder: “Such Sweet Thunder”]

BOGAEV: What of Othello do you hear in the Othello section? Help me understand this. To my ear, I hear a kind of quasi-tango rhythm.

LANIER: Yes, you’re quite right. And then over the top of that he has this smooth brass and a very sort of smooth saxophone solo that lays over the top and to my ear that’s Othello’s voice as he’s telling Desdemona this smooth tale of his background.

[CLIP from Such Sweet Thunder: “Such Sweet Thunder” continues]

LANIER: Act 1, scene 3, the tale he tells of him telling the tale of his own adventures to Desdemona.

[CLIP continues]

BOGAEV: And this is a similar question, but how did Ellington and Strayhorn then interpret the Shakespeare sonnets? Because they created these musical sonnets in this piece as well, and I’m not sure I know what that means either.

[CLIP from Such Sweet Thunder: “Sonnet in Search of a Moor”]

LANIER: That’s a fascinating one as well. This wasn’t discovered until really about 10 years later when Cleo Laine was recording her musical jazz tribute to Shakespeare, Shakespeare and All That Jazz. She decided she was going to sing sonnet number 40 over the music for “Sonnet to Hank Cinq.” She discovered that the words of the sonnet fit exactly the melody that Ellington had written, which means that what Ellington had done was to create a melody line that mirrors exactly the 14 line iambic pentameter that Shakespeare has. In other words, what he did was he wrote 14 small melodies that were of 10 notes each.

[CLIP from Such Sweet Thunder: “Sonnet in Search of a Moor” continues]

LANIER: For example: iambic pentameter is 10 syllables in the line. That’s what it means. Typically, those syllables are arranged in the da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum rhythm. Ellington doesn’t always accord with the iambic rhythm, but what he does hit is the pentameter part. That is 10 notes—10 musical syllables—to the line. If you take the very first line of “Sonnet to Hank Cinq”…

[CLIP from Such Sweet Thunder: “Sonnet to Hank Cinq”]

LANIER: It’s 10 syllables. And each of those lines are put together in the course of that. They’re 14 of them arranged so that it corresponds exactly to the 14 lines that are in Shakespeare Sonnet.

[CLIP from Such Sweet Thunder: “Sonnet to Hank Cinq” continues]

LANIER: You don’t hear this when you first hear it. In fact, many people heard this and didn’t pick up on it. It was only when somebody tried to sing it with lyrics that they realized, Oh my, God, this is the rhythm that he was using.

BOGAEV: We have to talk about probably what is the most famous and most enduring part of the suite, which is, “Up and down, Up and Down (I Will Lead Them Up and Down).”


BOGAEV: That’s the sixth part and it’s considered one of the masterpieces. What’s the Shakespeare inspiration for it, and why does it stand out?

LANIER: Well, this is a case where we are fairly secure we know where it’s from. This is Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the liner notes we’re told this is act 3, scene 2. This is where the couples are the most mixed up of all. And Puck is doing his impish intervening in their fates.

[CLIP from Such Sweet Thunder: “Up and Down, Up and Down”]

LANIER: At times, it’s almost musically experimental. The lovers are represented by four different instruments that are out of tune and sort of chatter with one another.

[CLIP from Such Sweet Thunder: “Up and Down, Up and Down” continues]

LANIER: And at the end of the piece, you have almost the most single recognizable moment where you know it’s Shakespeare. On one of the takes, Clark Terry, in a little section at the very end of the song, basically uses his trumpet to say, “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”

[CLIP from Such Sweet Thunder: “Up and Down, Up and Down” continues. At the end, Terry’s high-pitched trumpet whines a musical phrase that sounds unmistakable like the line from Midsummer]

LANIER: Later takes of this don’t have that, so it’s important to sort of search out the right take of this particular piece.

BOGAEV: Do you think Ellington is thinking in terms of personalities, as opposed to instruments, while he was composing this suite? I also read somewhere that he used soloists in his band like characters in a play, and that he sometimes called himself and amateur playwright.

LANIER: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. There’s an interesting analogy to be struck between how Shakespeare is working and how Ellington’s working. When Shakespeare’s writing his plays, he has in mind particular actors of the company that he’s going to assign the parts to. Sometimes that allows him to have elements of self-parody. Bottom is a parody, for example, of Burbage’s bluster. I think the same thing is true of Ellington. When he’s writing, he’s writing for particular voices and he knows what those people can do, but he can also treat them as characters, at least for this particular project.

[CLIP from Such Sweet Thunder: “Madness in Great Ones”]

LANIER: The easiest analogy that I can come up with for this would be what happens at the end of “Madness in Great Ones,” which is about Hamlet’s madness.

[CLIP from Such Sweet Thunder: “Madness in Great Ones” continues]

LANIER: He knows that Cat Anderson, who’s playing the trumpet, can go crazy high. That ability, to almost go higher than is humanly possible, becomes a metaphor for Hamlet’s own capacity for pretending to be mad.

[CLIP from Such Sweet Thunder: “Madness in Great Ones” continues]

BOGAEV: I’m also thinking that the publicist for the Stratford Festival, Barbara Reid, who helped summarize the plays and gave those summations to Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington. She tells this cool story about how she thought Ellington didn’t get the Hamlet section right at all.


BOGAEV: Did you hear that? And she told him!

LANIER: Yeah. And this has been part of the reception of Such Sweet Thunder. It’s by no means been unanimous that the Shakespearean content is something that Duke Ellington captured. Several critics said, “Well, he just cobbled together some of his old stuff.” And it might be true in a couple of cases, but I don’t know, I think my ear hears something different there.

BOGAEV: Ellington himself said, “You don’t have to know your Shakespeare to get this suite.”

LANIER: Yeah. No, I think that’s exactly right. And it’s true, isn’t it, of so many free Shakespeare adaptations? Especially ones that move beyond the Shakespearean language. If you don’t know the original plays very well, you’re not always likely to recognize that the piece is based on a Shakespeare source. My students in my Shakespeare classes are somehow always surprised when I say, “Did you know that 10 Things I Hate About You is based on The Taming of the Shrew?” I always have large numbers of students say, “No, that’s not possible. That’s—no, that’s a great teen movie, I loved it from childhood. No, that’s not possible.” Again, you could enjoy that movie without knowing that it has Shakespearean content or that it’s based on Shakespeare at all. But if you do know your Shakespeare it brings an extra dimension to the enjoyment of it.

BOGAEV: Well, I think that’s really true about the finale, “Circle of Fourths”.

[CLIP from Such Sweet Thunder: “Circle of Fourths”]

BOGAEV: Ellington, I know, introduced this part of the suite at the festival by saying that the principle ingredients used by Shakespeare were tragedies, comedies, histories, and sonnets. So, he said that they simply took those four things, or genres, and decided to progress in fourths through the musical limits. Now, I imagine if I understood what they meant I would understand another dimension of the suite. So, what does that mean? What is he saying?

LANIER: This is an interestingly abstract tribute to Shakespeare. “The Circle of Fourths” is a musical idea that you can, by progressing from the major key you’re in to the fourth, and then taking that key as the new tonic and moving up another fourth, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera—you can go through all 12 keys that it’s possible to go through in music and arrive back where you started.

[CLIP from Such Sweet Thunder: “Circle of Fourths” continues]

LANIER: It’s extraordinarily difficult to do. I think that’s Ellington’s statement, of saying, I can do musically what I think Shakespeare did in terms of the portrayal of characters and genres. He hits everything and he manages to do it in the course of his career—so I can do it in one song. It’s a virtuoso performance that is meant to mirror Shakespeare’s own virtuoso performance as a playwright.

[CLIP from Such Sweet Thunder: “Circle of Fourths” continues]

BOGAEV: It’s interesting, the suite opens with the Othello theme. And in fact, Such Sweet Thunder starts with a black character and it ends with a black character, Cleopatra.

LANIER: Now, isn’t that interesting?

BOGAEV: Yeah. And this seems in keeping with a lot of Duke Ellington’s work at the time, which was about telling the story of African-Americans and claiming high art and culture of the elites for African-Americans.

LANIER: Yeah, exactly. It is so very interesting that, as you say, he brackets the suite with two characters who were regarded as coming from Africa.

BOGAEV: But is that what you hear Ellington saying, that Shakespeare isn’t just for white folks?

LANIER: Oh yeah, I think that’s exactly right. He’s tapping—it’s an interesting exchange of a kind of cultural legitimacy. On the one hand, he’s popularizing Shakespeare by putting it into a popular jazz idiom, but on the other hand, he’s also claiming a kind of classical status for his own art. He’s saying, My art is like Shakespeare’s and it is up to being compared with Shakespeare; it is a kind of artistic vocabulary that is worthy of Shakespearean content. But he also, at the very same time, makes a point of saying, Shakespeare also included African experience in his works, which of course speaks to his celebration of black culture during that time period.

BOGAEV: You know, it’s so wild to think that Ellington and Strayhorn were working on this incredibly complicated, sophisticated music, often all night after a band date in the ballrooms of obscure hotels, right, where they were playing. Was this is a passion project, or do you think it was a way for Ellington to prove, Look, I’m still evolving, I’m still relevant in culture?

LANIER: I think it’s a little of both. Our understanding of Ellington is that he was writing music all the time. You see pictures of him on trains, in coffee shops, and he’s always got a score sitting out in front of him. I sense that he’s the kind of guy who’s just got melodies in his head and he wants to get them down on paper all the time. But that said, I do think this is a special passion project because it allowed him essentially to lay claim to a kinship with an artist who was regarded by everyone as one of the greatest artists who had ever lived. By laying out these parallels between his own art and Shakespeare’s art and the way in which Shakespeare worked, he’s making a case for himself as the Shakespeare of jazz essentially.

BOGAEV: Let’s switch gears now and talk about the cultural significance of Such Sweet Thunder. You’ve written that the fact that the Stratford Festival inviting Ellington to compose this piece reinforced this perception that pre-bop jazz now constituted an art form akin, in cultural stature, to Shakespeare.


BOGAEV: It sounds like you see this as a kind of continued anointing of this kind of jazz as “highbrow.” But who already saw it as highbrow?

LANIER: Not many people saw it as highbrow during that particular time. I mean, I think one of the achievements of this, and a number of the other of Duke Ellington’s suites, is that that actually brings that perception into being and that was, what makes Ellington interesting is that he himself is doing the work of classicizing, if I can use that term, his own art by outlying it with a variety of different cultural landmarks and cultural figures that would associate his work with cultural greatness.

BOGAEV: The other cultural context for Such Sweet Thunder involves Shakespeare and blackface, and the long history of the minstrel show. You’ve written that Duke Ellington’s music used to be called “jungle music.” Flesh out for us the connection—what that connection is between this highbrow transposing of Shakespeare into a jazz composition and Shakespeare and minstrel shows.

LANIER: Yeah, this is part of a very long relationship between African-American music and Shakespeare that stretches back to the 19th century.

[CLIP: an actor sings a tune from late 19th-century minstrel show, Dar’s de Money (Burlesque on “Othello”). The character of Othello sings to the tune of “I Wish I Was in Dixie”]

Oh, Dezzie dear, now you’re my wife,
I mean to pass a happy life!
Away, away, away, Dixieland.

I love my Desdemona! Away, away!
And hand-in-hand we’ll take a stand
To spend Brabantio’s money
Away, away. . .

LANIER: Minstrel shows emerge in the 1840s and they were, I think as everyone would guess, denigrating to black people. Part of the minstrel show involved little parody plays in the second half of the show.

[CLIP: actors read a scene from late 19th-century minstrel show, Dar’s de Money (Burlesque on “Othello”)]

Now, do you know this piece? You can easily learn it. The plot is, Othello, a jealous Moor, runs off with Dars-de-money. Seizes her. Strangles her.

LANIER: Those plays included little Shakespeare skits, but they were skits done in minstrel form.

[CLIP: actors read a scene from late 19th-century minstrel show, Dar’s de Money (Burlesque on “Othello”)]

OTHELLO: How are you, Dad?

BRABANTIO: You villain! Vere’s mein daughter?

OTHELLO: If for my wife, my daughter, you’re lookin’, you’ll find her in the kitchen, busy cookin’!

BRABANTIO: Vat’s that you say? Mein daughter is your wife? You damn black rascal, I will have your life!

LANIER: And an implication always was that well black folks just really can’t do Shakespeare, and if they try to do Shakespeare it’s going to come out as a kind of parody that denigrates the greatness of the Bard. Minstrelsy is part of that very long and very strong strain of regarding African-American art as low art. If you then flash forward to big band music, there’s an interesting attempt in the ‘40s to try to break that sense that the combination of an African-American art form, jazz, and Shakespeare, leads to the denigration of Shakespeare. So, you have several different attempts to jazz up Shakespeare.

[CLIP: the emcee of the Camel Caravan introduces “Swingin’ the Dream”]

HOST: On last week’s Camel Caravan, Benny introduced one of the tunes from the show, “Swingin’ the Dream.” Well, everyone seemed to like last week’s sample of the score, so tonight, with a vocal hand from Mildred Bailey, we let you have another taste of the show. The title tune: “Swingin’ the Dream.”

Music starts.

LANIER: There’s a famous Broadway show called Swingin’ the Dream that was a jazz show version of Midsummer Night’s Dream. It had Louis Armstrong in it as Bottom.

I think what Ellington did was make that particular connection especially convincing and elegant and it feels as if Such Sweet Thunder finally dispelled that notion that doing Shakespeare in a quote-unquote black idiom is somehow degrading to the dignity and depth of Shakespeare’s art.

[CLIP from Such Sweet Thunder: “The Telecasters”]

BOGAEV: Would you say it’s for that reason that this has been hailed as a masterpiece? And that’s why we’re still talking about it decades later on this Shakespeare podcast or on any podcast?

LANIER: Well, I’ll give a quick answer that won’t satisfy anybody: it’s really great music. Part of it is it’s just a delight on the ear. It’s varied, it’s musically interesting, it has all of the wonderful qualities of Duke Ellington’s music and it’s a really good example of his art. His combination of Shakespeare and jazz is in some ways easier for the person who isn’t a jazz aficionado to understand than some of the later versions that are a bit more thorny. There’s a jazz suite based on Othello that comes a full 10 years later, by a really great jazz composer called George Russell, The Othello Ballet Suite. Clearly, he’s thinking back to Ellington, but he’s trying to do something that’s kind of bop-ish. It’s a hard listen if you’re not used to that kind of more challenging idiom.

BOGAEV: But do you think would it have been hailed as such a masterpiece if it hadn’t been by Duke Ellington? Because there are countless examples of famous people in pop culture who—they get older and they try their hand at something highbrow. I’m thinking, like, Paul McCartney’s, Ocean’s Kingdom album back in 2011.

LANIER: Yeah, exactly.

BOGAEV: Yeah, that shot to the top of the classical music charts because it’s Paul McCartney doing classical music.

LANIER: Exactly.

BOGAEV: So when Duke Ellington creates this concert ties to jazz suite based on Shakespeare is that why we’re taking notice of it? Is that what merits attention?

LANIER: I think so. I mean I think the music has merit in itself, but I think also it’s fair to say we pay attention to it because it’s Duke Ellington and it comes from a person we know who produces high quality music and has a sense of craft about it. And we can be assured that there will be an artistic payoff by listening to it.

BOGAEV: Doug, thank you so much for this. I really love talking to you about it and love the opportunity to listen to this music.

LANIER: Well, thank you so much for having me. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation.


WITMORE: Douglas Lanier is a Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. His essay, “Jazzing Up Shakespeare,” about Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder, was originally written for the exhibition catalogue for Shakespeare in American Life, the Folger’s 75th anniversary exhibition in 2007. The essay was republished on our Shakespeare & Beyond blog in 2017. Doug was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

“I Never Heard So Musical A Discord” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Jennifer Swiatek and Phil Richards at KCRW public radio in Santa Monica, California. The actors in the minstrel performance were Morgan Duncan and Craig Wallace. They were originally recorded for the Shakespeare In American Life public radio documentary.

If you’ve been enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited, I hope you’ll consider reviewing this podcast on whatever platform you get the podcast from. It helps us get the word out to people who haven’t heard it, people who might enjoy it. We’d really appreciate your help. Thanks you.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. And, if you find yourself visiting Washington, DC, we hope you’ll visit us on Capitol Hill. See a performance in our Elizabethan theater and come face-to-face with one of our First Folios—the first printed edition of Shakespeare's plays. We hope to see you here.

Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.