Such Sweet Thunder: Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn’s Musical Tribute to Shakespeare (1957)

The great Duke Ellington and his longtime musical partner Billy Strayhorn performed such musical feats of strength together over the course of nearly three decades that they can seem to dwarf many of their contemporaries. The two co-composers had a knack for turning popular music—jazz, ragtime, the blues—into high art, then transmuting it right back into pop again, via three-minute blasts of swing like their most famous tune “Take the A Train.” In some respects, Ellington and Strayhorn’s compositions are like that of writers who harmonize hip vernacular, popular idiom, and The Great Tradition into works that feel thrillingly fresh and timeless all at once. And so it makes perfect sense that Ellington and Strayhorn would compose a suite of songs based on scenes from William Shakespeare, that most skillful of literary alchemists, and that it would turn out to be, in the words of poet and music critic A.B. Spellman, “one of the most remarkable orchestral pieces in all of American music.”

That piece, Such Sweet Thunder, found its impetus in Shakespeare’s most magical play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, notably in a line that so well captures the harmonious clashing of styles and languages in both the Duke and the Bard: “I never heard so musical a discord, such sweet thunder.” Dangerous Minds quotes Ellington, who called the piece his “attempt to parallel the vignettes of some of the Shakespearean characters in miniature—sometimes to the point of caricature.” The suite of songs premiered at New York’s Town Hall in April, 1957, at a concert called “Music for Moderns.” Its final number had yet to be written. Soon after, at the Ravinia Music Festival outside Chicago, Ellington introduced the first broadcast performance, which you can hear in full above. See below for the titles of each song and list of soloists.

1:48 Sonnet For Sister Kate [solo: Quentin Jackson]
4:53 Up And Down. Up And Down [solo: Clark Terry]
8:04 Star-Crossed Lovers [solo: Johnny Hodges]
12:38 Madness In Great Ones [solo: Cat Anderson]
16:25 Half The Fun [solo: Johnny Hodges]
20:42 Circle Of Fourths [solo: Paul Gonsalves]
23:23 Jam With Sam [solos: Willie Cook, Paul Gonsalves, Britt Woodman, Russell Procope, Cat Anderson]

Ellington, the CBS radio announcer at the beginning informs us, was first spurred by his attendance at the Stratford Ontario Shakespeare Festival in 1956. But he had been a devotee of theater, and of Shakespeare, for many years. Strayhorn, it seems, was even more so. Spellman tells us that Strayhorn “was deep into Shakespeare […] could quote whole sections of plays [….], vast numbers of sonnets from memory, at the drop of a hat.” Immersed not only in theater, but in classical music, Strayhorn’s first ambition was to become a classical composer. While the color barrier stifled that dream, his move into jazz was certainly no compromise. Strayhorn and Ellington “were so attuned to one another musically,” writes a biography companion to Ken Burn’s Jazz, “that it is now impossible to establish the exact extent of the former’s contribution to Ellington’s oeuvre.” (Ellington called Strayhorn “my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head.”) Given Strayhorn’s deep knowledge of Shakespeare’s work, it’s probably fair to assume that his contribution to Such Sweet Thunder was significant. Above, see selections from a 1959 performance in Switzerland, and just below, see a 1960 avant-garde ballet choreographed to Ellington and Strayhorn’s Shakespeare suite by Maurice Béjart, another artist with a particular talent for bringing high art themes and styles to popular audiences.

via Dangerous Minds

Related Content:

Duke Ellington’s Symphony in Black, Starring a 19-Year-old Billie Holiday

Duke Ellington Plays for Joan Miró in the South of France, 1966: Bassist John Lamb Looks Back on the Day

Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington: Solo Piano, Berlin 1969

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

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