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Duke Ellington's Such Sweet Thunder

Duke Ellington's Such Sweet Thunder
Douglas M. Lanier, associate professor of English, the University of New Hampshire, author of Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture (2002)
Excerpted from Douglas M. Lanier, "Jazzing Up Shakespeare," Shakespeare in American Life exhibition catalog. Folger Shakespeare Library, 2007.

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.

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.

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Duke Ellington and collaborator Billy Strayhorn conferring during the recording session for Such Sweet Thunder. © Don Hunstein.