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Shakespeare, Jazz, and Canada: The Ellington Connection



Such Sweet Thunder

Duke Ellington's Incidental Music for Shakespeare's Play Timon Of Athens



Such Sweet Thunder

LP Cover

Such Sweet Thunder album cover; commissionedin 1956

for the Stratford Festival (Canada)

Such Sweet Thunder is among the most multifariously masterful of the many suites composed by Duke Ellington (1899-1974) and Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967), his most frequent and significant collaborator. Commissioned in 1956 by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where in July of that year the Ellington Orchestra performed, Such Sweet Thunder was in its original LP incarnation a twelve-part work. It premiered to critical plaudits on April 28, 1957 (the night before Ellington turned 58) at New York’s Town Hall.

In paying tribute to William Shakespeare (1564-1616), unquestionably the greatest writer in the English language, Ellington and Strayhorn painted a series of finely drawn portraits of some of the Bard’s most memorable tragic, comic, and heroic figures. And as John Edward Haase notes in his essential study of The Maestro, Beyond Category – The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington: “As did Shakespeare, Ellington deployed his players like great actors on a stage. For nineteen years, Shakespeare was part owner of a repertory company, and wrote ONLY for that company. Likewise, Ellington had HIS own repertory company – for fifty years – and wrote almost exclusively for its players. Shakespeare’s plays have outlived the actors for whom they were conceived. Ellington’s music may, as the centuries pass, attain the same achievement. (Such Sweet Thunder, 1999 liner notes)

The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare notes a limited history of fusing Shakespeare and jazz. Aside from the Ellington suite featured here, there is the famous jazz-inspired Leonard Bernstein musical West Side Story (1957), an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, and John Dankworth’s Shakespeare & All That Jazz (1964) (223). There have been, however, several other adaptations of Shakespeare that make use of jazz aside from these examples. Indeed, in 1963 Ellington returned to Stratford to score the music for a production of Timon of Athens. Of similar vintage is the British film All Night Long (1961), which is a restaging of Othello that takes place in a London jazz party. In 1997, Sheldon Epps brought his musical adaptation of Twelfth Night called Play On! to Broadway.

Play On! is interesting for is fusion of recent jazz history with the plot line of Twelfth Night. Epps’ musical tells the story of “Vy, a country girl who moves to Harlem with the aspiration of becoming a great songwriter. However, in order to arrange a meeting with the famous jazz composer, Duke, she must pretend to be a man” (“A Look at the Work”). Themes of cross-dressing and deception mirror those of Shakespeare’s play with less comic results:

Just like Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Epp's Play On! offers an underlying layer that focuses on contemporary topics like gender-switching, cross-dressing, and sexism. While the musical is much more of an homage to '40s dance and music than a political vehicle, the struggle of a woman trying to work in the male world of jazz is wholly valid, even today.

I remember once reading a review that said, 'The show's fun and the music is wonderful, but what a ridiculous plot line – a woman who would actually have to disguise herself as a man to be successful in the world of jazz,' " Epps recalls. "A month later, the story broke about Billy Tipton, who had disguised herself for 40 years to have a successful career as a jazz player. So I believe that there's a certain truth to the story in that way as well. Unless you wanted to be a singer, women had a hard road in the world of jazz. As composers, players – they were not part of that club. (Kourlass)

Ellington Conducting
Duke Ellington conducting his orchestra

Duke Ellington’s fusion of jazz with Shakespeare was met with much less surprise. Well established by 1956, critics responded to Ellington’s adaptation of Shakespeare with excitement and respect:

One of the many surprising things about a suite by Duke Ellington based upon Shakespeare is that the news of this ambitious undertaking has not really surprised anybody. So seasoned are Ellington admirers to his talents, so prepared are they for the unexpected, that the announcements of his suite were greeted with enthusiasm, curiosity, and impatience, but seldom with surprise. It is, of course, idle to speculate upon what might have happened if Ellington and Shakespeare had been contemporaries, but there is no doubt that Duke, who calls himself an “amateur playwright,” is a very professional showman. And there is also no doubt that the Bard had rhythm in his soul. The artistic meeting of two great creative men has achieved the results we all hoped for: a new major work by Duke Ellington. (Such Sweet Thunder, 1957 liner notes by Irving Townsend)

The selections from Such Sweet Thunder included on the CASP site show off Ellington’s skillful musical sketches of two of Shakespeare’s leading characters. Here is what the original LP cover had to say about each:

Audio Clip:

Sonnet in search of a Moor – This sonnet features Jimmy Wood on bass and opens with what Duke calls A “Hi-Fi” introduction on piano. Clarinets accompany the bass throughout the delicate, rhythmic glimpse of the Moor.

Audio Clip:

Madness in Great Ones – Here is an Ellingtonian parallel to Hamlet’s character during the time he was deceiving his stepfather. (“Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.” [III.i.168]) Hamlet was trying to make him believe he was crazy, and as Duke notes, “in those days crazy didn’t mean the same thing it means now.” At any rate, crazy this is with the Ellington orchestra playing a scene that does justice to Shakespeare. “Cat” Anderson is the featured, stratospheric trumpeter who all but disappears into outer space at the end.

Ellington also composed incidental music for a Timon of Athens production at the Stratford Festival in 1963. Remarkably, Ellington's sketches and partial score remained in the Stratford archives since then and have only recently been recuperated, reconstructed, and recorded by Stanley Silverman and an ensemble of musicians associated with the Stratford Festival. Consisting of 20 pieces––including numbers like the "Overture: Black and Tan Fantasy"; "Market Crash"; "False Friends: Banquet Theme"; "Revolutionary March"; and "soured for the Second Banquet: Creole Love Call"––the music blends Afro-American jazz stylistics and social consciousness with the themes of Shakespeare's play: greed, generosity, betrayal, revolution, reconciliation, and resurrection.

The score was originally performed by six musicians and premiered on July 29, 1963 in a production staged by then Artisitc Director of the Festival, Michael Langham. In later performances the instrumentation was increased, notably for performances at England's Chichester Festival (opening April 8, 1964), the Stratford Festival's remounting of the play (opening June 7 1991), and the subsequent production at the National Actors' Theatre on Broadway in New York (opening November 4, 1993), the latter two productions again staged by Langham and starring Brian Bedford as Timon.

At the time of Ellington's association with the Stratford Festival, the Festival had already established an international reputation for its music festival over and above its theatrical festival. As Silverman notes in his commentary for the full recording of the incidental music from Timon of Athens: "A typical day might include a concert of Beethoven played by resident musician Glenn Gould followed by a performance of Antony and Cleopatra starring Christopher Plummer and Zoe Caldwell. Through those years Ellington frequently visited Stratford with his band and became infatuated with Shakespeare. In sold-out performances, confronted with no place to sit, he could be seen sitting on the stairs in the theatre's aisles" (Silverman; liner notes). Coincident with his scoring of the music for Timon Ellington was also working on My People, written for the Century of Negro Progress Exposition in Chicago and inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. My People was both an exploration of religious and historical themes related to the African diaspora and an appeal for racial harmony, and it is interesting to specualte on the dgree to which these influences also found their way into the score he composed for Timon.

Also of interest is how Langham's production ideas for Timon departed radically from traditionalist interpretations, yet another case where production and interpretation decisions that markedly inflect a play can be construed of as adaptations in their own right. Traditionally thought of as one of Shakespeare's lesser plays, Langham's interpretation found significant artistic merit in the text and re-set the play in an age of economic and political ferment, placing it in the Mediterranean of the 1920s and 1930s. Mixing elements of Greek, French, and Spanish North African cultures, Langham's production foregrounded the economic and political instability of the period as appropriate contexts for understanding Timon's personal tragedy.

Click on the links below to sample some of the music Ellington composed for Timon, adapted by Stanley Silverman, and played by the Musicians of the Stratford Festival of Canada.


Mat Buntin / Daniel Fischlin



Link to an interview conducted by the CBC with Duke Ellington about the release of Such Sweet Thunder in 1957.
Link to a spotlight on the Stratford Festival compiled from the CBC’s archives on their website.


Works cited:

Dobson, Michael and Stanley Wells, Eds.  The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford U P, 2002.

Ellington, Duke.   Such Sweet Thunder .   Columbia. 1999.

Kourlass, Gia.   “A look at the work.” PBS Online. 2 Nov. 2004.

Other resources about jazz and Shakespeare:

Feather, Leonard. “Duke Ellington rencontre William Shakespeare.” Jazz Magazine 3.28 (June 1957): 12-13.

Hentoff, Nat. “Ellington et Shakespeare.” Jazz Hot 122 (June 1957): 20.

Leyh, Teddy. “Shakespeare, Ellington und Jazz. Gedanken zu zwei neuen Werken Duke Ellingtons.” Jazz Podium. 7.9 (Sept 1958): 184-185 .


Audio Clips:

Duke Ellington and his Orchestra: Such Sweet Thunder

1957 Columbia Records

Sonnet in search of a Moor

Madness in Great Ones


Duke Ellington's Incidental Music for Shakespeare's Play Timon of Athens

Play Directed by Michael Langham


Duke Ellington's Incidental Music for Shakespeare's Play Timon Of Athens CD cover Duke Ellington's Incidental Music for Shakespeare's Play Timon Of Athens CD back cover
Duke Ellington's Incidental Music for Shakespeare's Play Timon Of Athens CD cover Duke Ellington's Incidental Music for Shakespeare's Play Timon Of Athens CD back cover


Duke Ellington's Incidental Music for Shakespeare's Play Timon Of Athens CD notes, page 1.
Duke Ellington's Incidental Music for Shakespeare's Play Timon Of Athens CD notes, page 1.


Timon production
Timon of Athens the party scene, 1963


Duke Ellington's Incidental Music for Shakespeare's Play Timon Of Athens CD notes, page 2.
Duke Ellington's Incidental Music for Shakespeare's Play Timon Of Athens CD notes, page 2.


Link to Michael Langham's Timon of Athens


Audio Clips:

Duke Ellington's Incidental Music for Shakespeare's Play Timon Of Athens

Music Adapted by Stanley Silverman

1993 Varese Sarabande Records

Overture: Black And Tan Fantasy

Compulsive Giving: Creole Love Call / Timon's Theme

Creditors: Draggin' Blues



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Fischlin, Daniel. Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project. University of Guelph. 2004. <>.


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