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– Pramantha Mohun Tagore

The general concern of this paper is to analyse two specific Jazz adaptations of Shakespeare – Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder and John Dankworth’s Shakespeare and All that Jazz, while trying to critically reflect on the nature and culture of Jazz’s encounter with British theatre at large. Although the fundamental issue in these adaptations is the method of incorporating Shakespearean themes and motifs within the traditional construct of a jazz ensemble, the paper also seeks to explore how these adaptations are significant in offering us one way of understanding Jazz’s pursuit of artistic status and cultural respectability.


When we think about the history of Jazz or Jazz performance in practice for that matter, we encounter two very different approaches towards the historical rendering of this music’s expansion. On the one hand, we have the more familiar approach wherein the origin of Jazz is traced to the red light district of New Orleans in the early twentieth century and its subsequent development into Dixieland, Swing, Bebop, Hard Jazz, Cool Jazz, East Coast Jazz, West Coast Jazz and so on, an approach which found relevance in authors like Marshall Stearns and Ted Gioia. On the other hand, we have an approach that is directed towards understanding the transformation of the music itself, as made famous by Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein’s qualitative and laudatory distinction of Jazz as a significant literary, cultural and sociological expression of American urban modernity is highly recognized by Jazz performers and critics alike as embodying the European cultural outlook towards this form of music making (even though Bernstein happens to be an American himself.) In his celebrated lecture What is Jazz, Bernstein reflects on the possibility of Jazz or its predecessor, the Blues, incorporating Shakespearean passages within their performance construct. He suggests that –

“The Blues is basically a strict poetic form combined with music. It is based on a rhymed couplet with the first line repeated … the blues couplet is of all things, in iambic pentameter,

‘My Man don’t love me treats me awful mean
Oh he’s the lowest man I’ve ever seen’

This is about as classic as one can get. It means that you can take any rhymed couplet in iambic pentameter from Shakespeare and make a perfect – Macbeth blues,

‘I will not be afraid of death and bane
Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane’

It made a beautiful blues.”

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Bernstein’s lecture came at a moment when several investigations into the possibility of incorporating Shakespeare within the popular Jazz were already being made. To trace this history before the time of Duke Ellington’s adaptation of the bard’s verses would be unfruitful as few examples of the hybridization of jazz and Shakespeare exist before the early 1950s.

Shakespeare has made no more than marginal appearances in artistic forms like Blues, Jazz, R&B and Hip-Hop, though their amalgamation validates a particular symbolic resonance. What gives the conjunction of Shakespeare and African American music its special flavour is that throughout much of the last century the two have been emblematic of what have been perceived as distinct cultural realms. Shakespeare exemplifies highbrow art, fundamentally intellectual in its appeal and demanding specialist knowledge for its full appreciation. It is British in origin and tied to European cultural traditions and is the very icon of the mainstream Anglo canon. African American music, by contrast, has been widely regarded as profoundly emotional, bodily, sexual, rhythmic, and exotic in its appeal. It is improvisational and performative and thus, in a sense anti-literary; somewhat disreputable in its venues, styles, and uses and thus surrounded with an aura of popular transgression. The relationship between the two has been treated as emblematic, in short, of the relationship between highbrow and popular American cultures.

Nevertheless, this classical difference may be a bit harsh when considering the fact that late nineteenth century ‘minstrelsy’ (a tradition involving the amalgamation of Irish Folksong, African American instrumentation and musical styles involving dances, comical and lyrical songs) often involved Shakespearean characters. For the black population which migrated from Africa and the West Indies, the character of Othello seemed to rank high in terms of parodies presented at gatherings. Even Hamlet was a special character who was often emulated at gatherings of migrant populations as he signified among other things, a revolt against authority and order.

Once again, in order to realise the prospect of instituting Jazz as a significant literary, cultural and musical formula, Jazz artistes in the 1940s, resorted to various modes of experimentation that which included the usage of Shakespearean themes and motifs within their repertoire and extending the nature of the Jazz performance model.

Duke Ellington created such a milestone in the relationship between Jazz and Shakespeare with his Jazz suite, Such Sweet Thunder (1957). His intention was to explore and investigate the affinity of popular forms of musical entertainment and theatre at large, thereby advocating an exploration of the method wherein Jazz may be legitimately seen as an equally distinctive and ‘high’ form of entertainment in comparison to European classical music or classical theatre. Since then, a number of attempts have been constructively made in trying to establish a space where one might investigate the encounter of Jazz and Shakespearean theatre. Prominent examples include the famous jazz inspired musical, West Side Story (1964) by Leonard Bernstein; John Dankworth and Dame Cleo Laine’s Shakespeare and All that Jazz (1964) and Ellington’s own attempt at scoring the music for a production of Timon of Athens (1963).


Born in 1899, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was initiated into popular music at a very early age. While his father was a pianist who preferred operatic arias, his mother, Daisy played parlour songs. At the age of seven, Ellington began taking piano lessons from Marietta Clinkscales. By 1914, while working as a soda jerk at the Poodle Dog Café, he had already written his first composition. However, he composed ‘Soda Fountain Rag’ by ear as he had not yet learned to read and write music. In his autobiography Music is my Mistress (1973), Ellington noted that he began listening to, watching and imitating ragtime pianists not only in Washington D.C, but in Philadelphia and Atlantic City where he vacationed with his mother during summer. Dunbar High School music teacher, Henry Lee Grant gave him private lessons in harmony, while the additional guidance of Washington pianist and band leader, Oliver ‘Doc’ Perry was especially significant. Among the many piano players he listened to were Doc Perry, Lester Dishman, Louis Brown, Turner Layton, Gertie Wells, Clarence Bowser, Sticky Mack, Blind Johnny, Cliff Jackson, Claude Hopkins, Phil Wurd, Caroline Thornton, Luckey Roberts, Eubie Blake, Joe Rochester and Harvey Brooks. Their styles and playing methods would undoubtedly influence Ellington’s music making in the early part of his career. In the early 1920s, Ellington left his successful career in Washington to settle down in Harlem and later became one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance. New dance crazes like the Charleston emerged in Harlem, as well as African American musical theatre including Eubie Blake’s Shuffle Along.

By the early 1940s Ellington’s musical career was almost over and he attempted a revival in the Jazz music scene. Ellington had entered into collaborations with the pianist and arranger, Billy Strayhorn. Some of the musicians who joined Ellington at this time created a sensation in their own right. The short lived Jimmy Blanton transformed the use of double bass in jazz, allowing it to function as a solo rather than a rhythm instrument alone. Ben Webster, who became the first regular tenor saxophonist, started a rivalry with Johnny Hodges as the Ellington orchestra’s foremost voice in the sax section. A typical jazz ensemble, also referred to as the ‘big band’ generally consisted of twelve to fifteen musicians comprising rhythm, brass and woodwind instruments. Beginning in the 1920s, big bands came to dominate popular music and they played a form of music related to jazz that was characterised by sweet and romantic melodies, the presence of a string section and very little improvisation. Most melodies were pre-constructed, fixed and included minimal deviation. In his lifetime, Ellington was influential in giving more space to improvised soloing while at the same time, extending the range of his orchestra to include seventeen or even up to twenty musicians at a time. Ellington’s long term aim was to extend the jazz form from the three minute limit, of which he was the acknowledged master. While he had composed and recorded some extended pieces before, such works now became a regular feature of Ellington’s output. In this, he had received help from Strayhorn who had enjoyed a more thorough training in classical music. The first of these, Black Brown and Beige (1943) was dedicated to the telling the story of African Americans and the place of slavery and the church in their history. The next production, Jump for Joy, was a full-length musical based on the themes of African-American identity.

In the early 1950s, Ellington’s and Strayhorn’s performances at the Yale Bowl and two concerts at the Festival Hall in Stratford, Ontario had already established them as renowned exponents of the classic jazz form. The annual Shakespeare Festival was holding a jazz season in tandem with its regular presentation of Shakespeare plays. Ellington and Strayhorn decided to write a series of musical vignettes based on Shakespearean characters, commonly known as Such Sweet Thunder after the first piece. The suite consists of twelve instrumentals of various lengths, each linked by its title and by programmatic commentary to various Shakespearean characters and works. When Such Sweet Thunder received critical attention, the focus had been on the success or failure of the individual songs’ evocation either of ‘character’ or of Shakespearean verse itself. Ellington, however, asserts a more complex objective, claiming that he and Strayhorn had endeavoured to “parallel the vignettes of some of the Shakespearean characters”: that is, they tried to represent, in musical terms, the characters in scenes, in dramatic context.

Ellington used a quartet consisting of Harry Carney’s baritone saxophone and the trombones of Britt Woodman, John Sanders and Quentin Jackson (who were known as the Telecasters) to represent Iago and Macbeth’s witches. Johnny Hodges and Paul Gonsalves warmly evoke the passion of Romeo and Juliet in “The Star Crossed Lovers”. “Sonnet for Caesar” had Jimmy Hamilton playing his rich toned clarinet. Strayhorn recalled that “[W]e had to interpret his [the bard’s] words. It took … about six months. We had all those books we used to carry around, and all those people all over the U.S we used to see and talk to … we couldn’t get everything in! We didn’t do King Lear, Coriolanus, or All’s Well that Ends Well either.” Ellington noted, “I was only sorry that Richard III was left out – he was a good subject for the blues.”

The work was first heard at New York’s Town Hall on April 28, 1957. A “Music for Moderns” concert was held under the direction of the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Dmitri Mitropoulos. Although he had conducted a chamber orchestra of fifteen Philharmonic musicians in the first New York performance of Kurt Weill’s violin concerto, Variety magazine noted that it was “the Ellington opus that stole the show.”

Up and Down, Up and Down (Such Sweet Thunder, Track 7)
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(This song tries to describe Puck, the clever, mischievous elf or sprite that personifies the trickster or the wise knave. The composition provides far more than a character sketch as we have the two inharmonious pairs of lovers from act 4, scene 1 — Helena suspicious of the newly ardent Demetrius and Hermia outraged by Lysander’s alienation of affection — given expression by Jimmy Hamilton and Ray Nance, on clarinet and violin, and by Johnny Hodges and John Sanders, on alto saxophone and valve trombone. Clark Terry on trumpet is Puck, who misleads, guides, and comments on the lovers, concluding with his judgment on human folly)

Mercer Ellington, Duke Ellington’s son and a renowned trumpeter himself, recalls how “He and Billy Strayhorn really read up on the bard for this one.” Among those characters included in the suite, those who feature prominently are Puck, Julius Caesar, Henry V, Romeo and Juliet, Lady Macbeth and Hamlet. A. H. Lawrence in his book, Duke Ellington and His World notes that “in these recordings, Ellington and Strayhorn manage to capture the essence of Shakespeare’s thick textured verse. The portraits are full of wit and lush beauty.”

One of the important questions which I wish to address is the nature of representation in Ellington’s work. In his lifetime, Ellington was influential in giving more space to improvised soloing while at the same time, extending the range of his orchestra to include seventeen or even up to twenty musicians. He was constantly battling with conflicting ideas of European music making and the African experience. This is reflected most prominently in the fact that he tries to fashion his orchestras on European lines with strict written down pieces of music including pre-arranged solos.

Sonnet to Hank Cinq (Such Sweet Thunder, Track 3)

For instance, In his appreciation of “Hank Cinq,” Terence Hawkes reminds us that It’s been suggested many times that black music, such as jazz, with its commitment to the improvised reworking of the chord structure of original melodies, has always represented a major American challenge to the European idea of an author’s or composer’s (or, mutatis mutandis, a king’s) authority, unity and coherence . . . music’s quintessential, non-discursive nature immediately project[s] “Hank Cinq” beyond the reach of one kind of textuality, just as jazz music’s ultimate independence of any “written” requirement makes performativity so fundamental a factor. That challenge to an idea of authority is complicated, however, by Ellington’s insistence on carefully orchestrated parts for the majority of his players in any one composition, and in some, even for his soloists. “Hank Cinq,” along with the rest of Such Sweet Thunder, aims at its own kind of textuality, as Ellington’s and Strayhorn’s approach to jazz incorporates one “written” requirement after another. Perhaps it is no accident that Ellington embraced the aristocratic sobriquet “Duke.” The challenge to authority is confirmed, however, by the intensely collaborative nature of Ellington’s work with Strayhorn: as Bill Berry observes in his comments for the liner notes supplied with the 1999 re-release, “It is as hard to pin down which of these two individuals created specific words or phrases as it is to figure out which one wrote which musical notes.” However, Ellington consciously understood that African music and especially Jazz, prided itself on improvisational independence especially with regard to syncopated rhythms and the rhythmical counterpoint often referred to as ‘swing’.

The Star Crossed Lovers (Such Sweet Thunder, Track 9)
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(In “Up and Down,” Ellington and Strayhorn place characters from the same play in relationship to one another; the same dynamic is present in “The Star-Crossed Lovers,” in which Juliet (voiced by Johnny Hodges’s alto sax) rightly dominates — as in Shakespeare’s play-text — every scene she shares with Romeo (portrayed by Paul Gonsalves’s tenor).

Ellington and Strayhorn occasionally allowed their instrumentalists a sort of improvisational independence and tried to tailor their compositions to the unique talents of the orchestra’s members. John Edward Hasse has drawn a thought-provoking analogy between the similarity of Shakespeare’s theatrical troupe and Ellington’s “own repertory company.” Hasse notes that Ellington “wrote exclusively for its [his] players — Hodges, Nanton, and Bigard, and the others” (Hasse 1993, 332). Ellington’s and Strayhorn’s compositional practices, then, can help to shed light on the dynamics at work within the Shakespearean play-text itself and in its realization in performance. The plays posit a productive tension between collaboration and control – both Shakespearen works and orchestras depend on control. Ross Parmenter, the reviewer for The New York Times, declared each selection to be “an imaginative portrait in sound suggested by characters or scenes” in Shakespeare.

Circle of Fourths (Such Sweet Thunder, Track 12)
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(Such Sweet Thunder concludes with “Circle of Fourths,” the hastily completed piece missing from the debut concert. “Circle” progresses through all twelve major keys in fourths (the key of C major gives way to F major, and then to B-flat major, and so on), adding a flat to the scale, or subtracting a sharp, at each step. The piece’s canny exploration of the harmonic relationship of musical keys via fourths serves to dramatize the interconnections among the four genres in which Shakespeare composed — comedy, history, tragedy, and the poems — and among the works that participate in each genre. Tying all this together is the fluid phrasing of Paul Gonsalves’s tenor sax (track 7).

These selections indicate Duke Ellington’s and Billy Strayhorn’s understanding of a range of literary and dramatic forms, as well as their empathetic grasp of character. Some of this understanding grew out of a theatrical as well as a musical experience: Ellington, alone or with collaborators, produced a remarkable amount of music for the stage, contributing original material to over fifty reviews, plays, and musicals. Ellington and Strayhorn, though, valued textuality as well as performativity.

In another strain, one might think of the title itself. Hippolyta’s musing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, IV.i – “I have never heard/So musical a discord, such sweet thunder” seems to point to a playful paradox of harmony and discord and yet seems to outline the fundamental problem in all adaptations, the idea of inclusion and comparison of two unlike or mutually exclusive forms. Ellington’s choice of title points at this attempt at recovering harmony and may be best expressed by what Dr. Samuel Johnson had to say about the images used by metaphysical poets – a sort of ‘discordia concors’ (in harmony with discord).


Inspired by Ellington’s and Strayhorn’s efforts, the veteran singer Dame Cleo Laine and her husband, John Dankworth began working on their own Jazz suite, titled Shakespeare and All that Jazz. It must be conceded at the start that even though Dankworth is himself British, his compositions taking into account the nature of Jazz as a form of musical expression, found success within the American market. Undoubtedly Dankworth’s and by extension, Laine’s approach towards Shakespeare is more British and deep rooted than say of Ellington and Strayhorn’s. What this distinction does is to reinforce the value of Shakespearean jazz adaptations as a universally accepted mode of transmitting musical ideas and at the same time, helps us make sense of the European reception of an American art form.

As the idea of an art-world was already in place, the possibility of the success of Dankworth’s original British interpretation of an African American musical form was high.

From an early age, Dankworth was interested in jazz and subsequently became a jazz composer, saxophonist and clarinettist. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music, where jazz was frowned upon, but pursued his jazz fantasy as he learnt the alto-saxophone after listening to Johnny Hodges, a leading member of Ellington’s orchestra. In 1950, Dankworth formed a small group called the ‘Dankworth Seven’, a group intended to portray the musical abilities of young jazz musicians. However, this group was later wound up after three successful years. He formed his first big band in 1953 and received critical attention in 1959 after its success at the Newport Jazz festival. The band performed at the Birdland Jazz Club in New York and shortly afterwards, shared the stage with the Duke Ellington Orchestra for a number of concerts. Dankworth’s band also performed at a Jazz event at New York’s Lewisohn stadium where Louis Armstrong joined them for a set. By then, Cleo Laine’s singing was a regular feature of Dankworth’s recordings and public appearances. In 1957, Dankworth got engaged and subsequently married Laine.

Dankworth’s friendship with Duke Ellington continued until the latter’s death in 1974. He recorded an album of symphonic arrangements of many Ellington tunes featuring another Ellingtonian trumpet soloist, Barry Lee Hall. Dankworth also performed with the Ellington Orchestra under Mercer, the Duke’s son.

Laine’s first official recording was of a setting of a Shakespeare text, and she later recorded four Shakespeare settings in 1959. However, her 1964 LP Shakespeare and All That Jazz was exceptional as an album length tribute to the Bard and still stands as one of her finest recordings. In the previous year, Laine’s husband and musical director, John Dankworth, had created a big band album called What the Dickens which featured some of Britain’s finest jazz musicians in musical portrayals of Charles Dickens’ most famous characters. For Shakespeare and All That Jazz, Dankworth lead a small ensemble, was a principal soloist on alto sax and clarinet, and composed and arranged several of the tracks (On both the Dickens and Shakespeare LPs, another featured soloist is trumpeter Kenny Wheeler).

The texts cover Shakespeare’s sonnets and comedies like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Love’s Labors Lost and Much Ado About Nothing. The tragedies include Macbeth and Cymbeline.

O Mistress Mine (Twelfth Night) (Arthur Young arrangement)
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Four of the musical settings are the same Arthur Young arrangements Laine recorded in 1959, two others are adaptations of movements from the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn suite, “Such Sweet Thunder”, and the remainder are Dank worth originals.

Shall I Compare Thee (Sonnet 18) (Dankworth)
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One of the side closers, “Dunsinane Blues” is an adaptation from Macbeth possibly inspired by a Leonard Bernstein example in his lecture What is Jazz?. It is interesting to note the use of the word ‘caesarean’ in this track as this word is missing from the original Shakespearean text.

Dunsinane Blues (Dankworth)
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The Compleat Works (a breezy catalogue of Shakespeare’s play titles) include all of Shakespeare’s texts as he wrote them. These texts aren’t necessarily easy to sing, but one can never tell from Laine’s effortless performances. She takes these difficult lyrics and phrases them in ways that make them fit right into their modern jazz settings.

The Compleat Works (Dankworth)
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Stratford’s inclusion of jazz musicians of an older generation as part of its festival reinforced the idea that pre-bop concert jazz styles constituted a “classical” artform, on a par with Shakespeare and in line with the discerning tastes of Stratford’s target audiences.

Dankworth’s inclusion of Ellington inspired melodies also acknowledges that as a “classical” artform with a limited elite audience, Ellington’s brand of jazz, like Shakespeare’s plays, requires special state notice. The shared problem faced by performers of Shakespeare or jazz is, Ellington asserts, the perception that these sophisticated art forms require special expertise to be appreciated properly — in other words, that these art forms do not have the immediacy and broad appeal of popular culture. If in the 1930s and 1940s swing had been seen as a means to popularize Shakespeare, in 1957 linking Shakespeare with jazz ran the risk of classicizing the music in a way that made it the property of (largely white) cognoscenti. In his program notes, Ellington tries to negotiate the problem:

“I have a great sympathy with Shakespeare because it seems to me that strong similarities can be established between a jazz performance and the production of a Shakespeare play . Basically, both groups face comparable problems in the reluctance of some participants to expose themselves and join the audience. Their hesitance is due, in both cases, to a misconception that the major supporters of both these artistic manifestations — Shakespeare and jazz — are the people who have invested time and money in becoming experts.
There is an increasing interrelationship between the adherents to art forms in various fields . . . it is becoming increasingly difficult to decide where jazz starts or where it stops, where Tin Pan Alley begins and jazz ends, or even where the borderline lies between classical music and jazz. I feel there is no boundary line, and I see no place for one if my own feelings tell me a performance is good. Any musician will agree that the final judgment of a musical performance lies in its immediate impact on the human ear, rather than in previous knowledge or academic study. In the final analysis, whether it be Shakespeare or jazz, the only thing that counts is the emotional effect on the listener. Somehow, I suspect that if Shakespeare were alive today, he might be a jazz fan himself — he’d appreciate the combination of team spirit and informality, of academic knowledge and humor, of all the elements that go into a great jazz performance. And I am sure that he would agree with the simple and axiomatic statement that is so important to all of us — when it sounds good, it is good.” (Ellington, 1973)

I conclude with these two examples of Jazz adaptations for several reasons. They testify to the persistent and ambivalent desire to link Shakespeare with Jazz and other forms of African American Music, an idiom regarded as authentically indigenous, of the people, and not quite culturally legitimate. As I have shown, the decades between the early 1950s and the late 1960s were instrumental in the evolution and development of Jazz, and its conjunction with Shakespearean theatre is emphasized in the unique approach some of the masters have taken towards their hybridization. The history of Shakespeare and black music reveals that the interplay between different forms of legitimation, shaped by cultural stratification and racial politics, has long been central to their relationship. But equally important, these two quite different examples suggest that both the degradation and utopian promise of Shakespeare in a black idiom remain historical potentials very much alive in American culture. They suggest, that is, that the final chapters of the history of Shakespeare and Jazz remain yet to be written.


Bernstein’s lectureWhat is Jazz?, is an audio presentation which was later released as an LP. The transcription from the lecture is my own. The audio CD was released on July 14, 1998 under the Sony label.

Buhler, Stephen M. “Form and Character in Duke Ellington’s and Billy Strayhorn’s Such Sweet Thunder.” Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation Vol. 1, 2005. Available online at <www.borrowers.uga.edu/781406/display> retrieved on 21.10.2013

Dobson, Michael, and Stanley Wells. The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. Print.

Ellington, Duke. Music is My Mistress. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1973. Print.

Franceschina, John Charles. Duke Ellington’s Music for the Theatre. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001. Print.

Gioia, Ted. The History of Jazz. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. Print.

Hasse, John Edward. Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993. Print.

Hawkes, Terence. Shakespeare in the Present. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

(Cleo) Laine’s biography is available online at <www.quarternotes.com/Cleo.htm> retrieved on 21.10.2013

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Smith, Willie, and George Hoefer. Music on My Mind: The Memoirs of an American Pianist. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964. Print.

Stearns, Marshall W. The Story of Jazz. New York: Mento Book, 1958. Print.