| THE INTERNATIONAL|
DUKE ELLINGTON MUSIC SOCIETY
05/1 April - July 2005
27th Year of Publication
FOUNDER: BENNY AASLAND
Voort 18b, 2328 Meerle, Belgium
Telephone: +32 3 315 75 83
by Roger Boyes
See DEMS 04/3-23; 50&51(pp611/967) and 57; and 05/1-26
'The Memory of Things Gone is Important to a Jazz Musician.'
Duke Ellington, in Swing magazine (June 1940, p11)
Duke and Jo Trent wrote Jig Walk for the 1925 revue Chocolate Kiddies, which never reached Broadway although it toured Europe for two years. The song appears in a sheet music Charleston version on pages 128-130 of Mark Tucker's Ellington — The Early Years (Bayou Press, 1991), as part of a general discussion of the four songs which Ellington and Trent contributed to the show. Jig Walk was recorded by numerous bands, European as well as American. Steven Lasker explored the partnership between Duke and Jo Trent at the Ellington'04 conference in Stockholm, and he covers this partnership in a wide-ranging article published in DEMS Bulletin 2004, volume 3 DEMS 04/3-57. The BBC broadcast a fascinating programme on Chocolate Kiddies in around 1996 on Radio 4.
We know of five Ellington recordings of Jig Walk, none of them commercial records. Two survive from broadcasts, in 1938 from the Cotton Club, New York, and in 1940 from the Sherman Hotel, Chicago. In New DESOR they are DE3817b and DE4025a. The other three, from 1969 and 1971, feature Duke himself at the piano. DE6962i and DE7154n are mere fragments embedded in the concert-hall medley, but DE7132i, also from 1971, is a full-length version, featuring Norris Turney on flute in addition to Duke, and with other members of the band coming in towards the end. All three are unofficial and unissued.
Duke was once thought to be on two 1926 recordings of the song, but neither of these is now included in Ellington discographies. They are the OKeh Syncopators version of 20 February, and the version for solo piano dubbed from a piano roll. This was issued in the Masters of Jazz series (vol.1), and on one of the Neatwork CDs which complement the Classics series. Ken Rattenbury discusses this version at length in Duke Ellington, Jazz Composer (Yale 1990) pp77-85, and Eddie Lambert describes it in Duke Ellington, A Listener's Guide (Scarecrow 1999) pp5-6. Antonio Berini and Giovanni Volonté discuss the two swing-era versions and the 1971 revival with Norris Turney in Duke Ellington, un genio, un mito (Ponte alle Grazie 1994) pp 222, 266, 538. I don't know any of the other 1920s recordings of the song, though I do know the Joe Sullivan-Pee Wee Russell-Zutty Singleton trio version recorded for Commodore in 1941. I owe thanks to Sjef Hoefsmit, since it is only with his help that I have been able to listen to the OKeh Syncopators version and the three from 1969 and 1971.
When following these recordings with the sheet music it helps to keep in mind that the B section of the 32-bar AABA chorus is taken from the verse, as Mark Tucker points out on page 132 of his book (third paragraph). The music starts with an 8-bar Introduction, leading into the Verse at the double bar-line at bar 9. The Verse consists of an 8-bar section played twice, ending at bar 16 ('smoke') and at bar 24 ('strong'), except that this second time the ending is extended by one bar (25), so that the Chorus begins at the 'start repeat' bar (26) at the top of page 129. The 32-bar AABA Chorus now takes us to the first-time bar (56) and the repeat bar (57); here the repeat 'buffers' return us to bar 26 and the start of the second-time Chorus.
The best version to follow with the printed music is the OKeh Syncopators one. Like the music, it starts with an eight-bar Introduction, then the Verse takes us to bar 24 and the start of the Chorus. Note that the one-bar extended ending (bar 25) is not observed on this recording, which thus moves straight into the Chorus itself at bar 25; subtract later bar numbers on the sheet music by one, to conclude the Chorus at bar 56, not 57. There are no solos until the band returns to bar 25 for the second Chorus, during which a solo saxophone dominates the ensemble. It's particularly easy to follow the 8-bar divisions, AABA, in this chorus, as the first two 8s end with two-bar saxophone 'breaks' (at bars 32-33 — 'pat-de-pat, pat-de-pat'; and again at bars 40-41 — 'rave'). Now the arrangement returns to the Verse (piano for the first eight bars, band for the second eight). A Transition follows, also based on the Verse; it lasts for twelve bars and a banjo is prominent for the first eight. The recording ends with a third 32-bar Chorus dominated in the first half by a trumpet solo. As in the saxophone solo earlier, there are two two-bar 'breaks' for the soloist. The identity of the musicians is not known, though OKeh Syncopators was a name used by Harry Reser groups.
The mid-1926 piano-roll version is a mechanical, repetitive affair consisting of the Chorus, the Verse, then back to the Chorus (twice), followed by a brief Coda-Extension. The closing A section of each 32-bar Chorus is punctuated by a dreadful clashing percussive contraption.
The 1938 and 1940 versions omit the Verse. After a ten-bar Introduction in which we hear Lawrence Brown in the last four bars, there are three 32-bar AABA choruses. The first features Barney Bigard for the first 16 bars; in the second Cootie Williams solos throughout, with a two-bar extension at the end of the Chorus. In the third Lawrence Brown reappears briefly in the first A and Sonny Greer is heard on chimes in B. After a brief 'break' for Sonny, the band sets off into a fourth Chorus, but this is cut short after eight bars by a brief coda. The New DESOR analysis on page 967 is, I think, accurate:-
It has been said that this is a quite different piece to the 1925 song, with only the shared title in common. I agree with those who think that these two performances are of a score based, presumably for Cotton Club purposes, on bars 26-57, the 32-bar AABA Chorus of the sheet music printed in Mark Tucker's book. It is not surprising that the Charleston rhythm has been ironed out of this swing-era revival of the song. That rhythm would have sounded very 'old hat' in 1938. Other examples of Duke up-dating earlier pieces at this period are East St Louis Toodle-Oo and Birmingham Breakdown (1937), Black and Tan Fantasy (1938), Doing The Voom Voom and Cotton Club Stomp (1939), and the tantalizing snippet of It's Glory from the 1940 Fargo dance. If Jig Walk seems a more radical refashioning than some of these pieces (Mark Tucker's phrase is 'completely overhauling'), this perhaps has to do with the fact that the song is melodically undistinguished, and that its defining feature, the Charleston rhythm, is precisely the one which had to be smoothed out to suit late 1930s taste. It is understandable that it is often taken to be an entirely different composition.
Sjef Hoefsmit has mentioned the similarities between the 1938 Jig Walk and Lightnin', and Berini and Volonté also make this point (p222). I agree, and the reeds trills in Chorus 3 especially suggest this. But I am more intrigued by the saxophone line in B of the first Chorus of these swing-era versions. It comes straight after the end of Barney's clarinet solo at the sixteenth bar. For some time it has reminded me of something I've been unable to put a title to, but I now realise it is very similar to the opening saxophones idea of the Lester Young-Count Basie Tickle Toe. The really intriguing thing about this line is that it is already hinted at in the scoring of the 1926 OKeh Syncopators recording, in the second full chorus (the one with prominent saxophone), and at the same place, the middle-eight, B. Often these things were simply part of the general musical vocabulary, like the examples that became One O'Clock Jump and In The Mood. I remember Martin Williams at Ellington'89 in Washington showing how these figures crop up in different compositions and arrangements from those days, and I suspect that this is what has happened here. It doesn't necessarily follow that the line from the 1926 score was consciously (or even subconsciously) incorporated into the Ellington Orchestra's 1938 one, or into Andy Gibson's Tickle Toe score for the Basie Orchestra.
It would be interesting to learn how Pee Wee Russell and Joe Sullivan came to record Jig Walk on their 'Three Deuces' Commodore date with Zutty Singleton in March 1941. Perhaps one of them had heard the Ellington Orchestra play it, and Sullivan had recalled the 1926 piano-roll version which, as a stride pianist, he probably knew. Or perhaps the producer, Milt Gabler, suggested it. They recorded four tracks, three of them twice, though a single take of Jig Walk sufficed. In a brief Introduction we hear firstly the clarinet, alone, then piano and drums together. Four 32-bar AABA choruses follow, the second of which is for piano and drums, without the clarinet. Chorus 1 features the Charleston rhythm in B, but the later choruses do not. With Russell and Sullivan at the height of their powers (the masterly The Last Time I Saw Chicago also dates from this session), and with the allusion to the Charleston origins of the song, this is, for me, by far the finest recording of Jig Walk.
I wonder what made Duke return to Jig Walk almost thirty years later, at the end of 1969? Early in the year Pee Wee Russell had died, but I suppose there's no reason to imagine that Duke even knew about the 1941 Three Deuces Jig Walk. On 15 November the Ellington Orchestra was on its way from Italy to Paris, where it was to present the Second Sacred Concert at Saint-Sulpice the following day, when it stopped off in Switzerland to play a concert in Lausanne and a second in Geneva. At this stage, the songs medley usually went from Just Squeeze Me to Don't Get Around Much Anymore (you can hear it performed a week or so later on the 70th Birthday Concert album recorded in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester). At Geneva, apparently uniquely, Duke played a single A section of the 32-bar Chorus of Jig Walk as the audience applauded Harold Ashby's solo on Just Squeeze Me. Given the obscurity of the song, the brevity of the extract, and the unissued Geneva recording, it's full marks to whoever first identified this as a performance of Jig Walk.
I spent the evening of 28 November 1969 listening to the Orchestra at the Wakefield Theatre Club, and it occurs to me that this was the European tour on which the emotionally charged 4.30 Blues was performed. Duke explained this title somewhat cryptically at the time. After naming Russell Procope and the title itself he would add, of Russell, 'he doesn't say whether it's 4.30 am or pm; it just could be he was complaining about the price'. However, on page 70 of Music Is My Mistress he tells the story of the first song he and Jo Trent succeeded in selling (to Fred Fisher). To clinch the deal and, most importantly for the scuffling songwriters, to secure a fifty-dollar advance, Fisher required a lead sheet to be in his hands by 5 pm. The time when Duke sat down to produce this lead sheet (his first ever) was, he tells us, 4.30. Presumably the song itself was Blind Man's Buff, deposited for copyright on 24 October 1923 (Steven Lasker, 2004: Duke Ellington, Jo Trent, Blu-Disc, Up-To-Date and Various Topics of Related Interest, part one. DEMS Bulletin 04/3-57). The first known performance of 4.30 Blues comes from the opening concert of the European tour, at the Teatro Lirico, Milan on 28 October, 1969. Was the brief revival of Jig Walk at Geneva linked in Duke's mind to the new piece 4.30 Blues, and were both linked in turn to his recollections of his earliest days as a songwriter with Jo Trent? I don't know, though I do know that Russell Procope's solo on 4.30 Blues ranks with Pee Wee Russell's on The Last Time I Saw Chicago from the 1941 Three Deuces session as one of the great blues statements on clarinet.
Russell Procope was absent from the band during the spring of 1971, when they played a dance on 18 June at the Steak Pit in Paramus, New Jersey, and Duke, along with Joe Benjamin and Rufus Jones, dropped into a groove which led into Jig Walk. The first 64 bars turn out to be the first surviving performance we have of A Blue Mural From Two Perspectives, doubled from its usual 32-bar length because of the rhythmic pulse the trio lays down. New DESOR's analysis of the performance needs altering to take this into account. (See DEMS Bulletin 04/3-50, pages 611 and 967, and 04/3-51, pages 611 and 967.)
'Usual' is an inappropriate word for this elusive piece. Duke played it at his Whitney recital in New York on 10 April 1972, almost a year after the Paramus dance. It survives in a one-chorus version performed at a University of Wisconsin masterclass in July 1972, and from a stockpile recording session in late August of the same year, in the course of which he played it twice, in one-chorus and two-chorus versions. Finally, there was a dance date in 1973 at Erie, Pa, at which he played a full-length A Blue Mural From Two Perspectives early in what was obviously a very retrospective and reflective piano medley. In Something To Live For (OUP 2002, p265) Walter van de Leur tells us that the original score of the work has unfortunately been lost. The intriguing story of its composition and first performance in 1965 is told in David Hajdu's Lush Life (Farrar, Straus, Giroux 1996, pp245-6) in an account which suggests that Billy Strayhorn brought the piece to fruition, at a point when he was severely weakened by radiation therapy and by surgery.
Apart from the Whitney performance, which has been issued on CD, these are unissued recordings which I don't know, but it is clear from their contexts that Duke turned to A Blue Mural From Two Perspectives towards the end of his life in situations when he was confronting his own mortality — just as Billy had been doing at the time of its composition in 1965. I think it is reasonable to conjecture similar contexts for the occasions late in his life when he turned to Jig Walk.
Back at Paramus in June 1971, I think that, once the 64 bars of A Blue Mural... are out of the way, the rest of New DESOR's analysis is right. There are a few 'holding' bars (New DESOR has 'pas2DE') and it's hard to judge exactly where Duke drops into Jig Walk itself. But he does play a 32-bar Chorus, though the theme doesn't really begin to emerge until the second A. After this chorus he plays the A section four times, for which New DESOR has:- 2°/3°(nc)16DE, which is fair enough. You can hear it as 2x16 bars, or as 4x8 bars. Either way the point is that Duke avoids B at this stage. I see no reason to prefer the altered description of 2°/4° proposed in DEMS Bulletin 04/3-51 page 967, and I think the one published in New DESOR itself for these 64 bars — two-half-choruses (no B), followed by a full AABA chorus - is clearer. I imagine that Norris Turney is stepping forward to make his contribution, so Duke may be introducing him to a tune which, though simple, may have been quite unfamiliar to Norris. For four full choruses, 4° to 7°, Duke pounds on, fuelling Norris's flute solo, until other musicians join in for the last 8 bars of 7°, and for the start of a further chorus, which however dissolves at the seventh bar in whoops of satisfaction all round. What did the patrons of the Steak Pit make of it all? It sounds as though they approved. Perhaps someone who was there could confirm this. The Charleston rhythm is quite strongly felt in the B sections. By 1971 there was clearly no need to worry about this rhythm sounding dated. By a happy coincidence the back cover of the Natasha Imports CD issue which includes the 1940 Jig Walk has, alongside the list of tracks, a photograph of a mischievous-looking Duke holding a flute.
Finally, and still in 1971, we come to the Winter Gardens at Bournemouth on 20 October, four days before the last time I saw Duke Ellington, in Birmingham. Duke played two concerts at Bournemouth that evening, at the first of which he dropped in a brief allusion to Jig Walk at the very start of the medley, following the opening fanfares and four 'holding' bars from Duke himself. To be honest I don't hear eight bars of the piece in this fleeting reference — more like four, I think. But it is a definite reference to the song, and it is safe to assume that Duke must have done something similar on other occasions. As of now, however, this is the last occasion we know of when Duke turned to a piece which must have always had the power to transport him back through his own life, to the time when he was scuffling with Jo Trent and trying to make a bit of money selling songs, and to his first song-writing success with his contribution to Chocolate Kiddies. Bournemouth is a suitable location, since it is one of those seaside towns to which the English middle classes went to spend their twilight years.
I never thought I'd find so much to say about Jig Walk. It's been quite a journey, geographically, historically and musically, and it's taken me back into my own past too. I'm beginning to feel quite retrospective and reflective, myself.
© Roger Boyes 2005
Bardland: Shakespeare in Ellington’s World
by Jack Chambers
Duke Ellington’s creative rebirth in 1956-1962 has all the trappings of an artistic pinnacle except for the one indisputable, certifiable, bona fide masterpiece that everyone can point to as its crystallization. Among several contenders, Ellington’s Shakespearean suite might be the critical favourite. No one has ever disputed the genuinely inspired writing in the suite Ellington called Such Sweet Thunder (Columbia/Legacy 65568 ). The twelve themes that Ellington and Billy Strayhorn composed, more than half an hour of music played almost flawlessly (in the definitive recorded version) by one of Ellington’s greatest orchestras, are rich in orchestral devices and full of feeling. Ellington’s penchant for yoking together loosely connected pieces and calling them "suites" had more vindication here than in many other cases. His intention was to create a "tone parallel" to Shakespeare’s works, themselves among the most disparate, sprawling effusions of human creativity ever known, and in so doing he in effect gave himself licence to create a disparate, sprawling effusion in response. In that he succeeded magnificently.
Obvious as its strengths are, there is something missing, and I think it is captured by the old saw that here the whole is no more than the sum of its parts. When the parts are so splendid, they can blind even critical listeners to the overarching flaw, or at least that is how I rationalize my own blindness to it, which led me to overlook it for almost 50 years, from the time the music was released in 1957. It was only when I looked harder at it for purposes of talking about it publicly (before the Duke Ellington Society, Chapter 40 in 2004) that I noticed the lack of finish, the anti-climax that results from the succession of minor climaxes without a cumulative effect. And it took a little longer for me to realize that Ellington himself seems to have laid the groundwork for organizing the pieces into a coherent suite, with sub-themes and musical motifs, but had apparently run out of time for implementing the grand scheme, speeding on to the next project or maybe merely the next gig, as he so often did, and leaving the pieces of the Shakespeare suite in a heap, like so many bricks in a hod forever awaiting the man with the trowel and mortar.
Ellington seems to have recognized its incompleteness. After its debut —actually a double debut, as we will see— he never again performed the Shakespeare suite as an entity. He picked out a few pieces from time to time, but in spite of the inherent theatricality of the theme and his verbal flourishes by way of introduction and his obvious gusto for the subject matter, he never again treated it as a single, coherent, performable piece of music, that is, as a suite.
Hark, the Duke’s Trumpets
Ellington’s inspiration for transliterating Shakespeare into jazz came from a chance encounter, as unexpected in its way as was his fixation on God in his final years. In July 1956, Ellington was booked to play two concerts at the Shakespearean Festival in Stratford, Ontario. It did not seem special at the time. From 1956 until 1958, while Louis Applebaum was musical director, the Stratford Festival booked summer jazz and classical concerts as adjuncts to the dramatic offerings. Besides Ellington in 1956, Wilbur de Paris, Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, and the Modern Jazz Quartet also played evening concerts, spaced out in July and August. In the time-honoured tradition, the jazz musicians played their one- or two-night stands and then hit the road for the next one a day or two away (although Peterson’s performance left a permanent memento in a Verve recording that captured the head-banging competitiveness of his original Trio as no other record had to date). Not Ellington. He played, and then he carried with him for the rest of his days what he had seen and heard all around him in the quiet anglo-celtic town of 20,000 in southwestern Ontario.
Ellington was often sensitive to the places he played in spite of their profusion. He arrived in Stratford from a resort ballroom in Bala, about 150 miles to the north, played non-consecutive nights on Wednesday and Friday, the 18th and 20th, with concerts on the alternate Thursday and Saturday nights at the Brant Inn in Burlington, just 70 miles east. (The Wednesday performance is preserved Live at the 1957 [sic] Stratford Festival, Music & Arts CD-616 .) Tom Patterson, the soft-spoken newspaperman whose persistence had persuaded the town council to risk a top-flight professional Shakespeare festival on the basis of the coincidence of the colonial namesake (not only Stratford itself, but the River Avon running through it), met Ellington and Harry Carney on their arrival, and was flattered when the Duke asked him to show him around. Ellington stayed in Stratford three days, commuting to the Brant Inn in the middle, and it is worth speculating that he might have altered his lifelong routine by hauling himself out of bed for mid-afternoon matinee performances of Henry V and Merry Wives of Windsor on the Festival’s main stage.
The Shakespeare Festival was (and is) a highbrow spectacle in the bourgeois heartland, and none if it was lost on Ellington. Stratford’s thrust stage, modeled on the Elizabethan Globe, was new not only to Stratford but to the theatre world at large. It added to the excitement of the whole heady venture. Shakespeare had seldom been treated so well. His plays were directed by Sir Tyrone Guthrie and Michael Langham, costumed resplendently by Tanya Moiseiwitsch, and acted by a brilliant young company that included Lloyd Bochner, Christopher Plummer and William Shatner. Ellington loved it, so much so that he began finagling to be part of it. He opened his Stratford concerts with a new piece he called "Hark the Duke’s Trumpets." The Shakespearean resonance of the title is Ellingtonian licence; it is a fanfare played by trombones, not trumpets (later recorded as "Bassment"). More important, Ellington told everyone he met in Stratford and in the months that followed that he and Billy Strayhorn were preparing a jazz suite based on Shakespeare for a premiere at the Festival the next summer.
Such Sweet Thunder
The premiere happened, but not the way he envisioned it. When the Stratford program for 1957 was announced, Ellington was not included. He then had to persuade the program committee to bring him in as a late addition. As he explained in a CBC radio interview with Harry Rasky, "The Stratford Festival are not repeating any of the jazz artists this year that they had last year. But I’ve already informed Mr. Patterson that there’s one hazard in allowing us to do the Shakespearean suite, which is called Such Sweet Thunder, and that is that we are liable to get publicity on it which will sort of throw them into the position of having to be more or less graceful and inviting us back this year."
The Stratford organizers capitulated and brought Ellington to town for the premiere late in the season, but by then Ellington had already premiered it at Town Hall in New York, with considerable fanfare, on 28 April 1957, the day before his 58th birthday. When Rasky interviewed him, he was taking advantage of two weeks at Birdland (18 April-1 May) for rehearsing two movements that had been written months earlier in the flush of his Stratford visit and for working out new movements on the bandstand. "We started recording some of them before we finished writing others," he told Rasky. "You know, the eleventh tune was finished the day of the performance," and when Rasky pressed him for details he named both "Sonnet for Hank Cinq" and "The Telecasters" as last-minute additions. In the end, there was a twelfth movement, a finale, "Circle of Fourths," that was not even ready in time for the Town Hall premiere. It was recorded in the studio with four other movements a week later (3 May) and included as the finale with the seven parts already recorded on the 35-minute, 12-track LP called Such Sweet Thunder, subtitled (in parentheses) Dedicated to the Shakespearean Festival, Stratford, Ontario.
The Stratford premiere took place more than four months after the first one at an afternoon concert on 5 September 1957. Apparently neither the Town Hall premiere nor the Stratford one was recorded. There are later live recordings that preserve a few of Ellington playing a few of his favourite movements ("Such Sweet Thunder," the strikingly romantic Hodges specialty "The Star-Crossed Lovers" and a couple of others) but the only performance of the complete suite remains the original studio recording. It is, despite the haste that surrounded it, a stunning one. The recording schedule was actually spread over ten months (August and December 1956, and two April 1957 sessions as well as the one in May), but the performances are uniformly brilliant, a reflection undoubtedly of the genuinely inspired composition of all the parts. From the first release, listeners recognized the parts as brilliant efflorescences of Ellingtonia. Some also recognized them as worthily Shakespearean in the variety of ensemble voicings and infallible casting of solo voices in character roles. Those were always Ellington’s strengths, whether Shakespeare was involved or not, but they were seldom found in such sustained profusion.
A truly Shakespearean universality
The stars were aligned for an Ellington masterpiece in 1957. After a decade-long decline, Ellington had finally found his musical voice in a jazz world dominated by bebop and cool jazz. Blatant among the signs of rebirth was the orchestra’s triumph at the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1956, where the raucous curfew-breaking performance led to dancing in the aisles and front-page headlines in major dailies. It was just two weeks after Newport that Ellington swaggered into Stratford. By then he had already sat for an impending Time cover profile (published in the 20 August issue), and he had secured a CBS-TV contract for his jazz fantasy A Drum is a Woman (music recorded September 1956, televised May 1957). "Ellington’s second wind has been felt in the music business for months, and the major record companies have been bidding for his remarkable signature," the Time profile announced. "This week he plans to sign (with Columbia) a contract designed to give him the broadest possible scope. He will have time to write more big works, both instrumental and dramatic." Little wonder, then, when he bumped into William Shakespeare at Stratford he embraced him as a kindred spirit.
Across the gap of almost 400 years that separated them, Shakespeare and Ellington shared an uncommon creative space. A London reviewer of Ellington’s Palladium concert in 1933 had been the first to note the parallel. "His music has a truly Shakespearean universality," said the reviewer, "and as he sounded the gamut, girls wept and young chaps sank to their knees." William Shakespeare (1564-1616) had sidled into the bawdy domain of groundling skitcraft and given it scope and depth hitherto unimaginable. Ellington (1899-1974) had done something similar with nightclub kicklines and lowdown blues. Both men had been pushed into fronting their troupes by dint of personal charisma, and both broke the seal on their creative juices out of a desperate need to keep the troupes working. Once those juices started flowing they proved to be indomitable and also unchanneled, overflowing across sub-genres and styles. And both men relied inordinately on native instinct and personal taste, which led their critics to conclude that they were unschooled in the finer points of their craft, a claim that shadows Shakespeare to this day, and Ellington too—never more than when he took Shakespeare into his own world.
Ellington recorded the first of the twelve movements of the Shakespeare suite three weeks after playing at Stratford, in the afterglow. It was "Half the Fun," a sensuous glide featuring Johnny Hodges over a faux Middle Eastern rhythm that conjured up Cleopatra sapping the vital juices of her imperial Roman lovers. In the studio ledger, the piece was originally called "Lately," and the suspicion lingers that Ellington did not design it for the suite but merely plucked it from his canned stockpile to add weight to his new pet project.
Similar suspicion surrounds "The Star-Crossed Lovers," recorded as "Pretty Girl" in December 1956 and then re-recorded the next May with its new title and the same arrangement with an added piano cadenza. (Listeners get a rare look at the orchestra working out the arrangement in a nine-minute sequence on the 1999 reissue that includes two rehearsal takes, two false starts and a final complete take.) It too is a Hodges feature, and one of the most unforgettable movements framed as Juliet’s lament for her dead lover.
Both pieces came into existence outside of the time-line that Ellington and Strayhorn recounted for the writing of the suite, which was otherwise neatly compressed. "We’re very happy that we had a deadline, a short deadline on it, because… you could spend a whole lifetime preparing an unfinished work as far as trying to do something with Shakespeare," Ellington told Rasky. "We had a deadline and we knew that we had to do little things and we had to do them quickly. So we spent two months talking about it and then we spent three weeks actually writing it." Strayhorn said much the same thing five years later, in a CBC radio interview with Bob Smith in Vancouver. "When we were doing, for instance, the Shakespearean suite, well, the talk on that went on for weeks," he said. "We read all of Shakespeare, and, uh, [had] great discussions at midnight over various and sundry cups of coffee and tea and what-not. …And the actual writing, of course, took no time. The actual writing took no time."
Ellington and the orchestra were stationed in New York for more than six weeks from about 8 April to 22 May, a rare occurrence. The first three of those weeks were devoted to writing the suite, as Ellington said, and recording the parts almost as soon as they were written at Columbia’s Manhattan studio on 15 and 24 April and 3 May. But the two pieces written and recorded beforehand, "Half the Fun" and "The Star-Crossed Lovers," are no less integral in the conceptual framework of the suite than the others. "Half the Fun" virtually requires the Shakespearean context to vindicate its slithering Salome excesses. "The Star Crossed Lovers" has its excesses too, although they are not as alien in jazz because they flow from the old swing tradition when dancers snuggled at the end of the evening as Hodges played "Warm Valley" (1940) or "Day Dream" (1943). Played straight in a concert hall or jazz club in 1957 or after, "The Star-Crossed Lovers" and "Half the Fun" might seem odd. Contextualized by Cleopatra and by Juliet, they are gorgeous. If they did find their way into the suite by accident, there was a powerful serendipity at work to make them fit so perfectly.
Scenes and Sonnets
Knowing Shakespeare is hardly necessary for appreciating these or any of the other parts, but it definitely adds a dimension to the music. As composer, Ellington always took his inspiration from the outside world, and hearing his music almost always evokes an extramusical setting of some kind. Listeners don’t have to know what train he was on when he wrote "Daybreak Express" (1933) or "Happy-Go-Lucky Local" (1946), but it would be hard to get full value from them without imagining passenger trains winding across the landscape. It isn’t possible to know Harlem as it was when Ellington sketched it musically in "Harlem Air Shaft" (1940) and "A Tone Parallel to Harlem" (1952), but it is surely impossible to hear those compositions without imagining tenement smells and sidewalk confabs and church-going families in their Sunday-best. For Ellington, compositions were grounded in the world. Instead of self-referential titles like "C-Minor Prelude," he chose "Prelude to a Kiss"; not "Concerto for Cello and Orchestra" but "Concerto for Cootie"; not "Cantata No. 140" but "Canteen Bounce." His songs were sonic correlates for real experiences or, in the term he preferred, tone parallels to the visual world.
In the Shakespeare suite, the inspiration for the content was obviously literary, and for four of the movements so was the form. Ellington literally lifted the musical structure from literature for the four pieces called sonnets, which are unlike anything in jazz or any other musical genre. For the other eight movements, Ellington relied mainly on the conventional 32-bar form from American popular song that jazz has used as its staple since about 1928. The four sonnets occupy their own space, set apart from the other eight movements, which I will call ‘scenes’, to convey their common purpose as dramatic portrayals of mood and character. I discuss the structurally unique sonnets on their own in a later section.
Shakespearean words and phrases
The months of discussion that preceded the actual writing seem to have been consumed by the problem of finding a tactic for rendering Shakespearean scenes and characters in jazz. "You have to adjust your perspective as to just what you’re going to do and what you’re to say and what you’re going to say it about and how much of it you’re supposed to be covering," Ellington said in the interview with Bob Smith. "Actually, in one album you’re not going to parallel anything of Shakespeare. What do you need? A thousand writers and a thousand years to do it, you know, to cover Shakespeare. So we said we’ll just devote one number to one Shakespearean word or one Shakespearean phrase."
Taken literally, it sounds simplistic to make melodies based on a word or phrase, but in fact what Ellington did in practice was to pick out keywords and key-phrases that crystallize dramatic action into three-to-four-minute sonic capsules. When he sticks to it, the result is brilliantly concise, almost a perfect realization of his goals.
Only four of the eight scenes actually take their titles from Shakespeare’s words and phrases. Three of them match mood and music brilliantly. "The Star-Crossed Lovers," a phrase from the Prologue to Romeo and Juliet, captures the romantic tragedy of the double suicides of the young lovers from feuding families. "Madness in Great Ones" characterizes Prince Hamlet in the words of his uncle Claudius, the obvious cause of Hamlet’s madness as his father’s murderer and his mother’s lover. Ellington chooses to dramatize not the corruption in the Danish court (Claudius’s line in its entirety says, "Madness in great ones must not unwatch’d go") but instead Hamlet’s jangled psyche. It is a jarringly discordant composition, with the brass introducing staccato motifs on the off-beat that disrupt and finally wreck the playful swing of the reeds; Cat Anderson’s climactic cadenza, which sounds like he is trying to blow his brains out, was never put to such strategic use. At the opposite pole for mood, "Up and Down, Up and Down (I Will Lead Them Up and Down)," based on Puck’s promise that he will make fools of the coupling humans in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is airy, but every bit as ingenious in ensemble writing. The humans are mainly represented by a nursery-like motif for unison violin and clarinet (Ray Nance and Jimmy Hamilton). As the hobgoblin, Clark Terry on flugelhorn bobs across the simple surface with great good humour in what is the longest solo turn in the suite except for Hodges on "The Star-Crossed Lovers."
The fourth scene with a Shakespearean title is "Such Sweet Thunder," also a phrase from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Queen Hippolyta: "I never heard/ So musical a discord, such sweet thunder"). As a title, it is wonderfully apt for the piece it is attached to, but less so for the whole suite (and probably for that reason the whole is usually referred to as the Shakespeare suite rather than Such Sweet Thunder). The music of "Such Sweet Thunder" is indeed thunderous, a 12-bar blues based on a cracking drum cadence on the strong beats and a primitive vamp by the low horns. It is hotly declarative, almost a burlesque bump and grind, and, as such, an explosive opening for the suite. Unlike the other scenes, however, it is only tangentially Shakespearean. It has no connection to its source play. Originally titled "Cleo," it might have been intended as an evocation of Cleopatra’s sexuality, which certainly works, but instead Ellington always introduced it as (at Juan les Pins in 1966) "the sweet swinging line of talk that Othello gave to Desdemona which swayed her into his direction." That does not work. It is far from pillow talk, by any criterion. Though it works perfectly as overture, it is one of the pieces that only loosely fits the thematic conception.
Ellington words and phrases
One of the victims of the short deadline, apparently, was the scheme for linking music to drama through Shakespearean keywords. The other four scenes have Ellingtonian titles, and they show signs of haste. "Half the Fun" celebrates Cleopatra’s sensuality more subtly than "Cleo" would have (and may have dictated linking "Cleo" to Othello to avoid celebrating her twice), but the title is oddly flippant, and anachronistic to boot. (The word "fun" was coined a century after Shakespeare.) "The Telecasters," as a title, is an obvious abomination in this context. The music is a glorious feature for the trombone trio (Britt Woodman, Quentin Jackson, John Sanders) and baritone saxophone (Harry Carney). "We took the liberty of combining characters from two plays," Ellington said. "It seems that the three witches [from Macbeth] and Iago [from Othello] had something in common in that they all had something to say, so we call them the Telecasters." That is a lame rationalization for the title, and no better for trying to link three malevolent hags and a psychopathic villain to the legato mood of the music. "Circle of Fourths" is a wailing vehicle for Paul Gonsalves, the hero of Newport, evidently written as a flag-waving closer with little regard to the theme of the suite, but certainly resonant as an exclamation point. In all three cases, the music is masterful, even if the links to Shakespeare are tentative.
The remaining scene, "Lady Mac," makes a useful warning against underestimating Ellington’s involvement in the subject matter of the suite and the depth of his understanding of Shakespeare’s characters. The breezy title suits Clark Terry’s extraverted portrayal of Lady Macbeth, but the whole conception seems odd for the woman who goaded her husband into murdering a king and then went insane with guilt. But Ellington fully intended the paradox. "We portrayed some of her by using a jazz waltz," Ellington told Harry Rasky, when Rasky questioned the fit, "and in so doing we say that she was a lady of noble birth but we suspect that she had a little ragtime in her soul." Ellington’s producer, Irving Townsend, looking back a few years later (1960), said, "Duke likes Lady Macbeth, whether you’re supposed to like her or not, and he treats her right." In fact, instead of portraying Lady Macbeth in madness and decline, as she is at the end of the play, Ellington portrays her before her breakdown, as the temptress and socialite. But he leaves no doubt that he knows her fate. He ends "Lady Mac" with a thick, melodramatic chord that spells doom. It is a jarring note, and it completes the portrait in one deft stroke.
Ellington made it easy for critics to underestimate his grasp of his subject and his sincerity in taking it on. The flippant titles were only the beginning. Throughout his professional life, he found it hard to keep a straight face when he was asked to explain himself. Audiences might be forgiven for failing to realize that his comment about "Lady Mac" having "a little ragtime in her soul" was a conclusion he had come to after careful reflection. Or for this pronouncement on CBC radio: "We feel that Shakespeare was not only sage, and has a tremendous appeal right now to the intellectual, but as the jive boys say, Shakespeare was down, which means that he is dug by the craziest of cats." The comment came after Rasky questioned Ellington about ignoring Elizabethan devices in his homage to Shakespeare. To that, Ellington replied, with justifiable indignation, "We think that Shakespeare is just a little beyond chronology." Generations of playgoers would agree with that, of course, Harry Rasky among them. But Ellington was not one to hold the high ground for long. He immediately covered up by restating his case in "jive boy" terms, which says much the same thing but with such flippancy that it is easily discounted.
In fact, Ellington was much better versed on Shakespeare than his critics or, for that matter, some of his admirers, including his producer Irving Townsend, gave him credit for. Don George, Ellington’s occasional lyricist and one ofthe few outsiders admitted to Ellington’s Sugar Hill apartment, raved about his well-stocked library, which conspicuously included "everything by Shakespeare, in many different versions." George added, "In all his copies of the Shakespearean plays, he had underlined parts that appealed to him, not only to be set to music but to be performed by him….Passage after passage in his books is underlined, indicating that there were far more ambitions in this man than the average human being could appreciate by just seeing the orchestra leader and composer."
Ellington’s admiration for Shakespeare was no passing fancy. It is impossible to know when he started reading and annotating Shakespeare, but it is a good guess that it started, as did other literary interests, with Miss Boston, his English teacher at Garrison Junior High School in 1913-14 in Washington, whom he credited for many lessons. "I think she spent as much time in preaching race pride as she did in teaching English, which, ironically and very strangely, improved your English," he recalled 55 years later (quoted in Tucker 1991). Actors fascinated Ellington all his life, especially Shakespearean actors. One of the more exotic artifacts in the Duke Ellington Music Society archive is a three-minute tape made in Ellington’s dressing room in Milan in 1966 in which Ellington plays arpeggios as the actor Victor Grassman recites Hamlet’s soliloquy in Italian ("Essere, non essere…"). Richard Burton, the greatest Shakespearean actor of his day before he succumbed to Hollywood stardom, told Don George, "I actually appeared on stage with the Duke once in the Rainbow Grill. I was sitting in the audience with my daughter when the Duke called me up onto the stage. I said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ He said, ‘You talk and I’ll play.’ I spoke Shakespeare, I spoke iambic pentameter and iambic hexameter, while Duke’s fabulously infatuated brown fingers stroked the keys. It was a thrilling and extraordinary experience, one of the greatest theatrical experiences that I’ve ever had."
When Ellington pulled into Stratford on that fateful day in 1956, the sight of Shakespeare being treated as a contemporary hero gave him the inspiration for making a jazz analogue. The minute the inspiration hit, Ellington phoned Billy Strayhorn in New York with very specific instructions. "We read all of Shakespeare!" Strayhorn told Stanley Dance. "We had to interpret what he said, just as we had to interpret what Tchaikovsky was saying [for the jazz version of Nutcracker Suite in 1960]. The only difference with Shakespeare was that we had to interpret his words. It took about the same amount of time too— about six months. We had all these books we used to carry around, and all those people all over the U.S. we used to see and talk to." Ellington also talked about "consultations with two or three Shakespearean actors and authorities." "We’d sit down and discuss for hours, you know, so forth and so on," he told Bob Smith. Haste came at the end, in the wrap-up. Preparation was fastidious, uncommonly so.
A Curious Mixture
At the moment when the final touches of the suite were being workshopped at Birdland, Harry Rasky asked Ellington how he thought "Shakespeare purists or even jazz purists will take to this curious mixture of the Bard and jazz." There was more than a sniff of disdain in Rasky’s question, and perhaps it was his tone that led Ellington to defend his goals and, incidentally, reveal how carefully he had worked them out. Ellington replied: "We sometimes lean a little bit toward caricature, but other people I think have gone about the business of actually changing Shakespeare, which I think is a much more hazardous thing than what we’ve done. All we did is just little thumbnail sketches, you know, of very short periods, never at any time trying to parallel an entire play or an entire act or an entire character throughout, but just some little short space of time during a character’s performance." Ellington’s triumph in composing the scenes stems precisely from his ability to make three-dimensional portraits with a few deft musical strokes.
Neither Ellington’s lifelong infatuation with the Bard nor the preparations he and Strayhorn had undertaken got mentioned in the publicity about the suite. The main medium for public relations on jazz projects, for better or worse, is the liner note that accompanies recordings. Irving Townsend assigned himself the task of annotating Such Sweet Thunder, and he made it a breezy sketch with anecdotes about haste and eccentricity. Townsend obviously took Ellington’s jive talk literally, and he enlivened his own superficial descriptions with quotations from Ellington that added little or nothing of substance.
Townsend’s proximity to Ellington as his Columbia producer obviously gave him no special insights when it came to the Shakespeare suite. In both his liner notes and his later comments, Townsend appears to have had no real idea of the preparations that went into it and little appreciation of how well it succeeded. Looking back a few years later on the projects he produced for Ellington, Townsend dismissed the Shakespeare suite with lofty, Ivy-League disdain. "Ellington gathered together a series of short pieces descriptive of various impressions he had received from his quick course in the Bard, and we recorded them under such temporary titles as ‘Cleo,’ ‘Puck,’ and ‘Hamlet’," he recalled. "We all searched later for the final titles, and I found "Such Sweet Thunder" in Bartlett’s Quotations." So the project, according to Townsend’s recollections three years after recording it, was accidental (a compilation), superficial (the result of a cram course), arbitrary (titled after the fact), and ersatz (Bartlett as a scholarly short-cut).
Important as he was in revitalizing Ellington’s career, Townsend might better have been left off the Shakespeare project not only as liner-note writer but also, dare one say it, as producer. The grossest discrepancy between Shakespearean title and Ellingtonian parallel, as noted above, comes on "Such Sweet Thunder"; it appears that Townsend, not Ellington or Strayhorn, was responsible for it. But the production flaws went deeper than that. The order of the movements on the original recording has no thematic or developmental basis, and that also appears to be Townsend’s doing; at Stratford, for the only live performance of the entire suite, Ellington used an entirely different order (also, it must be admitted, with no thematic basis). The order is not just arbitrary, it actually detracts, and nowhere is that more evident than in the placement of the sonnets.
The four sonnets are clearly labeled in their titles— "Sonnet for Caesar," "Sonnet for Hank Cinq," "Sonnet for Sister Kate," "Sonnet in Search of a Moor." Even if they were not, their formal peculiarities would set them apart. They are through-composed and last exactly 28 bars. The melodies (so-called) are recited in their entirety by one instrumentalist. They are exacting and somewhat stiff, like technical exercises but soulful. In all four sonnets, every even-numbered bar ends with a tied note, and the last eight bars are played over stop-time rhythm and sustained chords. The melodies are played once only and last a little more than a minute, though the recorded versions vary from 1:24 to 3:00 depending upon their orchestral setting. They do not swing.
In the context of the whole suite, they feel like interludes, or four moments of suspended animation. Programming them close to one another in the sequence of the suite as they are on the original recording (tracks 2, 3, 5 and 8) is simply egregious. It both breaks up the flow —an interlude followed by another interlude? — and dilutes the singularity of each one by clustering their singularities. They need to be spaced out, at the very least, and spacing them judiciouslymight have put them to use as prefaces for thematically compatible movements, as I show below.
Ellington’s sonnets are, literally, Shakespearean sonnets transliterated into music. Ellington was obviously fascinated by Shakespeare’s sonnets. His rationale for the title "Circle of Fourths" was, he said, to celebrate "the four major parts of [Shakespeare’s] artistic contribution," and he identified the parts as tragedy, comedy, history and the sonnets. But Shakespeare scholars conventionally divide his plays into tragedy, comedy, history and romance (The Winter’s Tale, Measure for Measure, and two or three others, depending upon whether Romeo and Juliet goes here or in tragedy). The sonnets belong, naturally, with the poems, not the plays. Among the poems, they occupy formidable space. There are 154 of them, and Shakespeare was almost as masterful at sonnets as he was at drama. They are love poems, sometimes sexual ("The expense of spirit in a waste of shame/Is lust in action"), and often extravagantly flattering ("Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/Thou art more lovely and more temperate"). The hottest ones are addressed to a woman known as the Dark Lady ("I will swear beauty herself is black/And all they [are] foul that thy complexion lack"). Ellington must have found them appealing on all these grounds.
As literary forms, sonnets are challenging. They are structurally rigid, and lesser poets than Shakespeare found them stifling. Though Ellington usually had little patience for formalism, he seems to have relished the formal rigidities of the sonnet form. In that respect, again, he was just like Shakespeare, who readily bent conventions in his plays but in the sonnets conformed strictly to conventions, and did so with obvious relish. Shakespeare took no liberties with the sonnet, and neither did Ellington.
As far as the form goes, if you have seen one Shakespearean sonnet you have seen them all. Shakespearean sonnets comprise 14 lines divided into three quatrains and a final couplet. The lines must be iambic pentameter (five feet of alternating weak and strong stresses), and they must rhyme alternately until the final couplet, which rhymes successively. These features are marked in Sonnet cxxviii below in the alternating end-rhymes of the quatrains (a b a b in the first, etc.) and the final couplet (g g), the punch line. Each of the 14 lines has ten syllables, paired into five feet (pentameter, where ‘penta’ is Greek for 5) of alternating weak and strong stress (- V, ti .
cxxviii - V - V - V - V - V How oft when thou, my music, music play'st, a Upon that bless,d wood whose motion sounds b With thy sweet fingers, when thou gently sway'st a The wiry concord that my ear confounds, b Do I envy those jacks  that nimble leap c  hammers To kiss the tender inward of thy hand, d Whilst my poor lips, which should that harvest reap, c At the wood's boldness by thee blushing stand! d To be so tickled, they  would change their state e  his lips And situation with those dancing chips,  f  keys O'er whom thy fingers walk with gentle gait, e Making dead wood more bless'd than living lips. f Since saucy jacks so happy are in this, g Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss. g
Sonnet cxxviii is less well known than many others but it
has the attraction, in this context, of a musical theme.
Shakespeare’s main image in the poem an Elizabethan keyboard
instrument, a primitive harpsichord. When his lover (whom he calls
"my music," a pun on muse) presses the keys ("chips"), she then has
to use her other hand to keep the hammers ("jacks") aligned after
they pluck the strings. (The sound must have been primitive too, and
sonneteer cannot resist letting his readers know that the "wiry
concord" of the instrument sounds god-awful to his ears.) The gist of
the poem is that Shakespeare wishes his lover would offer her palm
("the tender inward of thy hand") for him to kiss as readily as she
offers it to the "jacks" (a pun as the word also means men or,
really, guys). The last two lines, the rhyming couplet, are supposed
to supply a surprise ending, and Shakespeare here comes up with the
bright idea that instead of bothering with her palm he will go for
her lips instead.
Music in Iambic Pentameter
Ellington takes this rigid literary form and renders it into a rigid musical form that matches it point for point. Ellington varies the mood of the four sonnets, but mood is indicated mainly by the orchestral accompaniment rather than by the sonnet soloists, who obviously have enough to contend with making sure the accents fall on 2 and 4 (the strong iambic syllables), sustaining notes at the end of every second bar (equivalent to the rhyme-words), and raising the range over stop-time and/or suspended chords in the last four bars (25-28), the counterpart of the rhyming couplet.
Playing the music under all these constraints is a challenge, even for Ellington’s virtuoso soloists, and the tension is clearly audible in all four sonnets. It accounts for a large part of the esthetic delight. The sonnets as Ellington conceives them are small marvels of technical brilliance, atmospheric and eccentric, fresh and somehow unexpected even after numerous listenings. They have delighted two generations of listeners whether or not they knew (or cared) about the precision with which Ellington transliterated the literary form. Townsend, in his liner note, simply says that "they are scored to coincide with the fourteen-line sonnet form," and lets it go at that. Rightly so, in one sense. But it surely adds another twist to Ellington’s genius, an unexpected one, to see how masterfully he succeeded in transposing one art form to another.
"Sonnet in Search of a Moor" by Duke Ellington and
Billy Strayhorn, with Sonnet cxxviii by William Shakespeare.
Transcribed by Martin Loomer.
The perfect concurrence of musical and literary form
becomes obvious in a Shakespeare sing-along. In the illustration, "Sonnet
in Search of a Moor" transcribes the sonnet melody as played by
bassist Jimmy Woode, with Sonnet cxxviii laid into the transcription
as if it were the lyric. All of the coincident ingenuities are
graphically evident— rhymes and tied notes, full notes (when
they occur at all) on two and four, the complexity of the last four
bars. Yet, for all its complexities, singing the words of the sonnet
while listening to the music is dead easy, because Ellington’s
transliteration is note-perfect. In fact, any of Shakespeare’s
154 sonnets would fit as lyrics for any of Ellington’s four
Jazz musicians develop a feel for four-bar and eight-bar structures, and for multiples that add up to 12 and 32. Ellington’s sonnets, as 28-bar constructions organized in two-bar segments, demand a different feel. Ellington assigned the challenge of playing the sonnets to the most astute technicians in his band. "Sonnet to Hank Cinq," its title a glib reference to Henry V, the warrior-king who defeated Joan of Arc at Agincourt, features Britt Woodman in an astounding performance that requires octave leaps and sudden transitions. "The changes of tempo," Ellington says, "have to do with the changes of pace and the map as a result of wars." At the other extreme, "Sonnet for Caesar" features Jimmy Hamilton in an almost motionless line that might be the musical equivalent to a marble bust of the Roman emperor; the drama is supplied by ominous drumbeats and solemn chords behind Hamilton’s decorous line, symbolizing the unrest leading to assassination. Quentin Jackson plays "Sonnet for Sister Kate" on plunger-muted trombone. It is an appropriately humorous portrait of Katharina, the shrew of The Taming of the Shrew (nicknamed "Kate" in the play and in Ellington’s title, and also by Cole Porter in Kiss Me, Kate); the recording is flawed by a wooden reading of the opening lines, in which Jackson is almost audibly counting the beats, and by a minor disruption of the strict metre when he slips in some glisses between beats, probably from force of habit. Good as it is, it deserved another take. Finally, Jimmy Woode’s turn on "Sonnet in Search of a Moor," with his bass more resonant by the contrast of upper-register trills from piano and three clarinets, starts relaxed and ends up strained. The complexity of mood was fully intended by Ellington, and he signaled it cleverly in the title (though the ambiguity went unnoticed in Townsend’s program notes). As Ellington explained it to Bob Smith, "The sonnet to a Moor was a triple entendre, because you had to decide whether we were talking about Othello [the Moor of Venice], or whether we were talking about love [amour], or we were talking about the moors where the three witches were, you know." And the melody carries it off, starting playfully and darkening as it goes on, an uneasy alternation, not unlike the plays known as ‘romances’ with their mix of comedy and tragedy.
The Parts and the Whole
The thematic gamut of the four sonnets again raises questions about the way they were used in the suite as a whole– or, really, not used. There is one sonnet for each of Shakespeare’s four subjects in the plays: history, tragedy, comedy and (with a small stretch) romance. So they could have been deployed, as I said earlier, as interludes for introducing scenes from the same subject. Ellington may have intended them to be used that way, and simply lost sight of the grand plan in his haste to finish this project and get onto the next (the telecast of A Drum Is a Woman, whose importance he grossly overvalued). So it turned out that the sonnets have no structural role in the suite as a whole, and their thematic range appears to be merely an accident. While they are good enough on their own to attract listeners, they could have been used to shape the suite into a more cohesive whole.
Apart from the first and last movements, the declamatory "Such Sweet Thunder" and the synoptic "Circle of Fourths," Ellington did not leave any hints about an order for the parts, and even those two movements were played out of order at the Stratford premiere, the only known full performance other than the original LP. In the table, the order on the original LP and the order at Stratford is shown beside the titles. The left column organizes the titles thematically, with one of the sonnets preceding scenes from the same subject, thus imposing a kind of implicit order on the suite, as they seem so perfectly suited for.
thematic order on original LP at Stratford 1957
1. Such Sweet Thunder 1 7
2. Sonnet for Hank Cinq 3 2
3. Half the Fun 11 unlisted
4. The Telecasters 6 3
5. Sonnet for Sister Kate 8 8
6. Up and Down, Up and Down 7 9
7. Sonnet in Search of a Moor 5 6
8. The Star-Crossed Lovers 9 10
9. Sonnet for Caesar 2 1
10. Lady Mac 4 4
11. Madness in Great Ones 10 11
12. Circle of Fourths 12 5
In the thematic order, "Sonnet for Hank Cinq" follows the overture and prefaces the history scenes, and then "Sonnet for Sister Kate" re-sets the stage, in a sense, for comedy, and so on through romance and tragedy to the finale. In a stage presentation, the linked themes would require spoken transitions, and it is easy to imagine Ellington, the most verbal of bandleaders, delivering those with panache. In notes and interviews and the few scattered performances, he devised a patter for many of the parts – about the ragtime in Lady Mac’s soul, Othello’s "sweet and swinging story," Hamlet’s craziness ("in those days crazy didn’t mean the same thing it does now"), and so on– that might be cobbled together into an accompanying text that is essentially Ellingtonian.
Suite Fragments in the Afterglow
Without internal structure, either this one or any other, the Shakespeare suite went unperformed except for fragments, isolated pieces that caught Ellington’s fancy, if only momentarily. Of the sonnets, only "Sonnet to Hank Cinq" was ever played in performance after the debut performances in 1957. It remained in the book as a feature for Britt Woodman until 1960, when he quit the band. The other sonnets were ignored, perhaps because they were difficult or perhaps because their lack of swing fit uneasily into the expected fare at one-nighters. Ellington did compose one more sonnet some years later, simply called "Sonnet," for the 1968 Degas soundtrack,where it fades after one minute; trumpeter Willie Cook is the soloist, and it too was never played again.
The scenes fared only slightly better. Only "The Star-Crossed Lovers" was played frequently, and it stayed in the book until 1970, when Hodges died. "Such Sweet Thunder," with its bumptious rock rhythm, was played regularly until 1960. In the summer of 1966, apparently in response to requests on a French tour, Ellington revived "Such Sweet Thunder," "Madness in Great Ones" and "Half the Fun" and played them as a sequence with "The Star-Crossed Lovers" for a month or two.
The Shakespeare suite might have fared better if the Stratford Festival had continued to provide the stimulus, but the Festival went out of the jazz business soon after Ellington premiered the suite there. After that, Ellington would return to Stratford three more times. In 1963 he spent some time there writing incidental music for Timon of Athens, an awkward play dominated by set pieces (banquets with dancing girls, marching armies, static characters with a lot of posturing, which Ellington called "skillipoop, the art of making what you’re doing look better than what you are supposed to be doing"); director Michael Langham probably hoped that Ellington’s music would add pizzazz to the play. Three years later, in May 1966, Ellington played a concert at Stratford. No program survives, but it is possible that his revival of the four Shakespearean scenes was done for Stratford and kept in the repertoire when he got to France. Ellington’s last appearance at Stratford came on 7 July 1968, when he staged a Sacred Concert there.
So the Shakespeare suite, as a suite, did not outlive its Stratford premiere in 1957. As an entity, it provided Ellington with two concerts – two one-night stands, albeit auspicious ones, at Town Hall and at the Stratford Festival. But no more. Of course, looking at it as concert fare unfairly limits its actual life-span. As listening fare, the recorded version has proven to be one of Ellington’s most successful recordings, admired by reviewers, popular with listeners beyond the jazz core, continuously in print since its first release nearly fifty years ago. That seems inevitable, looking back at the circumstances. It was conceived in a buoyant moment when both the composer and his orchestra were riding a wave of popular and artistic success. The link to Shakespeare gave Ellington lofty themes to work with and rich characters. But as wonderful as it is, in the end we have to wonder if it might have amounted to more. Each piece is self-fulfilling, often brilliantly so. And that, as it stands, is all there is. There is an unfinished air to it. The whole is not greater than the parts. Listeners find themselves supplying rationales and themes long after Ellington has snapped his fingers and moved on.
References (with page numbers of direct quotations at the
end of the entry)
Stanley Dance (1970) The World of Duke Ellington. London: Macmillan. 28.
Don George (1981) Sweet Man: The Real Duke Ellington. New York: Putnam’s Sons. 136, 256.
Harry Rasky interview, ca. 29 April 1957, New York City. Broadcast CBC radio 15 May 1957. Thanks to Stan Schiff for alerting me to it.
Bob Smith interview, Georgian Towers Hotel, Vancouver. Broadcast on "Hot Air," CBC radio (Vancouver), 1 November 1962. Thanks to Sjef Hoefsmit of the Duke Ellington Music Society for letting me hear it.
Irving Townsend (1960) "When Duke records." Reprinted in Mark Tucker, ed., The Duke Ellington Reader. New York: Oxford University Press. 320, 321.
Mark Tucker (1991). Ellington: The Early Years. Oxford: Bayou Press. 25.
Unattributed [Carter Harman and others]. "Mood Indigo & Beyond." Time [cover story]. 20 August 1956.
This article is re-printed from the March/April issue of CODA, courtesy of the publisher.