Duke Ellington: 'Such Sweet Thunder'

The cover of Such Sweet Thunder

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[MUSIC]

MURRAY HORWITZ, American Film Institute: "I never heard so musical a discord, such sweet thunder." So says Puck in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and so says Duke Ellington, who wrote that music, "Such Sweet Thunder." A.B. Spellman, why should it be part of our NPR Basic Jazz Record Library?

A.B. SPELLMAN, National Endowment for the Arts: Because it's one of the most remarkable orchestral pieces in all of American music. "Such Sweet Thunder" is a twelve-part suite that's based on the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare. Ellington and Strayhorn gave great attention to the material of Shakespeare and tried to make pictures that would take you into the mood.

HORWITZ: Now you said "Strayhorn." Who's that?

SPELLMAN: Billy Strayhorn was Ellington's collaborator for many, many years and he and Ellington were sort of alter egos, they were commonly called. And they worked so closely together, that it's impossible most times to tell one from the other.

[MUSIC]

HORWITZ: Whenever you look at the hallmarks of Duke Ellington as a composer, one of the things that's always mentioned is the blues. He probably used the blues more successfully than any other American composer. How's he able to put the blues together with William Shakespeare?

SPELLMAN: Well, the thing about Ellington's use of the blues is that you almost can't tell that it's the blues sometimes. He also made it a point of integrating some sense of the music into the text of the plays. For example, he thought that Lady Macbeth may have had a little ragtime in her. And for the Macbeth piece, he wrote some ragtime music. He places her in the turn of the century sound.

HORWITZ: "Lady Mac."

SPELLMAN: "Lady Mac."

[MUSIC]

HORWITZ: I know that Ellington loved the theater, loved Shakespeare. How about Strayhorn?

SPELLMAN: Strayhorn was deep into Shakespeare. Strayhorn could quote whole sections of plays. He could quote vast numbers of sonnets from memory, at the drop of a hat. And also understood it all very, very well. In fact, Strayhorn blew them away at the festival because he was hanging out with all these Shakespearean scholars from all over the world, and he hung with them so easily and he could participate in the conversation as an equal. It was a great performance by him.

HORWITZ: Well, you'll be able to relax and hang out with Shakespeare, courtesy of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn if you add this disc to your Basic Jazz Record Library. It's Duke Ellington's Such Sweet Thunder on the Columbia Legacy label. For other selections in the Library, visit our Web site. For NPR Jazz, I'm Murray Horwitz.

SPELLMAN: And I'm A.B. Spellman.

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