The great Duke Ellington, a giant even among the most gigantic giants of 20th century music—I mean seriously, who deserves to be included in his rarified company? Lennon and McCartney? Stravinsky? Miles? Louis Armstrong?—was born on this day in 1899. The man was a force of nature, gaining recognition for jazz as an important American art form, financially keeping an orchestra together for decades (that wasn’t easy!) and composing, playing and conducting some of the greatest music ever made.
Every few years I go on a Duke Ellington kick. I tend to like the recordings from the mid-fifties onward mostly because they sound better. One absolute gem in Ellington’s later years catalog is Such Sweet Thunder, a longform twelve part suite that he and Billy Strayhorn wrote in 1957 based on the work of William Shakespeare. The name comes from a line of Puck’s in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “I never heard so musical a discord, such sweet thunder.” Ellington said of the work, that it was his “attempt to parallel the vignettes of some of the Shakespearean characters in miniature—sometimes to the point of caricature.” Such Sweet Thunder premiered at the “Music for Moderns” concert at New York’s Town Hall in April of 1957, but without the suite’s final number, which had not even been written yet.
Such Sweet Thunder was an early stereo recording, but due to problems with the production, was only issued in mono when it came out in 1957. It wasn’t until Sony started to look into their vaults during the 1999 Ellington Centennial that a stereo Such Sweet Thunder was issued.
Below, the CBS radio premiere of Such Sweet Thunder with introductions from Ellington, at the Ravinia Festival in Illinois, July 1, 1957:
“Such Sweet Thunder” and “Sonnet to Hank Cinq,” live in Switzerland, 1959:
A wild avant garde ballet choreographed by Maurice Béjart to Ellington and Strayhorn’s score, directed in 1960 by Joachim-Ernst Berendt for Belgian and German TV: