Ellington-Strayhorn: World Premiere of Such Sweet Thunder!, 1,REVISED!; A Duke Manuscript (+Audio Bonus)
(I added NEW INFORMATION—scroll down past the Attached PDF, and read starting with the word UPDATE.)
Most people consider the Shakespeare-inspired suite Such Sweet Thunder to be one of the finest creations of Ellington and Strayhorn. It was written for the theater festival held annually in Stratford, Ontario, Canada, since 1953. But Ellington specialists know that, before the festival, the world premiere of the Suite occurred at New York’s historic Town Hall (on West 43rd Street in Times Square) on Sunday night, April 28, 1957. They also know that the event was professionally recorded. The concert is listed in the standard Ellington online discography (although the song titles are not exactly right). The amazing Ellington chronology site, Duke Ellington Where and When, gives much more information, including excerpts from reviews, details about the occasion, and so on. But not one of these authors has ever heard the recording. Here is your chance, starting today!
For various reasons I need to restrict the audio in this 4-part series to Paying Subscribers. But each essay, including this one, includes some very valuable materials for everybody that are relevant to this acclaimed piece of music.
Jazz historian Walter van de Leur has shown that, here and elsewhere, in most cases Ellington and Strayhorn wrote separately (contrary to some of the common beliefs). Duke wrote most of this suite’s movements, but Billy wrote “Up and Down,” “Half The Fun,” “The Star-Crossed Lovers,” and, in a rare instance of co-writing, a bit of the title piece. (In some cases these originally had different titles, as we will explain in the Bonus sections for each essay.) The band had recorded parts of the suite in the studio before the premiere, and after further recording sessions, an album of the complete suite was released in April or May of 1957. You can find the complete album (sometimes with bonus tracks) on any streaming service, on CD, or here on YouTube.
But this was the first public performance, and there were several movements that Duke had only just completed. He jokes about that when he speaks at the start of the third movement, below. The occasion was the first concert in a series of four, entitled Music for Moderns. Record producer George Avakian and his wife, concert violinist Anahid Ajemian, conceived and presented the series. George and I knew each other, and he told me that he the concerts were not well attended and that he lost $10,000 of his own money. This series was something that he and Anahid did out of a devotion to new music, unrelated to his work in the record business. The brochure for the series gives more information, and you can read all four pages here by clicking on the big image of the series logo MM4. The brochure and the informative essay there are presented by the musician and archivist who catalogued Avakian’s collection, Matt Snyder.
In the first half of the concert, Ajemian performed Kurt Weill’s Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra, with Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting. She had already recorded this piece in 1955. At the time the concerto had been forgotten, but her performances helped to generate new interest in it.
After intermission, Duke came on stage. The members of Ellington’s band at this time were: Trumpets: Cook, Anderson, Terry, Nance. Trombones: Woodman, Jackson, Sanders. Saxophones and Clarinets: Hamilton, Procope, Hodges, Gonsalves, Carney. Rhythm Section: Ellington, Woode, Woodyard. In any case, Duke introduces the soloists for each section.
Today I will share with Paying Subscribers the first three movements of this important and never-heard recording. I will share the rest in future installments, with various printed essays and other related items of interest. To begin with, subscriber Thomas Cunniffe has written a very detailed and informative history of the Suite here in his jazz history blog.
And here’s something else for Everyone: In the Fall 1998 Bulletin of the Duke Ellington Music Society (DEMS), an international group of serious collectors and scholars, there was an interesting discussion of the connection between the movements of the suite that Duke called “sonnets” and Shakespeare’s sonnets. That issue of the Bulletin includes rare sheet music for the first movement, presented by noted jazz scholar Walter van de Leur. In the suite this movement is entitled “Sonnet for Caesar,” but this version is titled “My Love is As a Fever,” which are the opening words of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 147. And what’s amazing is that the entire sonnet is set to the melody, just as lyrics are set to a song.
This is the only known case where one of Ellington’s instrumental “sonnets” is matched to a specific Shakespeare sonnet. It was always thought that Duke was simply taking the general structure of a sonnet when composing these works—primarily the practice of having 10 syllables per line. (Duke represented this by writing musical phrases with ten notes in each.) So Walter asks the question, are Duke’s other sonnets matched to specific Shakespeare poems? But, as Jack Chambers pointed out in an article that I’ll share with you in Part 3 of this series, based on the little that we know, any of Shakespeare’s sonnets would fit any of Duke’s sonnets.
You can see the sheet music and read all of this valuable material in these pages from the Bulletin—BUT be sure to read the paragraph below for the surprising solution to this mystery:
UPDATE!: Thanks to subscriber and jazz scholar Andrew Homzy, we now know that the lyrics were not added by Duke! Andrew informs me that these pages are part of British saxophonist and composer John Dankworth's own suite, Shakespeare And All That Jazz, recorded in 1964 featuring his wife, the superb singer Cleo Laine. As Thomas Cunniffe noted in a review on his jazz history blog, most of the music in the suite is by Dankworth, but he included two Ellington/Strayhorn pieces: Dankworth set Shakespeare’s “Take All My Loves” to Duke’s melody “Sonnet for Hank Cinq,” and he set Shakespeare’s “My Love is as a Fever” to Duke’s “Sonnet for Caesar.” (On Walter’s copy of the latter, which you now have in the above pages from DEMS, someone wrote chord symbols by hand below the staves. Apparently, a previous unknown owner of the sheet music did that for purposes of analysis.)
The pieces by Dankworth alone were published in a sheet music book in 1967. In 1977 and ‘78, Laine and Dankworth re-recorded this music, plus the two Duke pieces and more, as part of a larger double-album project called Word Songs. The “mystery sheet music” from DEMS is from the sheet music book for Wordsongs (written as one word):
(NOTE: I don’t have either of the Dankworth and Laine sheet music books. Homzy’s are in storage, and there are no copies for sale online. Please contact me if you can share pages or complete scans with me. Thank you!)
Therefore, the sheet music in DEMS is Dankworth’s arrangement, close to Duke’s recording but not exactly the same. And the recording is a little different from the published version for just piano and voice. (The version on Word Songs is yet a little more different, and Laine is accompanied largely by Fender Rhodes piano.) Here is Laine’s original 1964 recording—she does a great job with this difficult song:
BOTTOM LINE: So far as we know, it is still the case that Duke had no particular sonnets in mind for any of his pieces. Sorry, folks!
You will notice that in the letters to the DEMS Bulletin, on the last page of the excerpt above, one person asks if anyone has a good recording of the premiere. (The letter-writer actually had a recording, but from a radio broadcast in Germany which I have heard. The sound quality is terrible, and I’m not sure what their source was.) I do have a very good recording, direct from the original tapes, and the first three movements appear below, for paying subscribers.
All the best,
P.S. Avakian’s archives, which include this recording and many others by various artists, are now housed at the New York Public Library, Lincoln Center Branch. The catalog is here. All audio/video content is listed under Series IV. Anyone can make an appointment to study these materials. Follow the directions here to make an appointment for Special Collections. No appointment is needed for the regular collection, but this falls under Special.
(Paying Subscribers, please scroll down for the recordings of the first three movements performed at Town Hall, complete with Duke’s announcements and different improvisations from the “official” commercial recording.)
Playback with Lewis Porter! is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. Paid subscribers at $5/month or $50/yr get extra content and heartfelt thanks! For any amount over $50/yr, Founding Members will meet with Lew on Zoom, have access to rare ebooks and audio, etc.!