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In fact, Ellington tends to choose characters known for their oratorical power or verbal facility, a quality mirrored in his witty arrangements and in the sections’ playful titles.Second, Ellington thinks of Shakespeare as a portrayer of individualized personalities.
[Portrait of Duke Ellington, Aquarium, New York, N. Published below is an excerpt from “Jazzing Up Shakespeare,” an essay written by Douglas M. By the mid-1950s, the precipitous post-war fall of swing and rise of bop, changes in personnel in his band, and a creeping conservatism in his repertoire had made Ellington seem a relic of jazz’s past.
Eleven songs are linked to Shakespearean characters like Othello and Lady Macbeth, and the final number is a tribute to Shakespeare himself.
A third portrait, “Sonnet in Search of a Moor,” also concerns Othello, this time depicting his tenderness and pathos rather than his oratorical skill.
All three portraits actively celebrate black erotic power—as the pun on “a moor / amour” suggests—defying stereotypes of black sexuality by stressing these characters’ sly charm and sophistication.
Since Shakespeare is popularly known as a poet of love, this emphasis on black sensuality also provides a rationale for placing Othello and Cleopatra at the center of his artistic achievements.
And Shakespeare’s depictions of blacks, Ellington’s portraits suggest, are affirming—Ellington barely acknowledges Othello and Cleopatra’s tragic ends, and Aaron from are nowhere to be found.Most importantly, Ellington stresses Shakespeare’s affirmation of black characters and his works’ formal affinities with African-American music.Ellington’s suite begins and ends with black characters—Othello in “Such Sweet Thunder” and Cleopatra in “Half the Fun” (as the liner notes wryly observe, Antony seems to be on hiatus).First, the suite is entirely instrumental, sidestepping the issue of setting Shakespearean language in an African-American idiom.Even so, in a few cases the sections have a conversational quality, as in the opening number “Such Sweet Thunder,” which musically depicts the seductive stories Othello tells Desdemona.consists of eleven numbers, each of which is linked to Shakespearean characters: “Such Sweet Thunder” [Othello] “Sonnet for Caesar” [Julius Caesar] “Sonnet to Hank Cinq” [Henry V] “Lady Mac” [Lady Macbeth] “Sonnet in Search of a Moor” [Othello] “The Telecasters” [The Three Witches and Iago] “Up and Down, Up and Down, I Will Lead Them (Up and Down)” [Puck] “Sonnet for Sister Kate” [Katherine] “The Star-Crossed Lovers” [Romeo and Juliet] “Madness in Great Ones” [Hamlet] “Half the Fun” [Cleopatra] A final number, “Circle of Fourths,” added later, offers a musical tribute to Shakespeare himself.The suite addresses the challenge of wedding Shakespeare with African-American music in several ways.On the other hand, Ellington claims that his art and Shakespeare’s are sufficiently sophisticated to reward repeated encounters, an assertion which differentiates their arts from mere pop ephemera.Here Ellington articulates the musical ambitions of his later career—to create a music with the prestige and virtuosity of other classics and the inclusive immediacy of popular culture.Strikingly, Ellington plays down the tragic trajectories of Shakespeare’s plots, reserving indication of their fates for a single ominous final note or unresolved chord.Emphasis falls rather on the vitality of their distinctive voices, even when, as in his “sonnets” for Othello and Kate, those voices engage in a blues-laden lament.