If music be the food of love…
I can think of no better way of describing Duke Ellington’s work. Always, finishing an Ellington album, the listener feels nourished, warmed and sustained as though he has had a good meal.
The line, of course, opens Twelfth Night. Ellington’s music once furnished a production of the comedy re-titled Play On. The CD sits in my to play… pile.
But connections between the Bard and Ellington run much more deeply than that, however. There is Ellington’s own score for Timon of Athens and, perhaps most famously of all, the suite composed and recorded, initially for the Shakespeare festival, Stratford, Ontario, Such Sweet Thunder. There is a fascinating transcript of an interview with Ellington at the time, Shakespeare is dug by the craziest of cats, here.
But still deeper, the respective genius of Shakespeare and Ellington courses. As Shakespeare wrote his parts for particular players, so, too, did Ellington. Ellington’s manuscripts are often sketchy, leaving it to the responsibility of the soloist to supply the rest, as Shakespeare’s actors originally extemporized, bringing something of themselves to the performance.
Shakespeare was writing at a time when the London theatre was a crucible of brilliant invention, as Ellington’s New York was in the era of the great dance bands – yet these two geniuses bestrode their worlds like a Colossus, their work testing and pushing the form to places it might otherwise never have reached. Whilst they were classicists who respected, and largely worked within, the form, they were certainly never above pushing the envelope.
But, perhaps, most significantly of all is the pulse which coursed through the forms within which they worked. For Shakespeare, this was the rhythm of the heart beat in the iambic pentameter. For Ellington, he was largely writing music to dance to. The second half of the documentary A Duke Named Ellington demonstrates brilliantly that everything Duke wrote, potentially, was music for dancing, lending itself even to ballet – a form for which I found a new interest seeing the footage in this film.
Of course jazz necessarily had other rhythms to walk to when the Swing Era had largely blown itself out at the end of the Second World War. Classicism, it seems, always gives way to romanticism – so Charlie Parker’s records on Dial and Savoy were, in many ways, did for jazz what Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads did for poetry, exploding accepted forms.
But to surrender the dance beat is to surrender your position in the mainstream. Jazz became less and less a social music, music for dancing, dining and more an appeal to the intellect. Ellington, however, never forgot the dance – his music was, is and will remain an appeal not to the nut but to the gut.
You can read more about Shakespeare and Ellington at the Shakespeare Folger Library here.