Graduate Conference, Such Sweet Thunder: Ellington Plays Shakespeare--Love and Power in Adaptation

deadline for submissions: 
December 15, 2021
full name / name of organization: 
Columbia University
contact email: 

Call for Papers: Graduate Conference



Columbia University 

Center for Jazz Studies, Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies, Department of English and Comparative Literature, and the Core Curriculum

Date: March 25, 2022

In the 2021-2022 academic year, Columbia University will present Such Sweet Thunder: Ellington Plays Shakespeare—Love and Power in Adaptation, a year-long series of public events across the arts inspired by the resonances and dissonances between Shakespeare and Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s 1957 Shakespearean suite Such Sweet Thunder. Programming includes an evening of dramatic performances by renowned Shakespearean actors moderated by James Shapiro and Ayanna Thompson; a Such Sweet Thunder listening session with Brent Hayes Edwards, Nicole Mitchell, and Courtney Bryan; lectures by Fred Moten and Hortense Spillers; an exhibition of Othello etchings by Turner Prize-winning painter Chris Ofili; a discussion of Toni Morrison’s Desdemona with Jean Howard and Rebecca Kastleman; and a performance of Such Sweet Thunder at Miller Theatre led by trumpeter Jon Faddis using Ellington’s original scores. The interdisciplinary Such Sweet Thunder graduate conference will extend these conversations. 

“Somehow, I suspect that if Shakespeare were alive today, he might be a jazz fan himself,” wrote Ellington in the program for the first full performance of Such Sweet Thunder at the 1957 Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Stratford, Ontario. “He’d appreciate the combination of team spirit and informality, of academic knowledge and humor, of all the elements that go into a great jazz performance.” For Ellington, both he and Shakespeare were “beyond category,” a credo our series embodies as we examine the epistemological implications of what Ellington called “tone parallels,” not just a suggestion that music could “parallel” historical events and geographies, but that great works of art are capable of what Brent Hayes Edwards refers to as “hearing across media.”  

This public-facing project seeks to raise broad questions of race, gender, and geography, all of which involve issues of love and power in adaptation. What happens when we see Shakespeare’s world through the eyes of Duke Ellington? Ellington’s world through the eyes of Shakespeare? What does it mean that Ellington and Strayhorn created a modern musical sonnet (“Sonnet in Search of a Moor”)? What do the major events of 1956-57—Sputnik, the invasion of Hungary, the Charlotte and Little Rock school desegregation confrontations, the International Congress of Black writers and Artists hosted by Présence Africaine in Paris—tell us about Ellington and Strayhorn’s adaptation of Shakespeare at that historical moment? How do artists (of 1956-57 and of today) adapt their performances to speak to the zeitgeist? How do the works of Ellington and Shakespeare dramatize questions of race, imperialism, and sovereignty in the broadest sense? How do these questions of love and power, so urgent in our time, affect our responsibilities as students, educators, and global citizens? 

The Such Sweet Thunder graduate conference encourages interdisciplinary and intersectional approaches to the works themselves and our core themes. We are conceiving of this symposium broadly, and invite short papers from any discipline, irrespective of period, though ideally submissions will have a thematic relationship to Ellington or Shakespeare and questions of love, power, and adaptation. Possibilities include but are not limited to:

-       Critical approaches to Such Sweet Thunder

-       Shakespeare and critical race theory

-       Duke Ellington Studies 

-       Ellington and/or Shakespeare and Critical Improvisation Studies

-       Ellington and/or Shakespeare considered in the context of the years of 1956-57

-       Shakespeare or Ellington adaptations across the artistic disciplines (e.g. Alvin Ailey’s Pas de Duke, Romare Bearden’s “Paris Blues” series, George Russell’s Othello Ballet Suite, Toni Morrison’s Desdemona, Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête, Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, Phyllida Lloyd’s Tempest, etc.) 

-       Sound Studies or Jazz Studies approaches to Shakespeare 

-       Shakespeare and music across the genres

-       New approaches to Othello, the play most mentioned in Such Sweet Thunder 

-       Literary adaptations of Shakespeare 

-       Langston Hughes, “Bard of Harlem,” and Shakespeare (e.g. Hughes’s 1942 collection Shakespeare in Harlem)

-       The performance history of Shakespeare in Harlem (e.g. Orson Welles’s 1936 Federal Theatre Project’s production of the Voodoo Macbeth)

-       Shakespeare and film across the Afro-Caribbean diaspora (e.g. Alexander Abela’s Makibefo, Liz White’s unreleased all-Black production of Othello)

-       The Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario


Participation can be in-person or virtual, and the event will be livestreamed. Please submit abstracts up to 250 words and a short bio to Lisa Del Sol ( and Aidan Levy ( by December 15, 2021.