The Duke Ellington Recordings
On one unseasonably warm November evening on this date in 1940, two audio buffs, Jack Towers and Dick Burris were busy unpacking their recording equipment at Fargo’s Crystal Ballroom. Playing that night was Duke Ellington’s band. The two young men thought it would be fun to record the famous jazz musician “just for kicks.” They had already secured permission to record the event from “the Duke’s” handlers at the William Morris agency in New York, and when they finally got around to asking Duke Ellington for permission that night, he agreed, but asked “why anybody would want to record my band.”
The Ellington “one-nighter” in Fargo began at 8:00pm and the party didn’t wrap up until early the next morning. The band was loose that night, playing with gusto to a group of NDSU students who were perhaps eager to kick up their heels and dance away memories of their bitterly disappointing homecoming loss to the University of North Dakota a week earlier. Sitting on the sidelines, Towers and Burris recorded nearly every minute of this quintessential Ellington performance. Picking up more than just the music, they captured “the Duke” as he shouted instructions to his band, they recorded the band members as they warmed up or worked out bugs between numbers, and they caught the audience’s wild applause to Ellington’s jazz genius.
After the Fargo recording, Jack Towers returned to college life at South Dakota State and Dick Burris went back to his job with the North Dakota Ag Commission. It wasn’t until much later that either one recognized the importance of their evening’s work.
For many Ellington aficionados, the Duke and his band were at their best in 1940, and Towers and Burris’ recording provides jazz enthusiasts with an intimate and candid performance by one of the true masters of the genre. Unlike professionally staged and recorded performances, Towers and Burris captured Duke’s band as they performed and improvised in front of a live audience. The band was free to try new material, play new solos off the cuff, interact with the audience and push themselves in ways that they couldn’t in a studio. The result is one of the best performances of Duke Ellington’s band ever recorded, and the energy of that November evening is as clear as the band’s trumpets.
The Fargo recordings were never meant for commercial sale and following a 1964 accidental bootlegging incident in Europe, the recordings were nearly confiscated. Fortunately, in 1978 an official version of the 1940 recording was produced as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, entitled “Duke Ellington At Fargo, 1940 Live.” The recording was a complete success, heralded as “the jazz equivalent of the Holy Grail;” a recording that captured “the Ellington band at the absolute peak of its musical history.” And this jazz masterpiece was all recorded on one unusually warm November evening in Fargo, North Dakota.
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