Friday, January 07, 2011

Jack Towers RIP- Recorded Legendary Ellington Band at Fargo ND

Word has spread slowly that Jack Towers passed away December 23, 2010 at the age of 96. He had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

Towers was known as one of the premiere restorers of musical recordings in the United States. This reputation was based on recordings he and a friend Dick Burris made of the Duke Ellington Orchestra playing a dance at the Crystal Ballroom in Fargo, North Dakota, on November 7, 1940 where they had hauled a bulky Presto-S disc cutter to record the Ellington Orchestra playing before around 600 young people. 

The evening’s music was captured on 16-inch aluminum discs coated with acetate that enabled the recording of approximately 15 minutes per side, as opposed to the roughly 3 minutes that fit on an average 78 rpm recording. And while Towers, friends and some insiders (such as some members of the Ellington Band) knew about these recordings, the release of a double vinyl album in 1980 was a revelation to jazz and music historians capturing a wide ranging repertoire of the Ellington Band in an informal setting.

The release of the Ellington Fargo Recordings was awarded a Grammy in 1980 for best Big Band Recording. It included some fragments of songs as well as extended performances of others known only from shorter studio recordings. It was also recorded with arguably the finest edition of the Ellington Orchestra which included Jimmy Blanton on bass and Ben Webster on tenor saxophone, along with such Ellington stalwarts as Barney Bigard on clarinet, Johnny Hodges on alto saxophone, Rex Stewart on trumpet, Harry Carney on baritone sax, Tricky ‘Sam’ Nanton and Juan Tizol on trombone and Sonny Greer on drums. Ray Nance had just joined the band, replacing the recently departed Cootie Williams.

Original CD release of the Ellington Fargo Recordings
And the band sounds great on any number of features. There is the great half valve playing on Stewart on “Boy Meets Horn,” the fiery “Harlem Air Shaft,” the exuberant “Koko,” and so much more. While the opening of “Stardust” is missing, Ben Webster is reported to have carried a disc with his performance for the rest of his life, and it was a performance that he would return to many times after leaving Ellington. The sound is very good except the vocal microphone (from which the Duke announced some tunes) is off the recording mike so that Ivy Anderson’s vocals are low in the mix.

In the CD era, the Fargo Recordings have been issued on CD including some segments of performances that previously were not issued on the original 2-LP release. There are some criticisms about the release of the complete material even half minute fragments, but the current CD release is of an historic document. In any event, today, folks can upload to their computer and edit our those selections they do not wish to listen to. It is currently available from the Storyville label from Europe both on “The Duke At Fargo 1940 Special 60th Anniversary Edition” and as part of the 8-CD “The Duke Box,” a collection of radio air-checks and concert recordings. These are recordings I have listened to many times and will do so many more.

While this is the centerpiece for Jack Towers, he was a radio broadcaster for many years, working for the USDA and became head of radio broadcasting. After he retired from the USDA in 1974, he devoted himself to remastering rare recordings, primarily of jazz groups including the legendary Dean Benedetti recordings of Charlie Parker, and rare works by Count Basie, Benny Goodman and other greats. His legacy is great among Jazz collectors and enthusiasts of which I am one of many.

Some material for this blog was based on Harvey Siders’
JazzTimes review, and from Matt Schudel’s December 28, 2010 Washington Post obituary,

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