At a ballroom in Fargo, N.D., in 1940, Jack Towers and his disc-cutting recorder made jazz historyand a friend for life.
It began as a lark. Like a lot of people in 1940, Jack Towers and his buddy Dick Burris were Duke Ellington fanatics. No band of the swing era was hotter than Duke and his Famous Orchestra, as it was billed on its cross-country tours. The year before, Towers had caught a show at Neptune Park in Sioux Falls, S.D., and been blown away: Onstage, the musicians stretched out, unencumbered by the constraints of a three-minute 78-rpm record. Towers took photos of the band in action and got an autograph from his idolon a page of sheet music Ellington grabbed from hornman Harry Carney’s music stand. But, somehow, these souvenirs hadn’t scratched Towers’ jazz itch. So when Burris told him that Ellington was booked to play that autumn in Fargo, the pair hatched a plan: Why not record the whole show? Now that’d be a keepsake that keeps on giving.
This was nearly a decade before magnetic recording tape was available in the United States. The notion of documenting a bandeven one as renowned as Ellington’splaying a one-nighter in the sticks was unheard of. But when you’re 24 and you’ve lived all your life in the far Dakota plains and you’re hooked on the Duke and who knows when he’ll be back, you get some wild ideas.
Actually, the scheme wasn’t that far-fetched. Towers and Burris had the necessary equipment, a couple of state-of-the-art disc cutters from their radio jobs with the Agricultural Extension Service. So it was just a matter of getting up the gumption. They wrote Ellington’s booking agency in New York to ask for permission. No problem, came the reply, as long as it wasn’t used for commercial purposes, and as long as the ballroom and Ellington himself approved.
On the night of Nov. 7, the pair arrived early at the Crystal Ballroom, where they got the manager’s OK. But Ellington was nowhere to be found. The band members milled about, relaxing after an all-night ride from Winnipeg, Canada, in their special Pullman train cartheir sleeping quarters because no white hotels would have them. Singer Ivie Anderson and a few others hunched around a table playing cards on the bandstand. Showtime neared, and still no Duke. Towers and Burris couldn’t set up their equipment until Ellington gave the green light. Finally, he appeared from the dressing room, immaculate as always in a double-breasted suit: “I don’t know why you want to record us, because our trumpets are in bad shape tonight,” he said. “But go ahead.”
Star trumpet player Cootie Williams had recently left to join Benny Goodman’s band, and newcomer Ray Nance had played just one show. Even without Williams, the lineup is considered one of the best ensembles Ellington ever had. The orchestra included a pair of brilliant young mavericks, bassist Jimmy Blanton and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, who were the talk of the jazz world, and Billy Strayhorn had recently joined as arranger and composer. His collaborations with Ellington were just beginning to bear fruit.
It was unseasonably warm for a November evening in North Dakota. Towers and Burris worked up a sweat lugging in their gear from the trunk of their car. They had decided to bring Towers’ more portable Presto-S disc cutter. Because their microphone cables were short, they set up the recorder on the floor right at the stage. “I was near Duke’s piano, so close I could ask him the title of a number,” says Towers. “And you can imagine what us fellows felt there with our heroes in our midst, like we’re sitting right in the band.”
By the time Towers was ready to record, the band was already halfway through its opening tune, “It’s Glory.” He lowered the cutter on the unwieldy, 16-inch acetate-coated aluminum disc and stayed busy for the next couple of hours, cutting as many songs as could fit on a 15-minute side. He missed several snippets while turning a disc over or reaching for another. For the most part, though, he captured the entire two-and-a-half-hour show, complete with Ellington’s intros and an announcer working a 30-minute radio broadcast: “Here comes a tune now that seems to bring back sweet reminiscences of spring. We hear the boys in the band and ‘Pussy Willow.’”
Well past midnight, the band ended the show with “God Bless America,” just as Towers was running out of groove space on his sixth 33-rpm acetate disc. Afterward, band members asked to hear selections; Ellington wanted to listen to Johnny Hodges’ alto-sax solo on “Whispering Grass,” then a hit for the Ink Spots. Towers and Burris figured they had a souvenir that would give them a hoot: “We weren’t thinking of anything beyond getting something we’d have a good time with, something to play for our own amazement and enjoyment,” says Towers. “But I’ll always remember that when we were driving home, ol’ Dick said, ‘Boy, we probably don’t even realize what we’ve got here.’”
What they got is not only the first on-location recording of its kind, but also something that has become one of the most legendary live documents in all of jazz. “An almost definitive glimpse into the working diary of one of the great swing orchestras,” reads the entry in The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD. In The History of Jazz, Ted Gioia call it “a neglected masterpiece on par with Ellington’s more celebrated Carnegie Hall or Sacred Concerts.” The recording earned a place on Stereophile’s annual “Records to Die For” list, impressing the reviewer with both its sound quality and the artistry of the band: “One of the greatest orchestras in the history of American music playing some of their leader’s most notable arrangements….Towers has not only rendered the sound of hard-to-record instruments such as the drums and acoustic bass with uncommon clarity and dynamics, he’s captured their overall balance with the brass and reeds. This is a remarkable example of how the band and their most celebrated soloists sounded 50 years ago, and you are there.”
For decades, only a handful of insiders knew of its existence, as Towers and Burris traded the discs back and forth and made copies for fellow Ellington aficionados. That changed in 1964, when a dubbed tape made it into the hands of European bootleggers, who issued excerpts on a 10-inch LP set. “It really shook me up,” recalls Towers. “I called Ruth, Duke’s daughter, saying, ‘What could we do? This thing’s out in bootleg form.’ She says, ‘I’ll get back to you.’ So a couple days later, I got a call from her lawyer and in effect he said, ‘You don’t even have a right to play that thing. Don’t do a darned thing with that.’” No legal action was taken, and the Ellington estate oversaw a legitimate release in the ’70s. Since then, the recording has seen several reissues, each time with Towers at the engineering helm, culminating this year with the release of The Duke at Fargo 1940: Special 60th Anniversary Edition on the Danish label Storyville.
For Towers, the release marks another 60th anniversary: He and his wife, Rhoda Towers, were married a few weeks before the Fargo show. Both Rhoda and Burris’ wife, Leora Burris, were in the crowd that packed the Crystal Ballroom, along with many students from nearby North Dakota State College. It’s a night Towers knows as well as any in his long life, and the new edition is as close to what he heard that night as he’s ever gotten, from Blanton’s sinuous bass runs to the off-mike aside of the Duke saying “Bojangles” after Towers asked him the name of a tune. “There’s better ambiance there than on the other [releases],” he says, “more feeling that you’re in the ballroom. A stronger low end and brighter in the high end. It just seems more real.”
“This is Ben’s favorite chair,” says Towers, settling into a wire-framed art-deco model in his basement in suburban Ashton, Md. “It handles a big rear end, and it fit Ben real well.”
The Fargo experience gave Towers more than a special place in jazz lore; it also introduced him to one of his dearest friends, Ben Webster. During an intermission, Towers was listening to some playback and a few band members gathered around. Clarinet player Barney Bigard complained that the drums were too loud. Webster and Hodges listened intently to each other’s solos. Then Webster asked Towers a favor. “He wanted me to be sure to record a number that he and Jimmy Blanton had worked up,” Towers says. “They were roommates, see, and the band didn’t know anything about it.” The song was “Star Dust,” and the performance came during the final set of the night, a sort of break in the regular playlist to give the band a breather. Towers was busy changing discs, so he missed the first few notes, but Webster’s searching, improvisatory take on the Hoagy Carmichael classic nonetheless sounds years ahead of its time.
Towers sent Webster an acetate, and the two met again in 1942, when Ellington was playing the Howard Theatre off 7th Street NW. Towers had moved to Washington the year before to work as radio supervisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculturea job he held until his retirement in 1974. “I went backstage to see Ben and, by God, he grabbed me and took me over to his rooming house right behind the theater. He had two suitcases and he opened one up, and here was the disc. He had it in his suitcase!”
For Webster, the acetate was a sort of talisman and touchstone. The fact that he never made a studio recording of “Star Dust” made it all the more precious. In his authoritative history The Swing Era, Gunther Schuller singles out the Fargo rendition of the tune as a landmark in the development of tenor sax playing, as important as Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul.” “The entire solo is inspired by a logic and an inner balance that causes each note, each phrase to proceed infallibly to the next,” writes Schuller. “In it we recognize what we always perceive in a masterpiece: a sense of the inevitable.”
On a different occasion, Towers attended another Ellington concert at the Howard just to say hello and introduce Webster to a friend of his. “We were behind the theater and we said, ‘We’ll see you, Ben,’ and he said, ‘No, come in,’” Towers says. “And he got us in the back door and right into the audience: ‘You’ve got to sit right here in front.’ And by gosh, Duke opened up, saying, ‘Now Ben Webster is going to do some improvisations on “Star Dust.” And Ben played it.”
During the ’40s and ’50s, Webster lived at various times on 6th Street NW with his wife, Eudora Webster. He and Towers saw each other often. They would buy records at a shop on 7th Street and take them back to Towers’ home in Hyattsville, Md., where the Websters were also occasional dinner guests. Once, they were listening to a Charlie Parker 78 at a time when the Bird’s bebop was stirring up controversy. “He’s playing Art Tatum,” said Webster approvingly.
At a “Black, Brown and Beige” concert in Boston in 1943, Webster had another onstage epiphany, and Towers helped preserve it for him once again. “There’s a spot where Ben played a modulation in the waltz number, and, gosh, he was infatuated with that. I dubbed that off for him a half-dozen times,” Towers says. “He had fallen in love with what he had done.”
Not long after, Webster left the band, but he remained Towers’ confidant. In 1948, Ellington came to play a weeklong stand at the old WUST Radio Music Hall, now the 9:30 Club. Despite Webster’s bum leg, an old ailment that flared up from time to time, he and Towers walked over to catch the shows, just a few blocks away from Webster’s home. As the week went on, the band members coaxed Webster to the stage to take a solo or two, finally convincing him to bring Betsy, his tenor sax, along for the last gig. “Duke wants me to sign up the band again,” Webster told Towers afterward. “I said, ‘What are you going to do?’” Towers recalls. “And Ben said, ‘Call me in the morning. If I’m there, I didn’t go. If I’m not there, I went.’ Well, he went with the band, and a few days later, they played Carnegie Hall.” Towers later remastered tapes of this performance, one of the most famous Carnegie concerts from the ’40s.
Towers and Webster’s was a friendship at least partly based on similar temperments: Both were known for their warm and genial manner. But music remained their strongest bond, lasting until Webster’s death in 1973, after his final decade in self-imposed exile in Denmark. In those last years, Webster never returned to the United States, but he stayed in touch with his Fargo buddy through telephone conversations, letters, and cassettes full of music and talk: “We did a lot of chattering on tapes,” says Towers. “We swapped tapes right up until he died.”
Around that time, Towers retired and devoted himself full time to sound restoration. One of his first projects was the Fargo set. Burriswho had converted Towers to the cult of Duke by playing a 78 of “Ring Dem Bells” for him when he was a boyhad died in 1971, and Towers wanted to recapture the event they’d witnessed together so long ago.
Years of play with heavy phonograph pickups and steel needles had badly damaged the original discs, but by using a variety of cartridges and styluses, Towers was able to locate areas of the groove walls that had escaped wear and tear. With tips from British sound engineer John R.T. Davies, he painstakingly removed the crackles and pops and tics from reel-to-reel tapes he dubbed from the acetates.
Most restoration engineers simply excised noisy section of tape, thereby interrupting the continuity. Towers, by contrast, used an X-acto knife to scrape out trouble spots. When the tapes were played back, they were moving so fast that the omissions were indetectable. Through careful listening and meticulous knife work, Towers created tic-free transcriptions.
This was Towers’ modus operandi for decades as he worked from his basement studio on hundreds of projects, ranging from his beloved swing to hillbilly recordings to the multivolume Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. He remastered Parker’s legendary Savoy sessions, as well as countless other Ellington sets, including some mid-’40s broadcasts for the Treasury Department that were among the few allowed on the airwaves during the period of national mourning following the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
At 85, Towers stays active, though his major restoration work is behind him. On any given day, his basement is abuzz with activity, with Towers playing host to a Time-Life Music producer or an independent blues-label owner clutching a stack of fragile 78s ready for digital transfer. Rhoda usually brings down a pitcher of water or iced tea for the guests, who are treated to a blast of vintage swing from some one-of-a-kind acetate.
In the corner sits a box of beat-up Stan Kenton records that a friend wants Towers to dub to cassette. The basement is a shrine to a storied career, with shelves crammed with records and reel-to-reel tapes and odds and ends such as a Japanese bootleg CD of the Fargo show (“It sounds pretty good,” Towers admits). The walls are covered with framed, enlarged photos of Webster, Ellington, and other jazz titansincluding Count Basie, whom Towers also counted as a longtime friend.
But among all of Towers’ treasures, one stands out: a letter from a TV producer from Denmark, whom Towers met at an Ellington conference in Copenhagen in the ’90s. The man whom Schuller called “one of the few true poets jazz has had” lived with the producer’s family during the ’60s, and they had stayed close during Webster’s last years in Copenhagen.
“You are one of the people Ben recommended most warmly the years he was here,” the letter reads. “I think only Sugar Ray Robinson, Benny Carter, Harry Carney, and Johnny Hodges had higher standing in Ben’s warm mentions of friends.” CP