Today is the 80th anniversary of Ellington’s dance date in Crystal Ballroom, Fargo, North Dakota.
Duke Ellington and his orchestra spent most of September, the whole of October and a couple of days in the beginning of November in Chicago for a long engagement at Hotel Sherman, a week-long engagement at Oriental Theatre and a couple of recording sessions for RCA-Victor.
On November 2, Cootie Williams left the band for Benny Goodman and the last thing he did in a Ellington context was a small group recording session for the Bluebird label with Johnny Hodges and His Orchestra.
The following week, Ellington started a short tour of one-nighters . He and the band played in East Grand Forks, Minnesota and Winnipeg, Manitoba (CA) before arriving in Fargo, North Dakota on Nov. 7 for the dance date at its Crystal Ballroom.
This was the main dance hall in Fargo and located on the second floor of the Fargo City Auditorium at the corner of First Avenue South and Broadway. It featured a glass ball two feet in diameter hanging from the ceiling that reflected the lights of the dance hall.
As all Ellington aficionados know, waiting for Ellington in Crystal Ballroom was not only a dance audience but also two young students – Jack Towers and Richard Burris.
Together with the orchestra and the audience, they managed to turn a rather normal dance date into a legacy by recording almost everything the band played during the night on their portable equipment – an acetate disc player, one speaker and three microphones of which one was a RCA Dynamic placed stage center for the soloists.
They got the permission from Ellington to record the dance just before it started but apparently William Morris Agency had agreed to it earlier.
Towers has been interviewed many times about Fargo and the recordings he and Burris made. Here are three of them.
In February or March 1980, Towers spoke to the National Public Radio (NPR) engineer Jim Anderson about the process of making, then restoring his Grammy-winning recording. The interview was aired on Morning Edition on March 6, 1980.
In 1981, in conjunction with the Ellington Study Group meeting in New York, Dick Buckley interviewed Towers about Fargo. He then used it in his program “Jazz Forum” on Nov. 7, 1981, which was commemorating the Crystal Ballroom dance.
Another interview with Jack Towers on Fargo took place in 2000 in conjuction with the 60th anniversary of the Crystal Ballroom dance.
This time, it was Rob Bamberger who interviewed him and his wife Brenda on “Hot Jazz Saturday Night” – Bamberger’s weekly program on the public radio station WAMU in Washington D.C. The music played on the program was from a pre-release of the Storyville’s Fargo 60th Anniversary CD album.
The first release of music from Crystal Ballroom happened without the direct involvement of Jack Towers. In the interview with Dick Buckley he says that “in the early 60s” he had a “very poor tape” which he gave to someone who visited him in Washington.
The tape ended up in New York “or someplace” and “a bootleg of very bad quality came out in Europe about six months later. Palm or some label like that.”
Apparently, Towers was upset about the tape coming out, and in the early 1970s,” Towers says in the interview, “I got interested in doing a better dub of it and helped a fellow in Sweden produce a pretty good version of it for Jazz Society.” This must be considered as the first real issue of the Crystal Ballroom dance.
According to Carl A. Hällström, who was behind Jazz Society and other labels, “the idea for the Fargo album on Jazz Society came from my visit with the Towers family in Washington in the summer of 1973. The music had already been out in two bad versions: two LPs in Denmark and three LPs (Palm 30) in England. I wanted to produce a legitimate version of better quality and I made a deal with Jack Towers.”
“Tape transfers from the original acetates made at the Library of Congress in the late 60 ‘s were then edited by Olle Swembel at Europa film in Stockholm in 1974”, Carl says , “and the Jazz Society two LP-set came out in late 1975. ”
“I did not then have any general retail distribution in Sweden; It was Leif Anderson who sold it. It was some years later that I first had AMIGO as distributor and then AD LIB, which sold much more even though the price was higher. Jurgen Schildt’s review of Fargo in AFTONBLADET helped very well!”
Later the Canadian label Jazz Guild issued material from the dance supplementing the Jazz Society album
In 1978, the Book-of-the-Month Club issued a three LP-set with the same content as the Jazz Society and Jazz Guild albums combined. However, Towers had worked further on the tapes producing a new version for the issue and he was very proud that the new album won the Grammy Award for “Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album” in 1980.
The 1990 issue of the Fargo dance on the Canadian label Vintage Jazz Classics must be considered as another hallmark since it includes everything that was recorded on November 7, 1940.
However, the ultimate version in terms of sound quality must considered to be Storyville’s Fargo 1940 Special 60th Anniversary Edition. For this issue, Towers had restored the tapes and improved them as much as possible.
It should also be said that the joy and value of the listed Fargo albums is not only the music but also the almost scholarly liner notes that come with them. The list of authors are impressive. Eddie Lambert, Jerry Valburn, Andrew Homzy and Annie Kuebler.
Kuebler’s liner notes is the most extensive and very detailed. It was reprinted in Journal of Jazz Studies in 2012 and the article is available to DESS members in the concert section of our Ellington Archive.
In the Fargo box, there is also other Fargo material like Jack Tower’s photos from Crystal Ballroom and Martin Fredricks’ booklet about the dance.