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Today is the 77th anniversary of the night when Ellington and his orchestra played for dancing at the Crystal Ballrom in Fargo, North Dakota.
Crystal Ballroom 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.
Ellington arrived in Fargo after having toured the Mid-West and Canada.
As all Ellington friends know, waiting for him there was not only a dance audience but also two young students – Jack Towers and Richard Burris – who had managed to get the permission from both the William Morris Agency and Duke Ellington to record the dance on their portable recording equipment. So they did and the rest is legacy.
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.
A section on Fargo 1940 with photos, documents and other material has been set up in the Ellington Archive. Contributions to it are most welcome.
The Chicago meeting was followed by another one in New York in the first weekend of October , 1981, It was labelled “the first ever international meeting of the Duke Ellington Study Group” because among the participants was Benny Åslund from Sweden and Charles Delaunay from France.
But the majority was of course American Ellington experts like Don Miller and Dick Buckley from Chicago, Henry Quarles from Milwaukee, Jack Towers and Terrell Allen from Washington D.C. and a lot of people from New York like Don Swenson and other members of the Duke Ellington Society of New York (TDES). In total, some twenty people attended the meeting.
On his return to Chicago, Dick Buckley told his listeners that it had been a good meeting.
Jerry Valburn was the driving force behind it. Apparently, most of it took place in his basement where he had all the necessary equipment for listening sessions.
But the participants also enjoyed each other’s company in various restaurants.
The event has been preserved on 6 K7 tapes. The sound quality is better than the ones from the Chicago meeting but of course there are glitches here and there. It is rather obvious that from time a transportable tape recorder was used.
All the tapes have been digitized and those interested in them can contact the web editor.
Contrary to later conferences, the meeting was not one of presentations but of informal listening and discussions. The short tape excerpts below give a sense of the atmosphere at the meeting. There are some more and longer ones in the Ellington Archive (section Ellington Study Group Conferences / New York 1981.)