Live from Fargo

Take Duke Ellington, two college friends, and a North Dakota dance hall...

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Jazz fans have never exactly wanted for live albums. If you’re a fan of the genre and have any kind of collection, it likely contains stacks of field recordings. There seems to be a maxim for rock ’n’ roll fans that every top act produces one legit live classic, but you could pick up a second job and still not make much headway into rounding up the full live catalogs of jazz heavy hitters such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Duke Ellington. These guys recorded everywhere and seemingly in every which way — at small clubs by running lines to equipment set up in the kitchen; on radio broadcasts at surf ’n; turf joints, festivals, and, in the case of Albert Ayler’s sending off tenor hero Coltrane, funerals. But what you don’t get a lot of is honest-to-goodness big band one-nighters in the middle of nowhere.

The mid-century Ellington band was a road band. These guys didn’t just play gigs — they gigged. They crisscrossed the country in Pullmans so they could turn up at some ballroom in a place like Winnipeg, Manitoba and entertain the local jivers and jig-stompers, and then roll on in the middle of the night on down to Fargo, North Dakota. And it was there, on November 7, 1940, that two college buddies recorded what could be jazz’s greatest live album. I’d call it jazz’s greatest live album. But then again, I’m a big fan of consistency, especially as I get older. I’m less moved by the one-off masterpiece in a career of otherwise half-wrought works than I am by the artist who never settled for less than a creative Olympus each time out. It doesn’t matter whether he is at the easel, behind the camera, or, in the example of Duke Ellington and his traveling jazz road show, at another random ’40s version of a sock-hop. Just one more stop along the line. Let’s do it right, boys.

Ellington was taken aback in Fargo’s Crystal Ballroom when he was approached by Richard Burris and Jack Towers, two friends who had met at North Dakota Agricultural College. They asked if they might set up their portable recording device and cut some acetates for posterity. Ellington didn’t have a problem with honoring the request, so long as the music wasn’t made commercially available. The trumpet section, he opined, was a mess. Long-time Ellington hand Cootie Williams — a favorite of many swing fans — had just departed for the equally successful (but far different in tone and texture) Benny Goodman band. A new man was making his debut in one of the trumpet chairs — Ray Nance, a skilled player who could also handle the occasional vocal and even contribute a violin solo or two. It was like having a guy on the roster who could play shortstop, catcher, and center field. The problem was, the Ellington “book” — the potential gig repertoire — was massive, and Nance hadn’t had a chance to learn it yet. Making matters trickier, Ellington wanted to work on several new songs that the regulars themselves barely had a handle on, after having stockpiled material during the ASCAP broadcast ban. After all — why workshop when you can roadshop and get paid for it?

People might not today know that the Ellington band was a dance band. When you see words like “Ellingtonian,” I think it’s easy to get a bit nervous, like you’re about to get swatted upside the head by some dry, heavy musical theory business. Granted, Ellington’s music lends itself favorably to the classroom; you can take it as far into abstruse, musical wormhole territory as you’d like. But then you’d only be dealing with one side of it. The Crystal Ballroom, as you might expect, had a large crystal ball hanging from the ceiling, and as I’ve just sat back down after huffing my way through a few Charleston moves while listening to “Rumpus in Richmond,” I can attest that any fool, dancing or otherwise, can rock out to this music.

Some of the songs are missing their opening notes, just as others come to a confusing, mid-note end. Our intrepid field engineers had to switch their recording discs; this was the age of 16-inch silver acetates and sapphire-tipped cutters, names for the then-tools of the trade (the peripatetic variety) that could also command the imagination were they encountered in the middle of a Keats poem. It was a romantic time, and Ellington and his virtuosic subalterns got into the mood themselves, asking Burris and Towers if they could hear some of the playbacks between sets as if they were reviewing game film before getting after it in the second half. With all of the new material, Ellington decided to play MC as well, shouting out song names at his piano so that Burris and Towers could scribble down notes before dropping the needle as the band surged into the next number.

We live in an audiophile, souped-up sound age, and I suspect that there are people who regard a broadcast tape from 70 years ago as an antique, perhaps something to be encountered on Pawn Stars, bemusingly considered, and then forgotten about. And while it’s true that the Crystal Ballroom was not designed by some master acoustical architect, it handled sound surprisingly well, as did Burris and Towers’ equipment. Both men went on to broadcast careers, so they were in their element. What transfixes me is that Ellington and crew were so resolutely in their element that it couldn’t have been that much different from any other night, in any other town. A cynic might even say that you should have caught them three weeks later, in some other Middle American ballroom, when Ray Nance had mastered that big book.

The Fargo recording became commercially available after a dubbed copy leaked out, leading to an Italian bootleg release. Its been through several CD incarnations, none of which crackle and hiss as you might expect of a recording of this vintage. The sound is so strong, actually, that bassist Jimmy Blanton is always present and accounted for, driving the band as no bassist has ever driven one. It’s a full-on (acoustic, of course) bass attack. I wonder what his fingers must have looked like, racing up and down the neck of his ax. For the privilege of seeing that spectacle in Fargo, in 1940, you would have had to cough up $1.30. That’s twenty bucks and change, today. Or, about the fifth of a ticket to a Justin Bieber show. So it goes, I suppose, when you’re a barnstormer.• 20 October 2010

Colin Fleming writes on art, literature, film, rock, jazz, classical music, and sports for Rolling Stone, JazzTimes, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and a number of other publications. His fiction has recently appeared in AGNI, Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Commentary, and Post Road, and he’s the author of The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss (Dzanc), and is writing a memoir, Many Moments More: A Story About the Art of Endurance, and a novel about a reluctant piano genius, age seven or eight, called The Freeze Tag Sessions. He’s a regular contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition. His tattered, on-the-mend website is colinfleminglit.com, and he highly recommends reading The Smart Set daily, along with ten mile coastal walks and lots of Keats and hockey for the soul.
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