AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
The Ultimate Jazz Fans: Jack Towers and Dick Burris
Jack Towers and Dick Burris had been thinking about the logistics of their plan for a year and as the details crystalized, their novel idea neared reality. On November 7th, 1940 the two young men would define a new direction in recorded music history.
Jack and Dick’s friendship materialized at South Dakota Agricultural College, where involvement at the college radio station cemented their lifelong involvement and enjoyment of jazz music. Here they learned the basics of radio broadcasting along with acquiring additional technical savvy. They were amateurs, but their youthful enthusiasm, coupled with an irresistible idea had captivated their imaginations. Simply put, Jack & Dick were rabid Duke Ellington fans and Duke was coming to town! Contact was made with the William Morris Agency, and permission granted to record Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra…..LIVE!
But, let’s not get ahead of the story. Dick, relocating to Fargo, ND after college and Jack, remaining in Brookings, SD had never let their enthusiasm for Ellington die and their interest piqued learning of the orchestra’s scheduled appearance at Fargo. Implementation of the plan had been defined well in advance, but first, Jack had to get to Fargo. A long standing interest in aviation had led to Jack’s securing his private pilot’s license and elevating interest to passion, had built his own airplane! Now, it would all come in handy. Armed with the confidence of youth and escalating anticipation, he hopped into his plane and along with his young bride Rhoda, off they went………..Jack in the pilot’s seat of his homemade aircraft, at the onset of a Dakota winter! Some seventy years later, Rhoda reminisced of the occasion, “Oh, it was fun!”
Fargo’s Crystal Ballroom was filled to capacity on the evening of Ellington’s performance. The atmosphere was electric and Jack and Dick were giddy with anticipation. Their recording equipment, borrowed from NDSU, was strategically planted by Ellington’s piano, with two mics; one elevated, the other at the front of the stage. A recording turntable with a sapphire cutter capable of carving v-tracks into 16” acetate discs was the essential tool for the experiment.
The Ellington Orchestra ‘s performance that night, is stunning and leaves no doubt the music captured is a jewel in the crown of jazz. The opener, The Mooche, a staple in the Ellington book, begins with the familiar clarinet/trumpet intro, followed by the orchestra’s entry in full, robust majesty. It is breathtaking. The two bar exchanges between Nanton and Hodges display a brilliant musical conversation with Hodges articulation of the Blues masterful. The music which follows, not only gets better, it is perfection. It is Ray Nance’s first night on the job (Cootie has left, having joined Benny), the Strayhorn, Blanton, Webster period is up and running and finally, it is a dance where the sympatico exhibited between the orchestra and dancers can be felt within the band’s rhythmic pulse as it swings in recognition.
The night ended in the early morning hours and at its close, Rhoda recalled, “Jack and Dick got back very late. They came into the room, lugging the heavy recording equipment, giggling like children”. They had cut 5 ½ discs, running 15 minutes per side and playback would prove extraordinary.
The recordings, originally released as “Duke Ellington at Fargo, 1940” by Book -of -the -Month Records, 30-5622 (33 1/3 LP) can be found on Ebay. A later CD format was released by Storyville, “The Duke at Fargo 1940 Special 60th Anniversary Edition” can be found on Amazon. Both versions use the original master tapes, extracted from the original acetates and supplied by Towers.
Dick Burris died in 1971, never experiencing acclaim for the recording’s sound superiority. In 1980, Jack Towers received a Grammy for the accomplishment, winning in “Best Jazz Instrumental Big Band”, but the remarkable technical achievement and superior sound quality is heightened knowing their recording is the first jazz field recording! The amateur farm boys from South Dakota and their impassioned love for Duke Ellington’s music gave the musical world deeper insight into the Maestro’s genius and they done good!
WKCR.org will celebrate Duke Ellington's 116th birthday on Wednesday, April 29th, playing his music ALL DAY during a 24 hour birthday broadcast. Join in the celebration! WKCR remains a last bastion for jazz music and it is special!