THE DUKE AT FARGO 1940: SPECIAL 60th ANNIVERSARY EDITION / ELLINGTON: It’s Glory. Sepia Panorama (2 tks). Ko-Ko. Pussy Willow. Harlem Air Shaft. Warm Valley (2 tks). Stompy Jones. Bojangles. On the Air. Rumpus in Richmond. The Flaming Sword. Slap Happy. Oh Babe! Maybe Someday. Cotton Tail. Across the Tracks Blues. ELLINGTON-MILLS: The Mooche. SNYDER-WHEELER-SMITH: The Sheik of Araby. SILVER-SHELLEY: There Shall Be No Night. BIGARD-ELLINGTON-MILLS: Mood Indigo. DiLAZZARO-ADAMSON: The Ferryboat Serenade. MORET-KAHN: Chloe. UNKNOWN: Chaser. Fanfare. LAWLOR-BLAKE: The Sidewalks of New York. ELLINGTON-RUSSELL: Never No Lament [Don’t Get Around Much Anymore]. TIZOL-ELLINGTON-MILLS: Caravan. BIGARD-ELLINGTON: Clarinet Lament. STEWART-ELLINGTON: Chatterbox. Boy Meets Horn. CREAMER-LAYTON: Way Down Yonder in New Orleans. GANNON-MYROW-IRWIN: Five O’Clock Whistle. ELLINGTON-CARNEY-MILLS: Rockin’ in Rhythm. ELLINGTON-MILLS-PARISH: Sophisticated Lady. HILL: The Call of the Canyon/unknown title/VAN HEUSEN-BURKE: All This and Heaven Too. FISHER: Whispering Grass. TIZOL-ELLINGTON: Conga Brava. WALLER-RAZAF: Honeysuckle Rose. DURHAM-MILLER: Wham (Rebop Boom Bam). CARMICHAEL-MILLS-PARISH: Star Dust. WARREN-GORMAN-LESLIE: Rose of the Rio Grande. HANDY: St. Louis Blues. BERLIN: God Bless America / Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra: Ray Nance, tp/vln/voc; Wallace Jones, tp; Rex Stewart, ct; Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, Lawrence Brown, tb; Juan Tizol, v-tb; Barney Bigard, cl; Otto “Toby” Hardwick, cl/a-sax; Johnny Hodges, a-sax; Ben Webster, t-sax; Harry Carney, cl/bar-sax; Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, pno; Fred Guy, gtr; Jimmy Blanton, bs; Sonny Greer, dm; Ivie Anderson, Herb Jeffries, voc / Storyville STCD 8316/17, available for free streaming on YouTube or Spotify
I’m sure that at least some of my readers may already be familiar with these links provided above, and/or the interesting history of these tracks, but for the benefit of those who may know the music exists but not really know what it was all about, I’m composing this article.
I would say that at least 85% of Duke Ellington fans know that his 1940-43 band, when he had the groundbreaking Jimmy Blanton on bass (though Blanton had to leave by early 1942 due to failing health and died of tuberculosis that year) and Ben Webster on tenor sax, was one of his absolute greatest and, coincidentally, one of his highest and most consistent peaks of creativity, on a par with the so-called “Jungle Band” (1927-1931) and his orchestra of 1962-68. He certainly had spurts of great creativity at other times, particularly in 1938, but these were his greatest orchestras. Of course, the neophyte who is less familiar with Ellington needs to know that Duke always operated on a different level and in a different sound world than any other bandleader. He once said that he really wanted to have an orchestra like rival Fletcher Henderson’s, a group of virtuosi who could play with perfect section blends and in difficult keys, but I don’t think he really meant that because, particularly as he grew in fame, wealth, and stature, he never put such a band together when he most certainly could have, which was from the mid-1950s, when he revived his career, onward. The reason for this is that Ellington delighted in very bright sonorities—to his dying day, he preferred trumpeters, trombonists, clarinetists and saxists with piercing tones—as well as what critics called “freak sounds” and Ellington described as “geechee.” This meant not only reed players with acrid timbres but brass players who growled and smeared their tones. His first such players were trumpeter James “Bubber” Miley and trombonist Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, both of whom specialized in plunger-muted growls, but note that when he fired Miley in 1929 for severe alcoholism and replaced him with Charles “Cootie” Williams, he made Cootie forsake his pure, full trumpet tone and learn to growl with the plunger. He also hired such odd ducks as trumpeter Artie Whetsol, who played with a wispy, “fugitive” tone as if blowing air into the side of his mouthpiece, and one of Henderson’s former stars, Rex Stewart, who could play the cornet conventionally but also with a half-valve or cocked-valve effect that produced notes on the edge of microtonalism. Literally, Ellington had a hard time writing his unique music for an orchestra that didn’t have characters like this in it, and even in his later years, when it became harder to find such iconoclasts, he went out of his way to find the ones closest to this and encourage them to do what they could to emulate their earlier models.
The Ellington band in 1941. Back row, L to R: Ray Nance, Wallace Jones, Sonny Greer. Front, L to R: Rex Stewart, Harry Carney, Otto Hardwick, Ben Webster, Barney Bigard.
Yet in some ways the 1940-43 band was the most “orchestral” of those he had. In part this was due to Blanton’s powerful bass, which even on these old acetates sounds like a cannon behind the band, and Webster, who in those days had not one but two sounds, the raucous “hot” player of Cotton Tail and the smooth, creamy-toned ballad player. All of this is captured on their RCA Victor recordings as well as on the 1943 Carnegie Hall concert, but this album remains special for one big reason, and that is sound quality. Here, in 1940, we have the equivalent of mid-1950s high fidelity, removing the boxiness of the RCA Victor studios and presenting the band with live hall ambience.
In a way, it was accidental. In 1940, two USDA workers and former South Dakota State College students Jack Towers and Richard Burris, asked for and were granted permission by Ellington’s agents, the powerful William Morris firm, to record the band at an upcoming concert in Fargo, North Dakota. The Morris agency agreed on the provision that they also asked permission from Ellington and the owner of the hall.
The show was given at the Crystal Ballroom (long since demolished) on the second floor of the Fargo City Auditorium at First Avenue South and Broadway. Towers and Burris used a Presto portable recorder that could use 16-inch blank acetates and record at the then-unusual speed of 33 1/3. They placed the recorder near the foot of Ellington’s piano, but wherever they placed the microphone, they really lucked out because for the most part the sound they preserved was spectacular.
As for the music, it clearly marked an advance on much of what he had previously written though one must remember that Ellington always liked to keep things simple, not to shoot over the heads of his listeners. He had really only learned the rudiments of composition from Will Vodery, Florence Ziegfeld’s principal arranger, and although there were some pieces that did go beyond the understanding of much of his audiences, i.e. Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue (1937), he stuck primarily to recognizable tunes. It was in the arranging and voicing of those tunes that he excelled over most of his competitors,
but in 1939 he had the good fortune to be approached by a young and rather shy pianist with a solid classical background, Billy Strayhorn, who became his assistant and eventually his amanuensis. By his own admission, Ellington wrote a great deal of music up through 1967, the year Strayhorn died, that was not merely influenced by but co-written with the younger man. Strayhorn’s sensibilities lie predominantly with the French school of music, which meant that he introduced more pastel shades to the orchestration of many tunes. In this broadcast we can hear one of his very first arrangements for the Ellington band, There Shall Be No Night. Two months later, Strayhorn would write and arrange a much peppier and more popular tune that became Ellington’s biggest hit record and also his theme song, Take the “A” Train.
According to Jack Towers, Ellington told him that his trumpet section was in “rough shape” because of the sudden departure of Cootie Williams for the Benny Goodman band and the equally rapid hiring of his replacement, Ray Nance, the first of Ellington’s lead trumpeters who did not growl with the plunger mute. As a result, Ellington had to scrap several pieces in his book that were Williams specialties, particularly the Concerto for Cootie which later, with lyrics added, became Do Nothin’ ‘Til You Hear From Me, but it was evident that he liked what Nance could do that Williams couldn’t, such as sing (Wham) and play good jazz violin (Honeysuckle Rose). Nance was to become an indispensable part of the Ellington orchestra; except for a brief hiatus of three or four months in 1946, he remained with Ellington through 1963, a year after Cootie Williams returned to the fold.
As for the performances, they remind me of several comments I read years ago. When the Ellington band was on form, they were hot and there was none better, but very often in their string of one-nighters (a pattern which he continued almost to the very end) there were nights when the band sounded flat; and there were also nights when they blew hot and cold. The one time I saw Ellington in person, in the early 1970s at the Meadowbrook, was such a night. The first five or six numbers they played sounded mechanical. They didn’t really catch fire until Rockin’ in Rhythm, when the full sax section, led by Harold Ashby, came down to the apron of the stage, stood in a line from left to right, and started blowing their brains out. From that point on, the band sounded terrific. Since Duke was already quite sick at the time (but hid his ailment from the press and public), he didn’t come out until the second set. He looked awful, but played well and was as cheery as ever to the audience.
There are a few performances in this more than two-hour recorded session that come out a bit flat, but for the most part the band sounds like they’re having fun. Perhaps because they were new to the repertoire, Conga Brava and the Flaming Sword just miss the kinetic excitement of the RCA recordings. By the last set, the band sounds, as one reviewer put it, “happily smashed.” But even when the band is smoking hot, there are peculiar gaps in the recordings that shouldn’t have been there since they were recorded on long-play 16-inch acetates. Poor Ben Webster suffers the most; just as he begins soloing on a few numbers, Towers and Burris had to change the acetates and lose much of his work. The best piece for him is Star Dust, also new to the Ellington book despite being around for a decade. The recording starts near the end of one of Webster’s choruses, but he plays several more and they are wonderful. Another problem is that, somehow, permanent skips worked their way into the acetate grooves. This badly afflicts The Sheik of Araby and, to a lesser extent, St. Louis Blues, which is a shame because both are really hot performances. Happily, the newcomer Nance comes off pretty well: both his vocal showcase, Wham, and his big outing on violin, Honeysuckle Rose, are complete.
By far, the strangest piece on the album is an excellent swinger that had no name. The compilers of the set simply decided to call it On the Air because, while playing the piano vamp, Ellington says, “We’re on the air.” Apparently he thought it was too ordinary of a swing piece and junked it shortly after this session, but it’s really good, with solos by Blanton, Hodges, Stewart and Bigard. Towards the end, with the band swinging like crazy, you can hear Ellington shout “Yeah!” But apparently his “Yeah!” wasn’t enough to save it for posterity except for this acetate.
Ironically, although the microphone placement caught the band’s sound beautifully (particularly bassist Blanton, whose huge tone almost sounds like an amplified bass guitar in places), the other vocalists are generally off-mic. The only vocal solo that’s really audible is Ivie Anderson’s on The Ferryboat Serenade, and that was because, since that was part of the half hour that was broadcast, they moved her microphone to a more advantageous position. Personally, I don’t mind that goopy, molasses baritone Herb Jeffries is almost inaudible, but it’s frustrating to hear Anderson’s three other vocal numbers sound as if she’s singing in a canyon. The worst of all the performances, in both respects, is the minute and a half compilation of sound clips (that’s really all you can call them) from three songs: The Call of the Canyon, an unidentified swing tune, and a brief snippet of All This and Heaven Too.
Yet even considering these disappointments, the Fargo session is remarkable in so many ways. In their remastering of the entire session, Storyville has removed all of the ticks and pops (there were MANY in the original issues of these performances) and most of the background acetate noise. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, in many cases, they rolled back the top on the treble to minimize whatever acetate noise was left, which gives us a false sound picture of the band. The copy I had of about half of this session, on a 1990 pirate release, had a much brighter top end on all tracks, but this can be rectified by recording them and boosting the treble by anywhere from 0.5 to 2 decibels, depending on the track. Several tracks were left alone and don’t need a treble boost at all.
The great thing about this session is, no matter how many versions of it are issued, no one has to pay royalties since it’s not a commercial recording. When Towers first got it issued in 1978, it came out (incomplete) on Book-of-the-Month Club LPs, which was not really a commercial label, though they did pay some royalties to Mercer Ellington (who, incidentally, joined his father’s band the following year), and when Storyville issued this set in 2000 it was with the permission of Lena Ellington, so they probably paid some royalties to her as well. But technically they didn’t have to. Thus you don’t have to feel guilty about listening to or even recording the full concert and burning it to CDs.
As for the liner notes, I’ve discovered that these are available online too. They were reprinted by the Rutgers University Journal of Jazz Studies in 2012, and can be downloaded HERE. So there you have it, the best of both worlds: the best transfer of the recordings and the liner notes for the reissue.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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