“The Duke Was Here”
Got a shoutout in Bob Lind’s “Neighbors” column in yesterday’s issue of the local paper,The Forum, Fargo. The column references a story I wrote back in 2001 (the Lind column was off by a couple of years) forNDSU Magazine about the night a North Dakota Agricultural College extension agent and his friend from South Dakota State College recorded Duke Ellington and his orchestra at the original Crystal Ballroom in downtown Fargo.
I had a great time researching and writing that story. I was able to speak to Jack Towers, who was living in Maryland at the time, Dick Burris’s widow and others for firsthand information and background. Jack died a few years after the first version of that story was published, but told me in one of our conversations that he was having fun reliving that night. I wasn’t the only one contacting him about that time, either; it was around a milestone anniversary of the night he and Dick recorded what became “Duke Ellington at Fargo, 1940 Live” a recording that later won a Grammy Award. He was enjoying a little bit of the spotlight.
by Bob Lind, April 27, 2014
They are three of the many hit tunes turned out by Duke Ellington and his band.
Alf says the December issue of the New Yorker magazine carried Ellington’s biography. It included this statement, in reference to his recordings: “His finest was made on a bitter winter night in 1940, in a Fargo, North Dakota, ballroom.”
Yes, it does, thanks to Martin C. Fredricks, who sent a story of the event to The Forum in 1999.
Two men, Dick Burris, a North Dakota Agricultural College (now North Dakota State University) Extension Department employee, and his friend Jack Towers, an employee of the South Dakota State University Extension Department, wanted to record the session.
Dick and Jack got Doc’s permission, so they went to the Crystal early and found the band members on the stage playing cards.
The two visited with some of them, then tracked down Ellington and asked him for his approval to record the event.
So the men set up their gear. The orchestra played a couple of warm-up pieces. Then Duke sat down at the piano, the band played its radio theme, “Sepia Panorama,” and the show was on.
Some of the students danced under the lights reflected from the Crystal’s glass ball suspended from the ceiling, while others gathered around the stage to just watch what Martin called “the greatest band in the land swing the house,” even though the instrumentalists had to prop their sheet music on satchels because there were no music stands.
In 1978, that recording won the Grammy Award for the best jazz instrumental performance by a big band.