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Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra: The Duke At Fargo 1940 Special 60th Anniversary Edition

The Duke at Fargo 1940 is a remarkable amateur recording of a Ellington dance date from the Crystal Ballroom, in Fargo, N.D.; it calls for tolerance from the DVD generation. Thanks to two dedicated fans who obtained permission from the William Morris agency-one a high school senior; the other a college student-we have a fascinating document of a bygone era: a dance gig plus a remote broadcast replete with a cliche-ridden, KVOX radio announcer (Yes, he does say “from downtown Fargo.”) and vamp-till-ready delays by the production-hip Duke.

Regardless of occasional skips on the portable, battery-operated disc cutter, missing some opening measures and the adjusting of mics in the middle of songs, young Jack Towers and Dick Burris managed to capture an incredible chapter in jazz history: the Ellington juggernaut that included trumpeters Rex Stewart, Wallace Jones and Ray Nance (Nance, who doubled on violin, replaced Cootie Williams just before this recording); trombonists Tricky Sam Nanton, Juan Tizol, Lawrence Brown; reedists Barney Bigard, Johnny Hodges, Otto Hardwicke, Ben Webster, Harry Carney; guitarist Fred Guy; bassist Jimmy Blanton; drummer Sonny Greer; and vocalists Ivie Anderson and Herb Jeffries.

There was such an embarrassment of riches it’s easy to see why the amateur engineers took this on as a labor of love. The band, which arrived by train from its previous night’s gig in Winnipeg, Canada, was tired and it showed only occasionally, as in the tempo of “Boy Meets Horn.” But it still resulted in vintage Rex. Webster, Carney, Hodges, Lawrence Brown and Jimmy Blanton are all in mint condition. Herb Jeffries never disappoints, but Ivie Anderson struggles with intonation.

The real star, of course, is the band, with its organized chaos, its sophistication, its jungle heat, its ability to respond to the improvisational genius of Duke. It’s all here, from the frantic shouting of “Cotton Tail” to the chamber intimacy (trombone with plunger; muted trumpet and low clarinet) of “Mood Indigo.”

The two CDs are packaged with an interesting 34-page booklet. But for those who prefer their historical happenings without the warts, judicious editing could have eliminated many aborted tracks, like the incomplete closing number, “God Bless America.”

Originally Published