Ellington at Fargo: Tired and Inspired
Like many American homes of the post-war era, mine had bookcases lined with Book-of-the-Month Club selections. William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; Page Smith’s two-volume biography of John Adams; Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana; C.P. Snow’s Science and Government; William Manchester’s The Death of a President; these were among the titles which form one of the indelible memories I have of the house I grew up in.
I have a hazier recollection of which books I specifically asked my parents to buy, but there’s a record album I’ll never forget. That was Book-of-the-Month’s, Duke Ellington at Fargo, 1940, Live, which was released in 1978 as the first authorized issue of a legendary 1940 concert by the Ellington Orchestra. (It had circulated for years as a bootleg.) I was 25 by then and had been listening intensively to Ellington for nearly a decade, but rather than join the club myself, I phoned home and asked Mom and Dad to take care of business. Ever since, Fargo has for me spelled Ellington, not the quirky movie of the same name by the Coen Brothers.
With one important exception, the Fargo, North Dakota performance of November 7, 1940, was just another of the thousands of dance concerts played by Ellington over the course of his fifty-year-long career. But at Fargo, with Duke’s permission, two young local fans, Jack Towers and Dick Burris, set up three microphones and a Presto portable turntable and recorded over two-and-a-half hours of music. The result is a document that merits Holy Grail allusions, for not only is Fargo a rare instance of a Swing Era band caught on tape at a dance concert, it’s the nonpareil Ellington in the midst of what Ben Ratliff described as “an unparalleled fertile stretch" of creative output. And as Ellington’s chronicler Stanley Dance put it when he was interviewed by the North Dakota State University magazine for a 60th anniversary commemorative of the Crystal Ballroom engagement, “They were on, baby.”
Book-of-the-Month’s three-LP set and the subsequent CD reissues that have appeared on Vintage Jazz Classics provide us with a warts-and-all snapshot of the band at work. There are mid-phrase beginnings, drop-outs, and truncated endings; sluggish starts; off-mike singing; interruptions by an announcer; a sign-off from a radio broadcast; and lots of surface noise. But glories abound!Ellington can be heard calling tunes and improvising fresh intros from the piano, and the rhythm section of Fred Guy, Jimmy Blanton, and Sonny Greer is refreshingly audible. It’s on Fargo where we get to hear more clearly than ever what an essential Ellingtonian Sonny Greer was and why Whitney Balliett named him along with Jo Jones and Big Sid Catlett as “the best of the big band drummers.”
Ben Webster, who'd joined Duke a year earlier and was the first substantial tenor saxophone voice in Ellington's tonal palette, recalled Fargo as a night when the band was exhausted. “[But] sometimes, when you’ve traveled all day in the bus, and had no sleep and are just dead tired, that’s when you get some of the best playing out of a band.”
One of the North Dakotans remembered it this way in Stuart Nicholson’s oral history of Ellingtonia, Reminiscing in Tempo: “We stood to the right of the vacant bandstand watching a tardy sweeper run a polishing mop over the floor. Harry Carney was the first musician on the stand and began to finger the big baritone saxophone set before him on a small stand of its own. ..Slowly they drifted in. Wallace Jones smiling. Lawrence Brown sophisticated and bored. Ben Webster looking dangerous and mean. Rex Stewart blowing strange noises on his shining cornet. Fred Guy disdainful in a shy way. Just then Carney stood up, looked around him, began to tap his foot and suddenly, without any warning whatsoever, the orchestra burst into full cry. It was an explosion of sound; startling, thrilling…the glorious power of it rolled out from the musicians engulfing us. And the bored precision with which it was all done…At the same time I felt cheated by the records to which we had been listening for so many months. They were nothing like this.”
Fargo's many highlights include the sublime Johnny Hodges on “Warm Valley” and “Never No Lament;” Ben Webster’s blues-drenched tenor on “Sepia Panorama” and “Bojangles,” and a “Star Dust” that alone makes Fargo invaluable; Tricky Sam Nanton’s plunger mute trombone “yah yah”-ing the melodies of “Chloe” and “The Sidewalks of New York;” Rex Stewart’s fiercely expressive cornet on “Chloe” and “Boy Meets Horn;” and the amazingly propulsive bass of Jimmy Blanton. Ray Nance, who’d just been hired as a successor to Cootie Williams, plays a Harmon-muted break on “Sidewalks,” and sings and scats a couple of choruses on “Wham! (Re-Bop-Boom-Bam).” A few months later, the 22-year-old Chicagoan would earn trumpet immortality soloing on the inaugural recording of "Take the A Train."
The closest we’ve got to footage of Ellington's Blanton-Webster Band is a series of video jukebox productions filmed in 1943. Here’s Nance playing violin and trading vocals with trumpeter Taft Jordan on “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” along with solos by Nanton and Webster.
And here’s Nance in 1958, again on violin, featured with trumpeter Harold “Shorty” Baker on Duke and Shorty’s “Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cool.”