A Duke Ellington Masterpiece, Saved From History's Basement

Duke Ellington signs his biography in London in 1958, with Billy Strayhorn in the background. i i

hide captionDuke Ellington signs his biography in London in 1958, with Billy Strayhorn in the background.

Reg Davis/Getty Images
Duke Ellington signs his biography in London in 1958, with Billy Strayhorn in the background.

Duke Ellington signs his biography in London in 1958, with Billy Strayhorn in the background.

Reg Davis/Getty Images

In 1940, Duke Ellington was working with what many critics call his best band ever. He was touring the country far and wide; one of his tour stops fell in the northern U.S. outpost of Fargo, N.D. in early November.

A couple of Ellington enthusiasts and audio engineers made the trip to record the orchestra on a common medium of the day: aluminum discs coated with acetate, an enormous 16 inches in diameter. Jack Towers and Dick Burris once worked at the college radio station of South Dakota State University. They didn't have any initial plans for their recordings, other than personal enjoyment, and didn't really make any for about 40 years. The acetates sat in Towers' basement, unknown to anybody other than their friends and jazz insiders.

Eventually, Towers dedicated himself to remastering old jazz recordings. His 1940 Ellington discs were obviously a priority; he cleaned up the surface noise of the acetates, and the whole thing was released commercially. That set won a Grammy Award, and is generally revered as one of the best (and most important) live recordings in jazz, ever.

Towers died in late December; a Washington Post obituary has more details about his fascinating life. But long before he left, he spoke to NPR engineer Jim Anderson about the process of making, then restoring his Grammy-winning recording. That story aired on Morning Edition on March 6, 1980. And you can hear it above.

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