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It’s always interesting to chart the histories of various big
bands that have endured over many years, while watching
them transition from “strength” to “strength,” as their
various members come and go. The Duke Ellington Orchestra
was a prime example of this trend, as an organization
that featured many fine players, from its inception during
the 1920’s until the early 1970’s, punctuated by Ellington’s
death in 1974.

“The Duke at Fargo 1940” is a two-CD set issued by the
Jazz Classics label which captures a live, November 7, 1940
performance given in Fargo, North Dakota. We owe special
thanks to the creativity of recording engineers,
Jack Towers (1914-2010) and Dick Burris, who recorded the
event with microphones attached to a portable disc cutter,
which they placed outside of the venue in their car!
The process of creating this memorable document for
posterity was described in the liner notes accompanying
these CDs.

These gentlemen only had one cutting machine and
therefore had to replace full acetate discs with new ones,
during the performance. Unfortunately, there were portions
of certain songs that were missed. Nevertheless, the
performance was broadcast live on the radio and very
little of it was not recorded. In fact, these two CDs contain
approximately two and one-half hours of music, which is
spread over more than 40 tracks.

The accompanying liner notes also indicated the strength
of this 1940 Ellington Orchestra, and I was particularly
grateful to hear Ben Webster’s (1909-1973) contributions
on the tenor saxophone, as his tenure with Ellington was
relatively brief. His performance on “Star Dust,’ a track
near the end of Disc Two, featured his “velvety” tone and
provided some interesting colors.

Of course, this is just one example of an orchestra that
was known for its tonal colors, and it also featured
Johnny Hodges (1906-1970), Harry Carney (1910-1974),
Juan Tizol (1900-1984), and Barney Bigard (1906-1980),
to name a few. Additional contributions included vocals
from Ivie Anderson (1905-1949) and Herb Jeffries
(1913-2014). Trumpeter Ray Nance (1913-1976) was
new to the band, and was also featured on violin!

These talented players were provided with skillful
arrangements from Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn
(1915-1967), distinguishing the Ellington Orchestra
from other big bands of this and subsequent eras.
The results were difficult to match and have never been
exceeded. Despite the sonic limitations of the recording
process, this set provides an important document of
a big band in one of its “prime” incarnations.