Jack Towers dies at 96; USDA broadcaster won Grammy for rare Ellington recording

POSTJack Towers's 1940 recording of Duke Ellington and his band was considered a musical and engineering miracle.
POSTJack Towers's 1940 recording of Duke Ellington and his band was considered a musical and engineering miracle. (James Thresher/the Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 28, 2010; 9:51 PM

On Nov. 7, 1940, Jack Towers and his friend Dick Burris arrived early at the Crystal Ballroom in Fargo, N.D., to set up their recording equipment. The Duke Ellington Orchestra, their favorite jazz band, was scheduled to play that night.

Mr. Towers and Burris were young radio broadcasters and engineers who, in the days before tape recorders had been invented, hauled a bulky Presto-S disc cutter from the trunk of their car into the ballroom. Duke Ellington allowed them to record the evening's performance, a dance for more than 600 young people, as long as it was not sold commercially.

The discs of that night's performance sat for decades on a shelf in Mr. Towers's basement in Hyattsville, where he lived for many years. He was 96 when he died Dec. 23 at Montgomery Hospice's Casey House in Rockville. He had Parkinson's disease.

For decades, the Fargo recordings, preserved on 16-inch aluminum discs coated with acetate, were known only to Mr. Towers's friends and a few jazz insiders. Some bootleg versions were released.

When the recording finally came to light and was commercially released nearly 40 years later, it was considered a musical and engineering miracle.

"The Fargo performance," critic Will Friedwald wrote in 2007, "still resonates as one of the greatest concert recordings in all of jazz."

It was one of the first live jazz recordings and captured Ellington and his band at their artistic pinnacle.

The revelatory recording, "Duke Ellington at Fargo, 1940 Live," won a Grammy Award in 1980 for best big-band album and established Mr. Towers's reputation as one of the foremost restorers of musical recordings in the country.

On Tuesday, Library of Congress recording engineer and jazz radio host Larry Appelbaum called Mr. Towers's Fargo recording "a landmark because with his disc cutter he captured what is arguably Ellington's finest orchestra, not in the studio, but on one fantastic night on the bandstand."

For Mr. Towers, remastering rare recordings became a second career, after he had spent decades in charge of radio broadcasting at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He was working for what is now called USDA's Cooperative Extension System in South Dakota when he traveled to Fargo to record Ellington in 1940.

"We had a disc recorder that the extension service used for recording farm programs for agricultural colleges," he told The Washington Post in 1980. "It was advanced equipment - up to snuff."

At the time, 78-rpm commercial recordings could contain only about three minutes of music on a side. Mr. Towers's discs could capture 15 minutes of music per side. It revealed the Ellington band in its full glory, stretching out in extended solos on 45 tunes that sometimes reached nearly seven minutes.

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