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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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Mr. Towers and Burris had no plans to make music history that night. School friends from Brookings, S.D., they had worked at the college radio station at South Dakota State University and had become devoted jazz fans, particularly of Ellington's.

"Ellington is as much a part of my life style as the family Bible," Mr. Towers told The Post in 1980.

Before the performance at the Crystal Ballroom in Fargo, Ellington told Mr. Towers that his trumpet section was in "rough shape." Ray Nance, who became a longtime mainstay in the trumpet section, was making his first appearance in the band that night.

Afterward, Mr. Towers and Burris played back parts of the recording for Ellington and his bandmates. Seventy years later, it still sounds magical, with tight ensemble work and inspired solos throughout by saxophonists Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges, trombonist Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton and Ellington on piano.

For Ellington, it was just another night on the road. "We weren't thinking anything beyond getting something we'd have a good time with, something to play for our own amazement and enjoyment," Mr. Towers told the Washington City Paper in 2001.

"But I'll always remember that when we were driving home, ol' Dick said, 'Boy, we probably don't even realize what we've got here.' "

Jack Howard Towers was born Nov. 15, 1914, in Bradley, S.D. His interests included photography, radio and flying, and he once considered becoming an airline pilot.

After joining the Agriculture Department in South Dakota, he moved to Washington in 1941. He served in the Army from 1942 to 1946, then returned to USDA.

He became the head of radio broadcasting in 1952, developed programs for broadcast on major networks and designed features on crops and agriculture that were aired for decades. His voice was often heard on radio stations throughout the nation's farm belt.

He retired from USDA in 1974 to devote himself to remastering rare recordings, primarily of jazz groups. Before the arrival of the digital era, Mr. Towers removed pops and hisses from reel-to-reel tapes by using an X-acto knife, scraping away the imperfections one at a time.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, he restored the celebrated tapes of jazz great Charlie Parker made by Dean Benedetti in 1947. Among his hundreds of projects, Mr. Towers remastered rare works by Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and other greats.

Engineers and music aficionados from around the world found their way to his Hyattsville basement and later to Ashton, where he had lived since 1991.

A son, Richard C. Towers, died in 1989.

Survivors include his wife of 70 years, Rhoda Sime Towers of Ashton; and two daughters, Martha Caudill and Jean L. Kemp, both of Ashton; and a granddaughter.

"It was amazing to watch him," Patricia Willard, a former jazz consultant to the Library of Congress, said Tuesday. "What Jack achieved in sound restoration was beyond what anybody did before and, I think, since."


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