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

By Matt Schudel
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.

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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