Forty years ago, Jack Towers and a friend lugged three cases of bulky disc-recording equipment into a ball-room at Fargo, N.D. They wanted to record the Duke Ellington Orchestra "just for kicks."
"Duke couldn't understand why we wanted to do it," recalls Towers, a retired Department of Agriculture broadcaster who lives in Chillum.
"He said the trumpet section was in bad shape. Cootie (Williams) had just left the band, and it was Ray Nance's first night on the job."
On Wednesday, the records they cut won a Grammy in the best big band jazz category.
After illegally circulating among collectors for years, the tapes were cleared and released last year as a three-record album, "At Fargo, 1940 Live," by the Book of the Month Club.
"We recorded it just for kicks, just on the spur of the moment," says Towers.
"Oh gosh, yes, I was surprised it won. I just couldn't see it competing with all the modern bands." (Other nominees were records by the bands of Louis Bellson, Lew Tabackin-Toshiko Ayioshi and Thad Jones-Mel Lewis).
Towers doesn't get a Grammy. "Mercer (Duke's son) gets that," he says, still upbeat. "I'm just an interested spectator."
When he and Dick Burris made the recording, they were broadcasting radio programs for the Agriculture Extension Service from North and South Dakota State Universities.
Both were fervent Ellington fans.
"We had a disc recorder that the extension service used for recording farm programs for agricultural colleges. It was advanced equipment -- up to snuff.
"We had no idea that something like this would happen. We were just having a ball. Dick died several years ago. I wish he could be here to see this."
His interest in jazz -- and Ellington -- started in high school in 1931 in his hometown of Brookings, S.D. Burris, a neighbor, asked why he was listening to Guy Lombardo when he could have been checking out Ellington.
"I heard 'Ring Dem Bells,'" he recalls, "and I was hooked. Then I started listening to the band on broadcasts. Ellington is as much a part of my life style as the family Bible.
"I'll never forget the first time I saw him at a dance in Sioux Falls in 1939. I walked into the hall, and there were these guys up on the bandstand, looking splendid and playing all that gorgeous music."
He still has the first record he bought, an Ellington disc, of course -- "Stompy Jones" and "Blue Feeling," which he bought in 1934.
Towers say no one knew about the Fargo tapes until he took them to an Ellington Society meeting here in the early 1960s. He lent copies to a friend, and the next thing he knew, bootleg records were being sold in Europe. f
"I was really upset about it coming out on bootleg," he said, "But it just kind of snowballed."
However, the book of the Month Club cleared release of the tape with the Ellington estate early in 1979. And Towers, now in retirement, was asked to remaster the tape.
Towers transfers music from old, scratchy 78 r.p.m. records and hissy acetate discs to tape, and then painstakingly eliminates the noise with a declicking technique he helped innovate. The 65-year-old jazz devotee works in the basement of his two-story brick home.
"He's the most conscientious engineer I've ever encountered," says Martin Williams, director of jazz and popular culture programs at the Smithsonian. "I wish some of the big companies would use his technique."
In the last six years, Towers has worked for 30 different record labels in the United States, Sweden, France and England and remastered 200 LPs, mostly jazz.
Among his latest projects is a 10-record box set that French CBS did of Count Basie's work for Columbia between 1936 and 1941 and tapes of four forthcoming Pablo albums of Lester Young playing in 1956 with a group led by Washington drummer Bill Potts. He's also done many of the Smithsonian recordings.
On the basement wall hang framed color prints of his heroes, Duke Ellington and Count Basie, flanking an early time-exposure photograph of Carnegie Hall from the 1890s. Hundreds of tapes and records line the walls. c
He sits there for hours bent over a tape machine and a deserializing device, monitoring tape for clicks, wows or flutter. And after finding noisy portions, he gently scrapes the tape with a pen knife, careful not to cut so deeply as to delete the music.
"It may take two or three weeks to work on a five-minute tape segment," says Towers in his soft, Midwestern accent. "And I mean all-day sessions. I may stay in the basement all day and part of the night."
Or when transferring a 78 to tape, he may use several of his nine different styli to bring out any excellent sound left in old and battered records.
Towers came by his tape expertise through his broadcasting work. For 25 years he broadcast crop reports and food stories for the extension service. His was a familiar voice on the National Farm and Home Hour that aired every Saturday at noon.
Towers and his wife of nearly 40 years, Rhoda, live alone now. Their three children are grown and on their own. She busies herself with church sewing projects, volunteer work for shut-ins, ice skating and swimming once a week and a miniature doll house she built.
And he's continuously preoccupied with his tapes. The Grammy is just icing on the cake.
"People get a kick out of their hobbies," he says with a big smile, "but when they pursue it like I have, it's like heaven on earth!"