The Duke at Fargo 1940 documents Ellington and his band’s famous North Dakota dance-hall performance, recorded November 7, 1940. Over the box set’s two CDs and two and a half hours of music, Duke Ellington and his band plough through four sets, ranging from well-known standards to rare gems, sentimental ballads to raucous dance pieces. For its breadth and scope alone, this album, officially released by the Danish label Storyville for the very first time, is an essential purchase for Ellington enthusiasts.
Duke Ellington is almost indisputably the most important composer in the history of jazz. Beginning in the early 1930s, his compositions and performances, along with those of Benny Goodman, form the core elements of the Swing Era. Ellington, always dapper and sophisticated, gave jazz, then a still-burgeoning art form, a mainstream appeal and character. His compositions were tightly organized and meticulously orchestrated. His band’s sound was large and versatile—they could simulate the intimacy of a small quintet or make the onslaught of their large ensemble fully felt with the intensity and beautiful cohesion of their playing. For many, Ellington’s organized, ordered, elegant style of jazz surely gave the music a respectability, a finesse, a cultural platform, from which later artists were able to jump off and explore. While the beboppers who superseded Ellington in the ‘40s were surely his aesthetic adversaries, their exploration and deviance from established norms might not have been possible had the Duke not established jazz as both an artistic and popular juggernaut during the height of the Swing Era.
The Duke at Fargo is a wonderful exhibition of the variability and depth of the Ellington band near the height of its powers. The band jumps from blistering swing blowouts like “Five O’Clock Whistle” to impressive slow, sly horn showcases like “Boy Meets Horn” to vocal numbers with the legendary Ivie Anderson, such as “Ferryboat Serenade”. For most of the recording, the Duke’s piano is noticeably subdued—while he was the band’s leader, he was by no means its primary soloist. On tracks such as “Sophisticated Lady” and the classic “Mood Indigo”, however, Ellington shows himself to be a subtle master of timing and melody, gently cascading up and down the keys, seamlessly dancing around the more orchestrated solos offered by the rest of the band. In these solos the genius of Ellington’s style comes through—the freedom found in orchestration. While later beboppers like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis would surely find such an arrangement terribly constricting, Ellington and his band make the confines of written notes and measures sound amazingly free and exhilarating.
For a recording from 1940, the sound quality of these discs is startling. There is no hiss or crackle, and the dynamics of the performance are surprisingly sharp. The horns are brash and bright, the piano sparkling and clear and, unlike so many old jazz recordings, the drums do not sound like trash cans being beaten on from underneath a thick layer of mattresses. The only drawback to this beautiful collection is the incompleteness of many of the tracks. On many numbers, after the first few seconds a performance will be cut off abruptly by silence, followed by a similarly short snapshot of another song. Many of these incomplete tracks are so brief that it is impossible to even determine what song is being glimpsed at. The producers of the set could have put together a more listenable and consistent album had they cut these unnecessary tracks in favor of a continuous, unified performance throughout the two discs.
But then again, who can blame the producers for wanting to cram all this great music into this box set? Listening to The Duke at Fargo makes it resoundingly clear why Ellington is such a towering American icon (rightly featured so prominently in Ken Burns’s PBS series Jazz earlier this year). In many ways, the music of Duke Ellington epitomizes ‘30s jazz—it is romantic, well ordered, beautifully organized, yet artistically vital and alive. Just like Armstrong before him and Parker after him, Ellington changed the course of jazz through his revolutionary vision and his idiosyncratic, individual style. On a no doubt cold night in 1940, just a snippet of this magic was captured with some primitive recording equipment, destined one day to become The Duke at Fargo 1940. In a world so much different from that of 1940, with jazz in a state of crisis, caught between the conservative Americans and the dance-oriented Europeans, listening to this wide-ranging sample of Ellington’s live performance is a refreshing and enthralling glimpse at a jazz giant in exemplary form. While no one is quite sure where jazz is going nowadays, it surely wouldn’t have gotten this far if not for the Duke.