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Friday, May 29, 2015

When Duke Ellington tore it up and grandad just applauded politely

On November 7th 1940 the Duke Ellington Band played a ballroom in Fargo, North Dakota. Two young radio engineers got permission to record the shows on condition that they didn't issue them commercially. (The full story of how they eventually came to be issued is here.)

The shows were recorded direct to a disc cutter using sixteen-inch discs revolving at thirty-three and a third RPM. It was a novelty for the band to be able to hear themselves playing for as long as fifteen minutes. Studio recordings were generally no longer than three minutes.

This was the heyday of the Blanton-Webster line-up of Ellington's band, with the young bassist Jimmy Blanton, who would die of T.B. not long after, and the saxophonist Ben Webster, who soon left to become famous in his own right.

It doesn't matter what you think of jazz or of Ellington; this is exceptional music performed in a way were find difficult to imagine today. No individual microphones, no amplification, just an announcer who occasionally comes to the front and tells the people what the next number is - and no post-production jiggery-pokery. This is the unvarnished sound of one of the greatest bands who ever drew breath having an on night.

Which makes the ripple of applause at the end of the number even more amazing. The kids in this dancehall in the middle of nowhere have just been exposed to one of the richest musical experiences of the 20th century and yet their reaction is no more than polite and approving. In time their great-grandchildren would be trained like Pavlov's dogs, to over-enthuse, often before a note has been played.