A new Duke Ellington mural arrives in Fargo
Updated: Oct 1
Downtown Fargo has a new mural. And it depicts a moment of music history that most locals have never heard of -- myself included.
You can find it on the alley side of the Rhombus Guys building at 606 Main Avenue. That's just steps away from the site of the Crystal Ballroom, which once stood at the corner of 6th Street and 1st Avenue South.
The municipal auditorium’s dance hall was a big deal back in the day. In fact, I owe my very existence to this place -- my paternal grandparents met at a show at the Crystal Ballroom. It also hosted some of the biggest jazz and big band acts until it closed in 1957.
Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra played here on November 7, 1940. That show lives on because two former college DJs from South Dakota named Richard Burris and Jack Towers got permission to record it.
This decision made music history. And the story caught the attention of artist and graphic designer Jeff Knight, owner of Cereal -- A Creative Studio and the force behind the Albino Buffalo sticker vending machines. (I like this project and have written about it a lot in the past.)
I asked Jeff about how and why he created this mural and what he's working on next. Here's what he had to say.
What's your mural called? "Fargo Music Icons Mural Series: Duke Ellington" How is the image connected to Fargo?
"I don't think many folks know that such a legendary performance occurred in Fargo, not to mention a legendary Jazz album. The mural is a depiction of Duke Ellington, who played a famous show, along with his bandmates, in 1940 at the Crystal Palace Ballroom.
That show was recorded live and those recordings were hidden away for a time, only to remerge in the 70's, which ultimately won Duke a Grammy award in 1980. It's a pretty amazing bit of trivia that occurred right here in downtown Fargo."
When was the mural completed?
"It was completed this past summer of 2021, but I've been back to do some touch-ups periodically all the way through September."
Why did you decide on this theme?
"The theme was chosen to highlight an iconic moment in Fargo's music history. There are a lot of fantastic historical stories from Fargo, and when I heard the one about famous jazz musician, Duke Ellington playing here, I was shocked that I had lived my whole life here and had not heard of that story.
That's when I looped in friends Cody Schuler and Gia Rassier to help with establishing a springboard with which we could make these public murals accessible so more people could learn about their historical value. Cody developed a website (fargomurals.com) and Gia is helping with the mural's inclusion on a variety of experiential walking tours.
Cody and I also applied for an Arts Partnership grant to get us started, so they have been vital in helping us get this first mural going. I'm the artist/designer and spent a good part of this past summer painting away on the wall behind Rhombus Guys." Are there any more murals planned?
"We're hoping to do some more murals in the future with a Fargo/Moorhead connection, including Bob Dylan, Peggy Lee, and Bobby Vee. We're just looking for the right spaces and a bit of funding to cover those future murals. More updates will be posted to fargomurals.com in the future."
What about you?
Did you know this snippet of Fargo music history?
Do you (or anyone you know) have connections to the Crystal Ballroom?
What murals would you like to see next?
Like Jeff and Cody, I also received a grant from The Arts Partnership. I used mine to cover public art in North Dakota during the pandemic.
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