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Once-in-a-lifetime treasure trove of jazz recordings discovered.
August 17, 2010 12:21 AM

Yes, the title of this post is not an exaggeration:

For decades jazz cognoscenti have talked reverently of "the Savory Collection." Recorded from radio broadcasts in the late 1930s by an audio engineer named William Savory, it was known to include extended live performances by some of the most honored names in jazz -- but only a handful of people had ever heard even the smallest fraction of that music, adding to its mystique.

After 70 years that wait has now ended. This year the National Jazz Museum in Harlem acquired the entire set of nearly 1,000 discs, made at the height of the swing era, and has begun digitizing recordings of inspired performances by Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Bunny Berigan, Harry James and others that had been thought to be lost forever. Some of these remarkable long-form performances simply could not fit on the standard discs of the time, forcing Mr. Savory to find alternatives. The Savory Collection also contains examples of under-appreciated musicians playing at peak creative levels not heard anywhere else, putting them in a new light for music fans and scholars.

It's simply astounding what these recordings might reveal. Already, we have a few samples that The Times has released (you'll have to stream the 1938 selections from Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman & Teddy Wilson, Bunny Berigan, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Fats Waller & Louis Armstrong, since they aren't available for download yet):

This 1938 broadcast brings together the trumpet king Louis Armstrong, the pianist Fats Waller and the trombonist Jack Teagarden to improvise, at Martin Block's request, an impromptu blues.

By late 1938, Bunny Berigan had been required to play "I Can't Get Started," his hit from the year before, so many times that some of the bloom had probably come off the song for him. But here, playing with an all-black ensemble at an impromptu session for the WNEW disc jockey Martin Block, the white trumpeter sounds startlingly energized. His tone is strong and bright, and the band, with members from the Jimmie Lunceford, Fats Waller and John Kirby groups, sounds relaxed and confident. On-air interracial interactions at this time tended to feature blacks sitting in with whites, not vice versa, so this performance is interesting both for sociological and musical reasons.

The Gershwin Brothers' "Oh, Lady Be Good!" from the 1924 Broadway musical "Lady, Be Good," has been jazzified many times, with versions by Ukulele Ike, Ella Fitzgerald, Artie Shaw, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and others. But this October 1938 rendering is one of the more unusual and unlikely: a duet featuring Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson, with Wilson on harpsichord instead of piano, his regular instrument.

Once you get finished listening to those clips, head on over to the video that The Times put together in the loft of the sound engineer, Doug Pomeroy, "a recording engineer in Brooklyn who specializes in audio restorations and has worked on more than 100 CD reissues, among them projects involving music by Louis Armstrong and Woody Guthrie. The process involves numerous steps, beginning with cleaning the discs by hand and proceeding through pitch correction, noise removal, playback equalization, mixing and mastering."

"As fate would have it, a couple of the most interesting Count Basie things are so badly corroded that it took me two afternoons and 47 splices just to put one of them back together again," Mr. Pomeroy said while working on yet another Basie tune, a shuffle featuring Lester Young on clarinet rather than saxophone, his main instrument. "In almost every case I've been able to get a complete performance, but it can be very fatiguing to hear the same skip over and over again and have to close the gap digitally."

And when will all this new music be available to the general public?

Executive Director of the museum, Loren Schoenberg, said that they planned to make as much as possible of the Savory collection publicly available at its Harlem home and eventually online. But the copyright status of the recorded material is complicated, which could inhibit plans to share the music. While the museum has title to Mr. Savory’s discs as physical objects, the same cannot be said of the music on the discs.

"The short answer is that ownership is unclear," said June M. Besek, executive director of the Kernochan Center for Law, Media and the Arts at the Columbia University School of Law. "There was never any arrangement for distribution of copies" in contracts between performers and radio stations in the 1930s, she explained, "because it was never envisioned that there would be such a distribution, so somewhere between the radio station and the band is where the ownership would lay."

At 70 years' remove, however, the bands, and even some of the radio networks that broadcast the performances, no longer exist, and tracking down all the heirs of the individual musicians who played in the orchestras is nearly impossible.

Make sure to read the entire story of Bill Savory and how these remarkable recordings came into existence. It's an amazing chapter that was just added to the story of America's Classical Music...Jazz!

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