Savory Collection, Enormous Swing Era Jazz Archive, Unearthed The National Jazz Museum in Harlem has acquired an enormous collection of radio broadcasts from the late 1930s. The newly discovered archive features hundreds of live recordings of jazz legends at the heights of their careers.
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Sweet, Hot And Savory: Swing Era Jazz Archive Unearthed

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Sweet, Hot And Savory: Swing Era Jazz Archive Unearthed

Sweet, Hot And Savory: Swing Era Jazz Archive Unearthed

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The National Jazz Museum in Harlem announced this week that it had acquired an extraordinary new archive of swing era jazz. It's a collection of radio broadcasts from the late 1930s recorded by audio engineer William Savory. The newly discovered archive features hundreds of live performances by jazz legends in their prime - Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway and Fats Waller to name a few.

From New York, Tom Vitale has the story.

TOM VITALE: Bill Savory was a Harvard dropout. He was a piano player who loved music and a brilliant audio engineer.

In 1935, he was hired by a New York transcription service - in an era before audiotape - to record live radio broadcasts onto acetate or aluminum discs for clients who wanted copies of programs.

Loren Schoenberg is director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.

Mr. LOREN SCHOENBERG (Director, National Jazz Museum in Harlem): So he spent his day recording Lux soap and soap operas and news items. And in the evening, he would stick around and record, for his own edification, hours and hours of the great jazz that was coming over the air.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: The difference between Savory's recordings and other airchecks from the era is that Savory was in a studio with lines coming directly from the radio networks recording on professional equipment.

Loren Schoenberg.

Mr. SCHOENBERG: One of the items that we have to share is this jam session that was done in the studio late 1938 with Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Jack Teagarden. Now, this broadcast was recorded off the air by someone else and came out on a variety of bootleg discs over the years. So we know what the music sounds like in poor quality. Now, thanks to the Bill Savory version, we get to hear it almost as though we're in the studio. I mean, the pickup on the piano is phenomenal.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Schoenberg describes the discovery of the archive as a collector's dream - 100 hours of music that nobody knew existed.

In 1952, William Savory provided the material for an LP of swing era Benny Goodman broadcasts from Carnegie Hall. Loren Schoenberg first became aware of Savory's recording when Schoenberg went to work for Goodman in 1980.

Mr. SCHOENBERG: So from 1980 until his death in 2004, at least three or four times a year, I called him on the phone or wrote him letters saying, please, let me come see what you have. He never did. And in the collectors' community, we all just assumed that he had a ton of Benny Goodman, and we didn't know what it was.

VITALE: Then this April, while Schoenberg was in Milwaukee running a jazz workshop, he called Savory's son Eugene in Malta, Illinois, and arranged to drive over to look at his father's collection.

Mr. SCHOENBERG: So I drove down a real rural setting - and silos and all that kind of stuff - and there was Gene. And there was the living room. And there were these boxes. And I knew immediately, as soon as I looked in the first moldy, mildewed box, that I had hit pay dirt. That this was the mother lode.

VITALE: Schoenberg purchased the collection for the National Jazz Museum in Harlem for an undisclosed sum, then he drove those boxes back to New York in a rented truck. To date, 140 of the 975 discs have been digitally transferred.

(Soundbite of archived radio broadcast)

Unidentified Man: Billie Holiday in person singing the song that is driving swingsters crazy as they play it over and over again on their phonographs. It has a very strange and haunting effect on most people. It's got me...

VITALE: Many of the Savory recordings feature songs set in ways that were never duplicated in the studio and in longer, more relaxed performances. Like Billie Holiday's 1939 rendition of "Strange Fruit," accompanied only by piano.

(Soundbite of song, "Strange Fruit")

Ms. BILLIE HOLIDAY (Singer): (Singing) ...bear a strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root.

VITALE: Another extraordinary highlight from the archive is the first live version of Coleman Hawkins playing "Body & Soul" - in a New York nightclub in 1939 - that's twice the length of the original 78 RPM record.

(Soundbite of song, "Body & Soul")

Mr. PHIL SCHAAP (Curator, Jazz at Lincoln Center): This is a whole new forest, and it's got these trees that have been growing for 70 years. And we're finally ready to see what kind of fruit they bear.

VITALE: Phil Schaap is curator of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Schaap says the quantity and quality of the Savory recordings is unprecedented in the history of jazz discoveries. He cites new solos by tenor saxophonist Lester Young playing with Count Basie.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SCHAAP: Every time Lester Young played a passage of music, of improvisation, in the summer of '38, he created a masterpiece of the highest, most profound level. So if you give me one more, yeah. But now there's as many as seven full broadcasts of the Basie band from the Famous Door heretofore unlistened to.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Loren Schoenberg says the real value of the Savory archive is what he calls the sound of surprise.

Mr. SCHOENBERG: I have a book with every photograph of Abraham Lincoln in it. And, you know, there's not one photograph of him smiling. Well, some of this music, especially some of the Lester Young stuff and the Coleman Hawkins and the Count Basie and Benny Goodman material, to me is almost like finding a photograph of Lincoln smiling. It adds a whole new context to what we knew about these people.

VITALE: Loren Schoenberg says the National Jazz Museum in Harlem is talking with record labels, artists and publishers to acquire the rights to distribute the music in the Savory collection. In the meantime, he says, beginning in September, visitors will be able to listen to the collection at the museum.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: And so, friends, we come to the end of another Wednesday night jam session with your Make-Believe Ballroom. Yes, sir, and we've had Buster Bailey with John Kirby's band at the Famous Door, and Billy Kyle in the same spot. Joe Thomas on tenor sax, Jimmy Young on trombone, all from Jimmie Lunceford's orchestra, opening tonight at the Band Box. We've had Slim & Slam and Slick Jones playing drums. Slick, with Fats Waller's orchestra at the Yacht Club, and Bunny Berigan, who's in town to make some records, on trumpet. Well, I hope you've enjoyed this Wednesday night jam session. Look forward to another one next Wednesday night at the same time. This is the American Broadcasting Company.

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