Harlem Jazz Museum Acquires Trove By Greats

July 4, 2010

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 underappreciated musicians playing at peak creative levels not heard anywhere else, putting them in a new light for music fans and scholars.

“Some of us were aware Savory had recorded all this stuff, and we were really waiting with bated breath to see what would be there,” said Dan Morgenstern, the Grammy-winning jazz historian and critic who is also director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University. “Even though I’ve heard only a small sampling, it’s turning out to be the treasure trove we had hoped it would be, with some truly wonderful, remarkable sessions. None of what I’ve heard has been heard before. It’s all new.”

After making the recordings, Mr. Savory, who had an eccentric, secretive streak, zealously guarded access to his collection, allowing only a few select tracks by his friend Benny Goodman to be released commercially. When he died in 2004, Eugene Desavouret, a son who lives in Illinois, salvaged the discs, which were moldering in crates; this year he sold the collection to the museum, whose executive director, Loren Schoenberg, transported the boxes to New York City in a rental truck.

Part of what makes the Savory collection so alluring and historically important is its unusual format. At the time Savory was recording radio broadcasts for his own pleasure, which was before the introduction of tape, most studio performances were issued on 10-inch 78-r.p.m. shellac discs, which, with their limited capacity, could capture only about three minutes of music.

But Mr. Savory had access to 12- or even 16-inch discs, made of aluminum or acetate, and sometimes recorded at speeds of 33 1/3 r.p.m. That combination of bigger discs, slower speeds and more durable material allowed Mr. Savory to record longer performances in their entirety, including jam sessions at which musicians could stretch out and play extended solos that tested their creative mettle.

“Most of what exists from this era was done at home by young musicians or fans, and so you get really bad-sounding recordings,” Mr. Schoenberg said. “The difference with Bill Savory is that he was both a musician and a technical genius. You hear some of this stuff and you say, ‘This can’t be 70 years old.’ ”

As a result, many of the broadcasts from nightclubs and ballrooms that Mr. Savory recorded contain more relaxed and free-flowing versions of hit songs originally recorded in the studio. One notable example is a stunning six-minute Coleman Hawkins performance of “Body and Soul” from the spring of 1940; in it this saxophonist plays a five-chorus solo even more adventurous than the renowned two-chorus foray on his original version of the song, recorded in the fall of 1939. By the last chorus, he has drifted into uncharted territory, playing in a modal style that would become popular only when Miles Davis recorded “Kind of Blue” in 1959.

Glimpsing the Jazz Hierarchy

Asked if the Savory recordings were likely to prompt a critical reassessment of some jazz musicians or a reordering of the informal hierarchy by which fans rank instrumentalists, Mr. Morgenstern responded by citing the case of Herschel Evans, a saxophonist who played in the Count Basie Orchestra but who died early in 1939, just before his 30th birthday. Evans played alongside Lester Young, who was one of the giants of the saxophone and constantly overshadowed Evans on the Basie group’s studio recordings.

“There can never be too much Lester Young, and there is some wonderful new Lester Young on these discs,” Mr. Morgenstern said. “But there are also some things where you can really hear Herschel, who is woefully under-represented on record and who, until now, we hardly ever got to hear stretched out. What I’ve heard really gives us a much better picture of what he was all about.”

The collection has already shed new light on what is considered the first outdoor jazz festival, the 1938 Carnival of Swing on Randalls Island. More than 20 groups played at the event, including the Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras, and though newsreel footage exists, no audio of the festival was believed to have survived — until part of performances by Count Basie and Stuff Smith turned up on Mr. Savory’s discs.

Other material consists of some of the most acclaimed names in jazz playing in unusual settings or impromptu ensembles. Goodman, for example, performs a duet version of the Gershwins’ “Oh, Lady Be Good!” with Teddy Wilson on harpsichord (instead of his usual piano), while Billie Holiday is heard, accompanied only by a piano, singing a rubato version of her anti-lynching anthem, “Strange Fruit,” barely a month after her original recording was released.

“The record is more like a dance tempo, whereas this version is how she would have done it in clubs,” Mr. Schoenberg, a saxophonist and pianist who is also the author of “The NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to Jazz,” said of the live Holiday recording. “You have the most inane scripted introduction ever, but then Billie comes in, and she drives a stake right through your heart.”

Because Mr. Savory liked classical music, the discs also include a few performances by the Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad, taken from one of her very early tours of the United States, and several by Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra. There are even speeches, by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Pope Pius XII, and a broadcast of James Joyce reading from his work.

The collection also provides a glimpse into the history of broadcasting, thanks to the presence of Martin Block, a WNEW announcer who hosted a show called “Make Believe Ballroom,” on many discs. Walter Winchell coined the term “disc jockey” to describe Block, whose citation when he was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame gives him credit for being “the first radio disc jockey to become a star in his own right.”

Mr. Savory himself played piano and saxophone, and his choice of what to record reflects a musician’s refined tastes. “We’re lucky that he was such a jazz fanatic, because he really knew who was good and who wasn’t,” Mr. Schoenberg said.

According to his son Eugene, Mr. Savory was born William Desavouret in June 1916 aboard the ocean liner Mauretania, where his parents were passengers immigrating to the United States from France. (Mr. Desavouret, Mr. Savory’s son, said he did not know why his father changed his name.) He grew up in New Jersey and Southern California and showed an early fascination with technology, which led, while he was still a teenager, to his entry into the recording business.

A Mysterious Man

As best as can be reconstructed, Mr. Savory went into a Manhattan recording studio to make a demo for a group he played in, found that the equipment was not working and offered to repair it. That led to his being hired to maintain the gear and eventually to a contract with a studio that specialized in transcribing live performances off the air for radio networks and advertisers.

“He was doing these air checks, he told me, to get the balance in the recording, and recorded the shows on his own,” said Susan Schmidt Horning, a historian of technology and culture who teaches at St. John’s University in Queens and who interviewed Mr. Savory several times. “I think he was just interested in recording and loved music. He did it because he could do it. He knew the value of these recordings, artistically and commercially, and wasn’t going to let them go. “The recordings that the museum acquired end around 1940, when Mr. Savory moved to Chicago to work for Columbia Records and CBS. During World War II he was initially assigned to the Naval Research Laboratory, where, Mr. Desavouret said, he helped develop radar for all-weather fighter aircraft, but later also served as a test and combat pilot.

At war’s end, Mr. Savory went back to work for Columbia, where he was part of the team that invented the 33 1/3-r.p.m. long-playing record. In the 1950s he moved to Angel Records, EMI’s classical label; engineered or produced numerous albums there under the name W. A. Desavouret; married Helen Ward, a former singer in the Goodman band; and eventually moved to Falls Church, Va.

“As an engineer, Bill was remarkable, the guy who developed the technique for cutting the masters” of 78-r.p.m. recordings that were being transferred to the new format, said the jazz record producer George Avakian, 91, who worked with Mr. Savory at Columbia in the 1940s. “He was an all-round character, a humorous, delightful guy who never got as much credit as he deserved, and he did so much.”

Mr. Avakian said he remembered hearing a few songs from the collection in the late 1950s, when he visited the Savory home, and still recalled the excitement he felt then about the quality of the music on the discs. “I asked him once, ‘How much more have you got?,’ and he said, ‘I don’t know,’ ” Mr. Avakian said. “He was really vague about it.”

When he moved to suburban Washington, Mr. Savory took a job with a defense contractor, working, Mr. Desavouret said, on electronic communications and surveillance devices designed to pick up audio and data signals. His son also said his father told him that he was “a spook, connected with the C.I.A.,” an assertion he is inclined to believe because “when I’d come for Thanksgiving, we’d go out with six retired C.I.A. guys,” and because, on retirement, his father was given a memento calling him “the master of mysterious projects.”

After Mr. Savory’s death, his lawyer and heirs were not sure what to do with the meticulously annotated collection. Some of the boxes with discs had been sealed in 1940 and never opened again, and others had been damaged by exposure to water or were covered with “50 years of mold and gunk,” as Mr. Schoenberg put it.

Mr. Desavouret, a musician and retired computer scientist who lives northwest of Chicago, said, “When he died, I felt overwhelmed,” because “there was a danger it was all going to be thrown away.” In fact, he added, “Dad’s lawyer hired a couple of people to clean things up, and they dug through everything and threw away some stuff that they thought was not useful. So I had to issue instructions to preserve all the recordings and writings until we found out what the hell it is.”

Eventually, Mr. Desavouret had the recordings shipped to his home in Malta, Ill., where Mr. Schoenberg, who had been trying to track him down, finally heard them this spring and immediately realized that “we have struck gold.”

From Disc to Digital

“This has been on my mind for 30 years,” Mr. Schoenberg said. “I cultivated and pestered Bill Savory, who never let me hear a damn thing and wouldn’t even tell me what was in the collection besides Benny Goodman,” for whom Mr. Schoenberg, 52, used to work.

But because of deterioration, converting the 975 surviving discs to digital form and making them playable is a challenge. Mr. Schoenberg estimates that “25 percent are in excellent shape,” he said, “half are compromised but salvageable, and 25 percent are in really bad condition,” of which perhaps 5 percent are “in such a state that they will tolerate only one play” before starting to flake.

The transfer of the Savory collection from disc to digital form is being done by 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.”

Initially, Mr. Pomeroy was reluctant to take on the project, saying he had too much of a backlog to accept new work. But as Mr. Schoenberg recalled their initial conversation, standing in Mr. Pomeroy’s studio one morning last month, “when I said ‘It’s Bill Savory,’ he said, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow morning.’ ”

Mr. Schoenberg said the museum 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.

In the meantime Mr. Pomeroy is plunging ahead. He has digitized just over 100 of the discs so far, and knows that additional challenges — and delights — await him.

“Every one of these discs is an unexpected discovery,” he said. “It’s an education for me. I can hardly wait to transfer some of this stuff because I am so eager to hear it, to find out what’s there and solve all the mysteries that are there.”


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