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.”