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Jazz classics that were lost and found

Recently discovered jazz music recordings show improvisation in its heyday.

By Joan GaylordContributor / February 16, 2011



New York

For decades, the Savory Collection was the stuff of legend. Rumored to be a series of jazz recordings preserved by William Savory during the 1930s, it was whispered about and alluded to but never actually seen. Unlike many legends, however, reality exceeded everyone's dreams.

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"I thought maybe there would be 50 to 100 recordings and that would be phenomenal," says Loren Schoenberg, the executive director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, which recently acquired the collection. "But there are almost 1,000."

Stored for decades in cardboard boxes, the professional-grade, 16-in. aluminum and acetate discs bear the names of the jazz greats, including Lester Young, Billie Holiday, and Benny Goodman. A professional sound engineer, Mr. Savory recorded the music for his own use directly from live radio broadcasts, capturing the performances that were sweeping the country during one of the most important eras in jazz history.

"Musicians would say, 'You never heard Lester Young play until you heard him in a 10-minute solo,'" says Mr. Schoenberg.

But commercial recordings of such performances did not exist due to the technical limitations of the day. The wax master discs used at the time could record about 2-1/2 minutes of music. Since they were costly, improvisation – the very essence of jazz – was discouraged; musicians confined themselves to arranged sets that accommodated the technical requirements. Therefore, the known recordings of the era bear only a faint resemblance to the live performances, says Schoenberg.

A jazz historian and musician, Schoenberg had pursued the fabled collection since first hearing of it in 1980. He met Savory through Benny Goodman when he was a young saxophonist playing in the Goodman band. Savory had told him of his collection and intimated that it included some Goodman recordings.

For 24 years, Schoenberg peppered Savory with letters and phone calls expressing his interest in the discs but to no avail. When Savory died in 2004, his son Eugene rescued the cartons that nearly ended up in a dumpster and invited Schoenberg to take a look. What he found astounded him.

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