By Steven Seidenberg
The swing era lasted barely a decade—roughly the mid-1930s until the end of World War II—but it was a golden age for jazz.
It was the only time that jazz dominated American popular music. Legendary musicians who had helped invent the music—the likes of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Teddy Wilson, Lester Young, Bunny Berigan and Coleman Hawkins—still were in their prime. And they could be heard everywhere: swank hotel ballrooms, homecoming dances on college campuses, radio programs—but especially at cramped, smoky nightclubs in such musical hotbeds as Chicago, Kansas City and New York City. In those clubs, jazz musicians honed their craft during lengthy jam sessions, where a player might improvise on chorus after chorus of standards like George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” or on their own compositions or blues riffs made up on the stand.
But the only people who got to hear their jazz heroes stretch out and work through new musical ideas in those impromptu blowing sessions were those sitting in the audience. In those days, technology limited recordings to a window of only about three minutes, the amount of music that could fit on 78 rpm records. The ability to record extended performances by the era’s jazz greats simply didn’t exist.
Or so it was thought.
It turns out that one man—a jazz musician and technical genius—figured out a way. But during his lifetime, William Savory kept these recordings largely to himself. He refused to reveal how many recordings he had and what performances they contained. He let only a very few of his recordings be heard by a small number of acquaintances. Over time, the Savory collection became a tantalizing enigma to jazz connoisseurs who yearned for access to its treasures.
The mystery ended last summer. Six years after Savory passed away, his collection was acquired by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. And jazz experts were stunned. The extent and quality of the Savory collection was beyond anything they had imagined.
“I figured there was maybe 50 to 100 unreleased recordings,” says Loren Schoenberg, the museum’s executive director. “I expected to see one box. Instead, I saw dozens of boxes. The Savory collection comprised about a thousand discs of the greatest performers of all time. And all of this was unknown music. It was immediately clear this was a treasure trove.”
Among the treasures: Coleman Hawkins, the first great tenor saxophonist in jazz, playing multiple ad-lib choruses on the classic “Body and Soul.” Billie Holiday, accompanied only by piano, singing a moving rubato version of “Strange Fruit,” a chilling musical condemnation of lynching. The Count Basie Orchestra performing at the world’s first outdoor jazz festival, the 1938 Carnival of Swing on Randall’s Island in New York City. Basie’s tenor sax stars, Lester Young and Herschel Evans, sharing solos on “Texas Shuffle.” Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson—on harpsichord instead of his usual piano—performing “Lady Be Good!” And the list goes on.
The collection is, in a word, historic. “It is a wonderful addition to our knowledge of a great period in jazz,” says Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J. And, Morgenstern says, “the sound quality of many of these works is amazing. Some of it is of pristine quality. It is a cultural treasure and should be made widely available.”
The question, however, is whether that will happen anytime soon. And if it doesn’t, music fans might be justified in putting the blame on copyright law. “The potential copyright liability that could attach to redistribution of these recordings is so large—and, more importantly, so uncertain—that there may never be a public distribution of the recordings,” wrote David G. Post, a law professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, on the Volokh Conspiracy blog. “Tracking down all the parties who may have a copyright interest in these performances, and therefore an entitlement to royalty payments (or to enjoining their distribution), is a monumental—and quite possibly an impossible—task.”
ORPHANS IN LIMBO
This problem isn’t unique to the Savory collection. Many other musical performances, books, movies and photos also are in copyright limbo, making it difficult for museums, libraries and other organizations to preserve, display or sell these “orphan” works.
In January 2006, the U.S. Copyright Office issued a Report on Orphan Works that describes the general scope of the problem and outlines possible solutions. “The orphan works problem is elusive to quantify and describe comprehensively,” states the report, but “the problem is real.”
The report notes that many historically significant images are removed from documentaries and never reach the public because the copyright owners of these images cannot be determined. Museums possess millions of archival documents, photographs, oral histories and reels of film that they cannot publish or digitize because copyright ownership is unclear.
In its report, the Copyright Office proposed a solution to the orphan works problem that became the framework for several bills introduced in Congress.
But the bills never made it through, and now it appears unlikely that Congress will address the issue in the near term.
Some wonder whether Google might hold the key to a solution. The search giant is attempting to create a huge database of books that could be searched or read online—including works of uncertain copyright ownership. But Google’s plan is controversial, and a recent federal court ruling puts its future in jeopardy.
THE ROAD TO MALTA
By all accounts, William Savory was a talented man. Even as a teenager starting out in the music business, he displayed an uncommon technical expertise. He had gone to a Manhattan recording studio to make a demo with a band he was in, but the studio’s equipment didn’t work. He repaired it and was subsequently hired to maintain the equipment.
In the late 1930s, while working as a technician on radio broadcasts, Savory began to record them for himself. Because of his expertise, Savory’s recordings were far superior to others made at the time. The typical practice was to record on 10-inch 78 rpm shellac discs, which could hold only about three minutes of music. Savory, however, used discs that were larger, made of more durable materials and sometimes recorded at slower speeds (33 rpm). As a result, he was able to record longer musical performances.
Savory stopped recording in 1940, when he changed jobs and moved to Chicago. During World War II, he helped develop radar for the U.S. government. After the war, as an employee of Columbia Records, he helped create the 331⁄3 rpm long-playing record. In the 1950s, he engineered and produced classical music albums for Angel Records. Then he moved to Falls Church, Va., and worked on electronic communications and surveillance devices that were, reportedly, used by the CIA.
By the time Savory died in 2004, many of his recordings were deteriorating. Some of the boxes they were stored in had water damage; others were covered with mold. The entire collection was almost thrown away.
The collection was saved by Savory’s son, Eugene W. Desavouret (Savory’s original name). Desavouret sent his daughter to bring the boxes of recordings back to his home in Malta, Ill. He stored them in his living room for the next five years.
Meanwhile, Schoenberg had been seeking access to the Savory collection for decades. “I met Bill Savory in 1980, when I went to work for Benny Goodman,” Schoenberg says. “I knew he had some unreleased recordings of Goodman when he had some wonderful musicians with him. I was at Savory for 24 years, until he died, to let me hear the music.”
Schoenberg continued his quest after Savory’s death. Eventually, he tracked down Savory’s son. And last spring, Schoenberg visited Desavouret in Malta, where he finally saw the collection. Soon thereafter, the National Jazz Museum in Harlem purchased the collection.
Schoenberg himself drove the large truck that hauled the collection to New York City. “I was nervous about it,” he says. “I was nervous about an accident. I was nervous about a flat tire. Even when we were backing it into the storage facility in Manhattan on the next evening, I was worrying about whether a garage door might come down.”
Schoenberg estimates that a quarter of the collection is in excellent condition, half of it suffers from significant deterioration but can be fixed, and the rest is in very poor shape. To prevent further deterioration and restore the audio quality of the recordings, the museum is digitizing the collection.
The public has only limited access to these digitized versions, however. Eight short clips, lasting about 30 seconds each, can be heard on the museum’s website. To hear anything more, you have to make an appointment to visit the museum’s listening room.
Schoenberg is determined to bring the Savory collection to the public, but he knows it will be a challenge.
“We’re in discussion with a couple of record companies,” he says. “There are, of course, legal hurdles to be cleared. It is a pretty murky enterprise. There don’t seem to be definitive rules.”
Perhaps the biggest hurdle will be getting permission from the recordings’ copyright owners—if they can even be identified. That will be no mean feat because there are so many parties involved, and their rights often are unclear.
[Part two of “Trove of Historic Jazz…” in next week’s issue of the SUN]