A Swing-Era Holy Grail — Unearthing the Savory Collection

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Lester Young swinging in his prime.

By Bradley Bambarger <2016>

There are lacunae in the canon of any art — lost paintings, burned books, vanished architecture. When it comes to jazz and the pre-war, pre-tape era, such blank spots are sizable. The studio recordings of those days were necessarily brief to accommodate the three-minute time limit on the side of a 78-rpm shellac disc; those records only hint at what jazz musicians were creating live as they played expansively from night to night. Live broadcasts from clubs and ballrooms were sometimes captured off the air onto acetate disc recorders — though usually in poor fidelity and not always surviving down through the years. The loss is especially acute because improvisation has always been the lifeblood of jazz; the in-the-moment sounds made onstage while jazz was America’s popular music were mostly gone with the wind, just memories and then myth.

But, against the odds, buried treasure sometimes comes to light. The Harlem-based National Jazz Museum has reanimated a long-rumored trove of live swing-era jazz recordings, including historic, in-their-prime performances by Coleman Hawkins, Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Waller, Lionel Hampton and the Count Basie Orchestra featuring saxophonist Lester Young. It’s one of the most revelatory jazz discoveries ever, equal in status to the unearthing of the Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane recording at Carnegie Hall from 1957, which was a surprise hit when released by Blue Note a dozen years ago. Yet this latest find vastly surpasses that 52-minute album in scale. Dubbed the Savory Collection — after audio engineer Bill Savory, who originally preserved the music — this cache of late-1930s and early-’40s jazz amounts to hundreds of hours on nearly a thousand aluminum discs recorded at a capacious 33-1/3 rpm. Partnering with Apple Music, the museum has digitally released the first two in a series of volumes; there are plans for eventual physical release in the form of a CD boxed set, maybe even vinyl LPs.

The story of the Savory Collection is one of scholarly devotion and cutting-edge technology, as well as the fantastic music liberated from grooves in discs more than three-quarters of a century old. The tale starts with Bill Savory, the adroit engineer who worked at a Manhattan transcription service making discs of radio shows for advertisers and others, the service receiving a direct wire from the broadcasters. Being a jazz fan, and a discerning one, he compiled his favorite performances for a personal collection of discs. Above all, he was a keen follower of Benny Goodman (and even married a former singer from the clarinetist’s band). Savory-preserved recordings eventually led to sets of “On the Air” Goodman albums released in the vinyl era via Columbia and MGM. After allusions to there being much more where that came from, hardcore fans regarded Savory’s archive as a kind of Holy Grail, thought to offer at least additional Goodman. But Savory avoided sharing the details — and never got around to opening his archive again. He died in 2004.

Loren Schoenberg — director of the National Jazz Museum and co-producer of the Savory series, as well as a Grammy-winning writer of album liner essays (and a performing saxophonist) — once worked for Goodman and, after his death, curated the clarinetist’s archive at Yale University. Schoenberg had been asking Savory about divulging his holdings for years, to no avail. But after Savory passed, Schoenberg tracked down the engineer’s son in a small Illinois town and negotiated the purchase of his father’s collection, funded by the museum’s chairman of the time, Jonathan Scheuer, a film producer and patron of the arts (and now the museum’s vice chairman). The Grammy Foundation provided a grant for the digitization of the discs, a multi-year job fulfilled by Brooklyn-based audio-restoration and mastering engineer Doug Pomeroy, who “accepted pennies on the dollar for all the time and his incredible expertise,” notes Schoenberg. “Taking advantage of the latest advances in audio technology, it was a labor of love for him, just as it has been for all involved.”

The thing to keep in mind when listening to the Savory Collection is that the music “wasn’t classic or canonic at the time — it was the dance music of its day, songs played by young people for young people,” Schoenberg explains. “That said, by the late ’30s, American pop culture — the artists and the audience — had reached a height of sophistication that you can hear in the lyrics and harmonies. This was also music that was being created in a period of strife, coming just after the Depression and just before World War II. In its exuberance, you can hear not only diversion but a yearning.”

Phil Schaap, a longtime disc jockey on WKCR-FM, instructor at the Juilliard School and curator for Jazz at Lincoln Center, was on the trail of the Savory recordings since he was a teenager in the 1960s. “Oh, I bugged Bill Savory for ages, but Loren kept at it longer — posthumously even,” he says with a laugh. “His persistence paid off for all of us. These recordings peel away layers of time, revealing more about what the sound of being alive in one corner of the world was like. It’s a kind of miracle, if you think about it.”

The astonishing discovery among the Savory discs was that Goodman only represents about 40 percent of the collection. For decades, many jazz lovers wished they could’ve heard tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins stretch out live on his abstract interpretation of “Body and Soul” right after his 78-rpm disc was an unlikely, even revolutionary hit in 1939. (Monk marveled over its popularity with record-buyers, saying: “There’s no melody in there — what are they listening to?”) Now, like a dream come true, The Savory Collection, Vol. 1 — Body and Soul: Coleman Hawkins and Friends presents just such a performance, recorded at a Times Square “danceteria” seven months after that hit release — and in shockingly good sound. Hawkins’ tone and imagination are magisterial as he improvises on “Body and Soul” for nearly six minutes, double the length of his studio recording. This sort of playing enthralls connoisseurs of any era — current sax star James Carter calls it “sublime tenor chanting” — but Hawkins pursuing an unfettered muse wasn’t what that venue’s owners had in mind; the saxophonist’s engagement there was brief.

Another highlight of The Savory Collection, Vol. 1 is 21-year-old Ella Fitzgerald singing “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” with a CBS studio orchestra and drum partner Chick Webb in 1938, when their record of the nursery rhyme turned swing tune was a national jukebox hit. She also sings the ballad “(I’m) Saving Myself for You,” blending pristine intonation with sweet-as-pie charm. There are six tracks by vocalist-pianist Fats Waller, a larger-than-life entertainer caught in an atmospheric 1938 broadcast from the Yacht Club, a nightspot on Manhattan’s 52nd Street; so vividly does Waller’s playful patter come to life that his Cheshire cat grin, punctuated by a stogie, seems as if it could rise like a hologram out of the music. The first volume also includes five tunes from a 1938 jam session led by Lionel Hampton, including a take on “Stardust” showcasing Basie saxophonist Herschel Evans as he blows some of his last breaths onstage; he died two months later just shy of his 30th birthday.

In curating the Savory albums, Schoenberg has taken care to touch upon artists whose names are virtually forgotten now. There’s a track by the duo of Carl Kress and Dick McDonough on acoustic guitars, as well as one by Texas violinist Emilio Caceres leading a trio with his reed-player brother, Ernie, and guitarist Johnny Gomez. What such inclusions remind us, Schaap says, is that “then, like now, there were artists making excellent music on any given night in New York whether they were famous or not.”

The Savory archive also includes discs of Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club and at Carnegie Hall with Django Reinhardt, as well as a 1938 jam session with Young, Goodman, trumpeter Roy Eldridge, pianist Teddy Wilson and Basie drummer Jo Jones. Release of those recordings awaits approval from the relevant estates. Already authorized for future release are performances by Cab Calloway with saxophonist Chu Berry. But one of the most exciting finds is just out: The Savory Collection, Vol. 2 — Jumpin’ at the Woodside: Count Basie Orchestra Featuring Lester Young, which presents more than an hour’s worth of Basie and company live at their dynamic peak.

Basie and “Prez”

Lester Young was the prime-era Basie band’s marquee soloist, a hip iconoclast with a tone and style that departed from the ruling sonic identity on tenor sax established by Hawkins. Young — nicknamed “Prez” (short for “the president” of the saxophone, a sobriquet endowed by kindred-spirit Billie Holiday) — had a leaner, airy timbre on the instrument, as well as a distinctive rhythmic buoyancy; ever-relaxed, he floated atop the hard-swinging ensemble, his lines insouciant and full of melodic hooks. Young not only coined the expression “cool,” he exemplified it in sound, influencing saxophonists from Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon to Stan Getz, Paul Desmond and beyond. Several numbers on the Savory album find Young doubling on clarinet, which “he rarely played on studio records,” Schoenberg explains. “Even Artie Shaw said that Lester played better clarinet than a lot of guys who specialized in the instrument.” Young’s clarinet accompanies singer Jimmy Rushing through “Good Morning Blues” with a deftness that recalls his tenor arabesques for Holiday.

Although some of the album’s 22 tracks were captured in resonant ballrooms filled with dancers, a key portion comes via broadcasts from the Famous Door, a small 52nd Street club. Shoehorned into the space, the players of Basie’s big band weren’t just performing shoulder to shoulder; they were practically in each other’s laps, with Basie’s piano on the postage-stamp dance floor. No bootleg Basie “airchecks” from this period approach the sonic quality of the Pomeroy-restored Savory material, with the Famous Door tracks having a particular intimacy. As with the first volume, there’s some surface noise and other aural shortcomings, but the fidelity across the album is remarkably evocative. One can hear exhortations among the band and ghostly crowd chatter, even excitable interjections that connect us to music lovers from long ago.

In his liner essay for the Basie/Young album, Schoenberg turns, aptly, to one of the most perceptive of writers on jazz, Ralph J. Gleason, who was on the scene at the Famous Door as a keen Young enthusiast. Gleason wrote: “The Basie band was stacked up at the rear of the room with the trumpets knocking on the ceiling. The sound was so great, so intense, that it became almost solid enough to walk through. Out of this acoustical wave Prez, with long, wavy hair and a thin wisp of a moustache, rose and whispered… It bit through the brass like a bullet, soft as it was, and hit me right in the pit of my stomach. I almost cried.”

The Savory Collection, Vol. 2 includes such Basie rarities as a Famous Door jam on “Rosetta” (with a forward-looking Young solo) and a rendition of “Blue and Sentimental” differing from the band’s Decca recording in that it includes a vocal turn by Helen Humes, as well as Herschel Evans’ solo feature on tenor. Then there are multiple expansive takes on such hits as “Limehouse Blues,” “Every Tub” and the influential “Texas Shuffle,” the latter a favorite of Schaap since he was a boy. He grew up with jazz-loving parents in Hollis, Queens, where many of his neighbors were musicians. The broadcaster likes to say that he was “brought up by the Basie band.” Babysitting young Schaap, drummer Jo Jones would play him one record after another. As a 7-year-old, he went to the movies alongside Young, and other players told him stories as they ate lunch together. “Some of those guys were avuncular teachers, and some were zany,” Schaap recalls. “But more than one would tell me about playing at the Famous Door in 1938. That was a run by some of the best musicians in the world not only at the height of their powers, but in their happiest moments.”

In his notes, Schoenberg again quotes Gleason offering a eulogy for Young, one that also underscores the resonance of the Savory recordings: “He was a poet, sad-eyed and mystical… [who] etched a tiny portion of his art into the grooves of phonograph records, where it will remain, a treasure for the listener, as long as we can play them. The rest of his precious music he gave away as freely as the wind, in countless jam sessions in after-hours clubs and hotel rooms and basements all over the world, in thousands of choruses of the blues with Count Basie, in ballrooms and theaters and in years of nightclubs working with his own band and on countless stages with Jazz at the Philharmonic. That is the music we’ll never hear again. That is the lost art of Lester Young.” The Savory release finally has rescued, as Schoenberg says, “some of that lost music from the ether and put it back out into the world, where it belongs.”

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(This article was originally published in the winter 2016 issue of Listen magazine… In 2018, the initial installment of Savory recordings was released in a deluxe six-CD boxed set through the great Mosaic Records reissue label.)

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to Medici.tv, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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