Bill Savory was a Harvard dropout. He was also a piano player, an avid music fan and a brilliant audio engineer.
And in 1935, he was hired by a New York "transcription service" -- in an era before audiotape -- to record live radio broadcasts onto acetate or aluminum discs for clients who wanted copies of programs.
"So he spent his day recording Lux soap [sponsored radio programs], and soap operas, and news items," says jazz historian Loren Schoenberg, director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. "And in the evening, he would stick around and record, for his own edification, hours and hours of the great jazz that was coming over the air."
But unlike many other airchecks from the era, Savory's were made in a studio. He had lines coming directly from the radio networks, and recorded them on professional equipment.
"One of the items that we have to share is this jam session that was done in the studio late 1938, with Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Jack Teagarden," Schoenberg says. "Now, this broadcast was recorded off the air by someone else and came out on a variety of bootleg discs over the years. So we know what the music sounds like in poor quality.
"Now, thanks to the Bill Savory version, we get to hear it almost as though we're in the studio. The pickup on the piano is phenomenal."
The National Jazz Museum in Harlem announced this week the acquisition of Savory's collection of radio broadcasts from the late 1930s. It's an extraordinary archive of swing-era jazz.
Schoenberg describes the discovery of the archive as a collector's dream -- 100 hours of music -- that nobody knew existed. The Savory collection features hundreds of live performances of jazz legends at the heights of their careers. There's Ella Fitzgerald, Teddy Wilson and Duke Ellington; Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway and Fats Waller.
Hidden Amid The Silos
In 1952, Savory provided the material for an LP of swing-era Benny Goodman broadcasts from Carnegie Hall. Loren Schoenberg first became aware of Savory's recordings when he went to work for Goodman in 1980.
"So from 1980 until his death in 2004, at least three or four times a year, I called [Savory] on the phone or wrote him letters saying, 'Please, let me come see what you have,' " Schoenberg says. "He never did. And in the collectors' community, we all just assumed that he had a ton of Benny Goodman, and we didn't know what it was."
This April, while Schoenberg was in Milwaukee running a jazz workshop, he called Savory's son Eugene in Malta, Ill., and arranged to come over to look at his father's collection.
"So I drove down, through a rural setting -- silos and all that kind of stuff," Schoenberg says. "And there was Gene. And there was the living room. And there was these boxes. And I knew immediately, as soon as I looked in the first moldy, mildewed box, that I had hit pay dirt. That this was the mother lode."
Schoenberg purchased the collection for the museum for an undisclosed sum, then drove those boxes back to New York in a rented truck. To date, 140 of the 975 discs have been digitally transferred.
Abraham Lincoln, Smiling
Many of the Savory recordings feature songs set in ways that were never duplicated in the studio. Freed from the time limit imposed by 78 RPM records, these were longer, more relaxed performances.
There's Billie Holiday's 1939 rendition of "Strange Fruit," accompanied only by piano. Another extraordinary highlight from the archive is the first live version of saxophonist Coleman Hawkins playing "Body & Soul" -- in a New York nightclub in 1939 -- which is twice the length of the original 78 RPM single that was his smash hit.
Phil Schaap, curator of jazz at Lincoln Center, says the quantity and quality of the Savory recordings are unprecedented in the history of jazz discoveries.
"This is a whole new forest," Schaap says. "And it's got these trees that have been growing for 70 years. And we're finally ready to see what kind of fruit they bear."
He cites new solos by tenor saxophonist Lester Young playing with Count Basie.
"Every time Lester Young played a passage of music -- of improvisation -- in the summer of '38, he created a masterpiece of the highest, most profound level," Schaap says. "So if you give me just one more -- yeah. But now there's as many as seven full broadcasts of the Basie band from the Famous Door heretofore unlistened to."
Schoenberg says the real value of the Savory archive is what he calls the "sound of surprise."
"I have a book with every photograph of Abraham Lincoln in it," Schoenberg says. "And, you know, there's not one photograph of him smiling. Well, some of this music -- especially some of the Lester Young stuff, and the Coleman Hawkins, and the Count Basie, and the Benny Goodman material -- to me is almost like finding a photograph of Lincoln smiling. It adds a whole new context to what we knew about these people."
Schoenberg says the museum is talking with record labels, artists and publishers to acquire the rights to distribute the music in the Savory collection. In the meantime, beginning in September, he says visitors to the museum will be able to listen there.