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In 1938, Ella Fitzgerald sang her first big hit, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," for a national audience on CBS Radio. Now, a global audience has access to this performance again — thanks to the discovery and restoration of the Savory Collection, a legendary private trove of nearly 1,000 recordings that haven't been heard by the general public since the 1930s. The National Jazz Museum in Harlem acquired them in 2010, and today they're beginning to make their way to a new generation of jazz fans.
It's the quintessential buried treasure story: Sound engineer William Savory had amassed a collection of radio broadcasts he'd professionally recorded off direct feeds from clubs and ballrooms across New York City. Since Savory kept them to himself, the recordings became the stuff of legend — and, for saxophonist and historian Loren Schoenberg, an obsession. Schoenberg says he pestered Savory for a quarter-century to let him hear his Benny Goodman recordings because Schoenberg had worked for the clarinetist, but Savory never did. Savory died in 2004.
Six years later, Schoenberg tracked down Savory's son in rural Illinois. When he got there, he found the Benny Goodman recordings he was after — and much more. "There were 50 boxes that had not been opened for decades and decades," Schoenberg says. "And they contained not just all this magical Benny Goodman material, but — totally unexpectedly — Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Coleman Hawkins, Billie Holiday and the rest."
The centerpiece of the first volume of The Savory Collection is an extended performance by Coleman Hawkins of his signature tune, "Body & Soul." Schoenberg points out that it's twice as long as the version Hawkins released commercially because in the studio, the saxophonist was limited by the length of commercial 78 rpm discs.
Schoenberg says these recordings of live performances show a more authentic side of these musicians. "In the studio, people played it safe," he says. But in the Savory recordings, he says, "You hear them how they really sounded when they were playing live in person ... Hawkins does some stuff toward the end of that 'Body and Soul' that I'd never heard him do."
Savory was able to capture full performances the way musicians played them in clubs because he used larger discs that were specially made to archive radio broadcasts. He also recorded at slower speeds. Phil Schaap, a curator for Jazz at Lincoln Center, says the difference in timing is key. "Everybody's blowing longer than they did on record dates," he says.
Schaap says that for him, the highlight of The Savory Collection, Vol. 1 is another saxophone solo by Herschel Evans on the ballad "Stardust." "The first time I heard that 'Stardust,' it moved me to tears," he says.
Evans recorded that solo when he was 29 years old, during a 1938 jam session led by Lionel Hampton. At the time, he was ailing from heart disease, but he still managed enough breath control to play his instrument. "He can barely fill the horn with air, but he knows how to cover," Schaap says. "Something's up, but something's still great." Evans died six weeks later.
Shoenberg acquired the Savory recordings for the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, where he's the founding director. He has spent the last six years overseeing the transfer, cataloging and release of the collection. But he hopes people will hear something beyond the music.
"I think in every town, there is some great collection of something ... containing the equivalent of the Savory Collection for whatever that thing is," he says. "I hope when people listen to the music wherever they are, that they can get those searches going."
Listeners will have to do a little digging of their own to find The Savory Collection. It's not in stores or on Amazon — it's only available as an iTunes exclusive.