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Jazz Greats as They Were Meant to Be Heard

With decades of experience, Doug Pomeroy is able to digitize one-of-a-kind jazz recordings from the thousands of old acetate and aluminum discs that comprise the Savory Collection, but it isn’t easy. Photo by Amy Wolf

The new centerpiece of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem’s collection had been moldering in progressively worse locations for decades—including a damp garage. After 24 years of effort by Museum executive director Loren Schoenberg to unearth the Savory Collection, he succeeded. “In 1980, I met Bill Savory—a quirky genius who took great care to record 1,000 discs containing more than 100 hours of live jazz performances from the late 30s and early 40s directly off the lines from radio broadcasters to the transcription studio where he worked. He told me that he had a very extensive and rare collection, but he never let me see it.” While he was a “recording angel,” according to Ben Ratliff of the New York Times, who did release some of the music on LP compilations, Savory never shared many of the one-of-a-kind tracks that included the first live recording of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” In 2010, Schoenberg was finally able to arrange the purchase of the collection from Savory’s son by one of the museum’s board members. He then drove the collection in a rented truck from Malta, Illinois to its new home at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.

In the 1930s, music was commercially recorded on master discs that held less than three minutes of music, and therefore lingering improvisations at the heart of jazz were rarely recorded. The songs of Benny Goodman and Count Basie were arranged to accommodate the 3-minute limit, but with the discovery of this trove of meticulously recorded and catalogued live broadcasts, today’s audiences will have the chance to hear the music as it was played in front of live audiences, that is, as much of it that can be retrieved from the corroded, cracked, and disfigured discs on which it is imprinted.

As is befitting a story of lost treasure, much of the music is cryptically recorded, with some of the discs recorded at multiple speeds and all requiring unusually sized record needles to play. “It was thrilling to read about the discovery of the Savory Collection, but we knew that getting a high-quality digitalization of these recordings would be challenging,” says Kerry McCarthy, program officer for arts and historic preservation at The Trust. “We made a $40,000 grant to the National Jazz Museum in Harlem to help hire the best in the business for the job.”

Good thing Schoenberg knew the song that would convince the best in the business not to retire. “As soon as I heard a previously unknown recording of Count Basie with Lester Young on the saxophone, I knew I had to take the job,” says Doug Pomeroy. “That was a solo no one else in the world had a copy of.”

“Doug is the go-to guy on the planet for audio restoration work from the pre-LP era,” explains Schoenberg. Among other tricks of the trade, “Doug uses tuning forks and an electronic keyboard to adjust the speed based on his extensive knowledge of the music—as basic as that sounds, most engineers don’t have that ability.”

While copyright issues need to get sorted out before the collection can be widely released, recordings can be heard at a listening station and free Jazz for Curious Listeners events at the Jazz Museum.

“The only people who had heard these performances were those in the ballroom or the theater when the music was being created, or those that heard it coming across the airwaves,” continues Schoenberg. “This is one of the great finds of American musical history, and I think it is just so important that it be shared.”

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