There isn’t just one recording angel, or even a select few; there are thousands, maybe millions. Each rediscovery of old sound recordings comes to us through a different human filter: a person with a specific job, with specific tastes or aspirations.
And yet some recordings seem as if they were meant to survive, as if they were too good not to, no matter what the circumstances of their transmission through the ages, their purpose and their ownership and their custodians. In other words, sometimes a recording feels like art history, not just social history.
Among the recently discovered jazz recordings from the late 1930s into 1940 made by William Savory, an audio engineer, at least a few rise to this level. There are nearly 1,000 acetate and metal discs in the Savory Collection. Ninety percent of them haven’t been digitized or even played, and of the 10 percent remaining, I’ve heard only about a dozen complete tracks. I’m in no position to assess the whole thing. (Nobody is yet in any position to assess when, how or what portion of the recordings can be commercially released.) But all that I’ve heard are special. And at least one is amazing: a live recording of “Body and Soul” by Coleman Hawkins from May 1940.
Mr. Savory, who died in 2004, worked in New York during the 1930s as an engineer for a transcription service: the kind of outfit with access to live radio broadcasts from around the country, and the ability to make disc copies of the broadcasts for whoever needed them. Evidently he brought home copies of what he liked as a fan, what he thought important or what had sentimental value, for here was a guy who befriended jazz musicians. That’s it: no master plan, no urge toward comprehensiveness.
Looking through the names on the discs — cataloged by Loren Schoenberg, the jazz scholar and executive director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, which recently bought the collection from Mr. Savory’s family — I saw a whole lot of Benny Goodman, because Mr. Savory loved Goodman’s music and came to know him. (He eventually married one of Goodman’s singers, Helen Ward, after she had left the band.) There’s a lot of Teddy Wilson, probably for similar reasons. There are recordings of now obscure swing-band saxophonists: Tony Zimmers, Stewie McKay. There’s some Billie Holiday, some Cab Calloway, some Mildred Bailey, a tiny bit of Louis Armstrong and John Kirby, and some extravagantly good jam-session Lester Young. And Coleman Hawkins.
When Hawkins came back from a five-year European stay in the summer of 1939, the disposition of his music had changed. He had been playing a different role with audiences; he had become a star who blotted out the importance of his sidemen. In England and Switzerland and the Netherlands, audiences treated him with deference, as an exotic and a master soloist.
After his return, the record producer John Hammond remarked with dismay that he had become a “rhapsodist,” but that was no easy accomplishment. The studio recording of “Body and Soul,” from October 1939, is an event, an actorly tour de force in three minutes, a continuous solo after a loose statement of theme; its equivalent in another form of music might be Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner.” (Hawkins once said that Thelonious Monk, incredulous and envious that the record had become a hit, told him, “There’s no melody in there; what are they listening to?”)
It was Hawkins’s most famous song, and he recorded it many times again: the complete list includes stage versions from 1949 at Carnegie Hall and in Lausanne, Switzerland; studio revisits in 1956 with an orchestra and in 1958 with the clarinetist Tony Scott; and from 1944 a more abstracted version of the song — with even less of a melody — copyrighted as “Rainbow Mist.” What we haven’t had is an example of how he played it in clubs right after the record came out. Wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t that be helpful to the historical record?
That’s what Mr. Savory kept for us. This “Body and Soul,” from May 1940, comes from a gig broadcast from the Fiesta Danceteria, then a new joint in Times Square, where you could buy cafeteria food as a cover charge and dance to music free. According to “The Song of the Hawk,” John Chilton’s biography of Hawkins, the engagement went badly. The owners asked him to play stock arrangements of pop songs until the late set, and even then asked Hawkins to quiet down his brass players. Hawkins quit after a week.
But you wouldn’t suspect any of that. The Savory version, clear enough to indicate the breadth of his sound, is three minutes and two choruses longer than the studio recording seven months earlier, at a marginally faster tempo, and just as psychologically intense. Presumably many listeners knew the whole recorded improvisation by heart, but here he rarely refers to it. The performance takes its time, as Hawkins develops his improvisation alone over bass and drums, with gathering abstraction from the tune.
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