Digitizing 70-Year-Old Jazz Recordings
By Jonathan Poet
As a kid, I used my boombox to record songs off the radio. It was a lot cheaper than buying 45-rpm singles or the burgeoning "Cassingle" offerings in record stores. A couple 90-minute tapes would last me months. If I still had them, the tapes would be worthless.
The National Jazz Museum in Harlem recently took possession of a similar set of recordings that are somewhat more sophisticated — and far, far more valuable. They were made by a sound engineer named William Savory, who in the late 1930s recorded New York radio broadcasts onto 12- and 16-inch aluminum and acetate discs.
The collection includes live performances by a slew of big-name artists, including Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. The cache has sent jazz fans' hearts aflutter, according to The New York Times, in part because of the recordings' unique characteristics. The discs run much longer than the 3-minute 78-rpm records that were issued commercially at the time, meaning they offer new insights into famous musicians, session men and even disc jockeys. Savory died in 2004 and his son, knowing the recordings' value, made sure to save them. He gave them to the museum earlier this year.
An audio engineer is now working on trying to digitize the discs, some of which have succumbed to the ravages of time and less-than-ideal storage. Some of the discs cannot be salvaged. For others, playing the disc even once destroys it. The newspaper documented that process on video.
(It's a little more complicated than slipping a CD into your computer and pressing the "Import" button or listening to the radio with your fingers poised over the "Record" and "Play" buttons.)
The museum plans to make the collection available to audiences by appointment and through public events.