The Best Jazz You'll Never Hear

Back in the 1930s and '40s, a jazz musician and technological wizard with the wonderful name of William Savory found a way to record more than one thousand live performances of jazz music's all-time greats. It was only last summer, when the National Jazz Museum in Harlem acquired the cache six years after Savory's death, that the world learned the extent of the collection. According to the ABA Journal:

Among the treasures: Coleman Hawkins, the first great tenor saxophonist in jazz, playing multiple ad-lib choruses on the classic "Body and Soul." Billie Holiday, accompanied only by piano, singing a moving rubato version of "Strange Fruit," a chilling musical condemnation of lynching. The Count Basie Orchestra performing at the world's first outdoor jazz festival, the 1938 Carnival of Swing on Randall's Island in New York City. Basie's tenor sax stars, Lester Young and Herschel Evans, sharing solos on "Texas Shuffle." Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson—on harpsichord instead of his usual piano—performing "Lady Be Good!" And the list goes on.

The collection is, in a word, historic. "It is a wonderful addition to our knowledge of a great period in jazz," says Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J. And, Morgenstern says, "the sound quality of many of these works is amazing. Some of it is of pristine quality. It is a cultural treasure and should be made widely available."

Now comes the big "but":

The question, however, is whether that will happen anytime soon. And if it doesn't, music fans might be justified in putting the blame on copyright law. "The potential copyright liability that could attach to redistribution of these recordings is so large—and, more importantly, so uncertain—that there may never be a public distribution of the recordings," wrote David G. Post, a law professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, on the Volokh Conspiracy blog. "Tracking down all the parties who may have a copyright interest in these performances, and therefore an entitlement to royalty payments (or to enjoining their distribution), is a monumental—and quite possibly an impossible—task."

Whole fascinating and complex tale here; link via Julian Sanchez's Twitter feed. Reason on intellectual property here, including this interesting 2008 Reason.tv roundtable with MP3.com founder Michael Robertson, pop historian Martin Torgoff, and First Amendment lawyer Allan Gelbard.

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  • Citizen Nothing||

    Wikileaks

  • ||

    Copyright is the monster that is eating our cultural heritage. The 1980s PBS documentary "Eyes on the Prize" has never been released on DVD and is available only in the form of worn out VHS tapes at the odd library. The reason is that the film contains so much copyrighted material it would cost millions to renew the rights. So no one has and the thing can't be reproduced and if things don't change will be lost to history in the coming years.

  • db||

    Not to mention all the MST3K episodes lost to future generations because of expired exhibition rights.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    Dude. Space Ghost too.

  • ||

    How is it your "cultural heritage" if you can't even hear or see it?

    It's not. You don't get to have just because you want it.

  • Bradley||

    Goddamn Randians. Nobody's saying anyone should be forced to provide you with music/movies/etc. All we're saying is that government shouldn't give the copyright assholes a venue to sue if you decide to distribute something that they've asserted bogus ownership rights to all possible copies of.

  • NeonCat||

    You're right, it's so much better the way it is now, where at least a bunch of lawyers, holding companies and others at least aren't being ripped off by this dead dude's recording these performances.

  • ||

    "Better"? What does that have to do with anything?

    Love how certain libertarians lapse into "let's-choreograph-a-certain-society" territory when it comes to matters of intellectual property.

  • NeonCat||

    People like you make me ashamed to call myself a libertarian. You seem every bit as small-minded, as nickle and dime minded as our most hateful critics say we are.
    The people who made these recordings are all dead. And you would let their work lie in the tomb with them so at least intellectual property would not be disturbed.

    But there's no arguing with someone like you. You're right, someone has the rights to that property and there's not enough money to be made to pay them all off. So fuck it, fuck everything that anyone has ever done that falls under the bastard copyright laws we have now. It should all just be sealed up not for better or worse but because that's the right and proper thing to do.

    You want to call me a thief, go ahead. I call you someone who would, if they could, put blinders and earplugs on everyone and charge them a fee to see and hear.

  • cynical||

    Because you did hear or see it in the past and it shaped you, but you're unable to share that part of your life with other people?

  • Beau Zeaux||

    Can't they, like, just get Carrie Underwood to hum it or something?

  • Pip||

    Why not just put it online for free?

  • ||

    Keepin' it funky in the soviet union circa "78.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?g.....wp-DxIdqOQ

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    If any of you want to republish my blog comments after my death, you can do so. I will not confer my copyright to anyone when I pass. That is my pledge to you.

  • Fist of Etiquette Jr.||

    FU

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    See? You're already on your way to building a bankable cache of blog comments for yourself. You are inheriting self-reliance, twerp.

  • ||

    Chalk up another win for Jack Valenti.

    Copyright has gone from being a means to ensure that a creator can profit from his work to a tool of megacorporations.

  • Tolly||

    Actually isn't this a legacy of that idiot, pro-skier, Sonny Bono?
    I seem to remember him getting comfy with the media industry and pushing through the bullshit legislation that extended copyright past any sensible timeframe.

    Ugh. They really should just transfer it to a digital version and then anonymously throw it onto the web for all to disseminate.

    This is why Hollywood and music companies deserve to die and rot from the inside out. They are too worried about losing the phantom money that new technology is stealing from them, so they don't bother to utilize a better way of delivering it.

  • ||

    Bono is that moron from Alabama Heflin the Senator for Hollywood and Orlando.

  • ¢||

    Why not just put it online for free?

    You're talking about people who think being quoted in the ABA Journal is cool (or at least not shameful). Wrong crowd.

    And the story is an act of lobbying— for making middleman/hoarders like Google and the Jazz Museum the de facto lawful rights-holders and -profiteers for all works that fall within their gaze—not a moral narrative about letting people hear old tapes.

    That part's just the hook. For suckers.

  • Paul||

    Why doesn't the government just Eminent Domain them? Sounds like they serve a good Public Purpose.

  • Ian Smithsen||

    Right! They're a national treasure at least as important as The Blue Dress.

  • Alan Vanneman||

    There are any number of "bootleg" jazz recordings that have long been available on CD and are available now on Amazon et al. I don't really see what the fuss is. Radio stations used to broadcast live performances every day (Benny Goodman live from the Madhattan Room high atop the Hotel Pennsylvania) and frequently recorded these performances for rebroadcast. There are more "unauthorized" recordings of Charlie Parker's work available than "official" recordings.

    Of course, the Sonny Bono Monopoly Protection Act is an abomination, but what else can you expect in this lousy capitalist society?

  • Paul||

    Of course, the Sonny Bono Monopoly Protection Act is an abomination, but what else can you expect in this lousy capitalist society?

    Actual capitalism?

  • ChrisO||

    Yeah, I've got several bootleg Coltrane albums sourced from radio broadcasts.

    The problem with going the bootleg route in this case is that this material is now both known to all the shysters out there and only in existence in exactly one copy in a medium that is difficult to digitize without a lot of work and expertise.

    In fact, since these oversize shellac discs were Savory's own invention, it might be that he had the only playback devices that would play them.

  • Flame Bait||

    Property should be taken if the end result is "desirable?" The end justifies the means?

  • Otto||

    The original copyright terms were good - 14 years, and you could re-apply for 14 more.

    If they want to keep re-applying, a copyright holder should have to pay. Start with $1,000 for the first renewal, and double the cost each time. By the 7th or 8th renewal, you're talking about some serious money.

  • ||

    Here comes a bunch of folks to act as if hearing certain jazz recordings is not only some moral right, but is crucial to the advancement -- nay, the survival -- of the human race.

    If those particular sound waves don't make their way into everyone's ears, we're doomed!

  • ||

    Meh, we're doomed regardless. Might as well enjoy the trip.

  • cynical||

    What does that have to with listening to jazz?

  • Otto||

    Also - fair use, prior to my name change.

  • the hundreds hats||

    Keepin' it funky in the soviet union circa "78.

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