Copyright laws prevents release of historic jazz recordings

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In the 1930s an audio engineer named William Savory (above) made a lot of high-quality recordings of live jazz performances of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Teddy Wilson, Lester Young, Bunny Berigan, Coleman Hawkins and others. The National Jazz Museum in Harlem acquired the collection after Savory died.

Steven Seidenberg of the ABA Journal reports that "jazz experts were stunned," by the recordings. "The extent and quality of the Savory collection was beyond anything they had imagined."

Unfortunately, we will probably never get to hear the recordings, thanks to current copyright laws.

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."

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."

A Trove of Historic Jazz Recordings has Found a Home in Harlem, But You Can't Hear Them