By GAIL FINEBERG
The story of how the Library found a rare Dec. 29, 1940, lacquer disc recording of one of the premier saxophonists of all time and the first "jazz hipster," Lester Young, illustrates how research and discovery in one Library collection can lead to another collection with surprising results.
The existence of this previously unknown jazz recording, mysteriously labeled "Jam Session, December 29, 1940," was revealed on April 11 before some 20 reporters and press cameras gathered in the Members' Room of the Jefferson Building for the Librarian's announcement of the fourth annual National Recording Registry. (See story here.)
Gene DeAnna, head of the Recorded Sound Section in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division (MBRS), told, "the rest of the story" behind the story, tracing the Young discovery to MBRS cataloger Arlene Balkansky's research, during the late 1990s, in the Library's Margaret Mead Collection, which, in several different formats, resides in various Library divisions.
Balkansky was searching for information about a silent film that was made by writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston and anthropologist Jane Belo as part of their study of religious ceremonies in a rural African American community in Beaufort, S.C. They had filmed services in the Commandment Keeper Church in May 1940, in Beaufort.
Among Mead's papers Balkansky found letters to Mead and Belo from one Norman Chalfin, who mentioned audio recordings he had made part of the Hurston Beaufort expedition. Balkansky tracked Chalfin to Pasadena, Calif., located him with a call to telephone information service for Pasadena and within three minutes was talking to him. Chalfin acknowledged that he was the audio technician who had accompanied Hurston and Belo to South Carolina to record the music, religion and language of a people before their heritage and culture were lost to history. Chalfin told Balkansky he still had his Hurston sound recordings, among others dating from the 1940s, made while he was pursuing a career as a professional audio engineer. Eventually, his entire collection of 150 16-inch lacquer discs came to the Library in 2002, as the Norman and Ethel Chalfin Collection.
While going through these discs to catalog them and prepare them for preservation, DeAnna said, MBRS researchers found not only the Beaufort church recordings but also a disc with a recording on one side of Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony in a performance of Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis." The Beethoven label had been scratched out on the other side, which had been left blank, and someone had written "Jam Session, December 29, 1940."
"The outer sleeve had some pencil marks showing first names that would be of great interest to jazz aficionados—Doc, J.C., Shad and, most intriguing, L. Young," DeAnna recalled.
"When our audio engineer Larry Appelbaum cued the disc, we were delighted to find a jam session featuring Lester Young leading a small band in an unidentified club," DeAnna said. Accompanying Young were trumpeter Shad Collins, drummer Doc West, trombonist J.C. Higginbotham and pianist Sammy Price.
The jam session recording lasted about 30 minutes and filled the backside of the Toscanini recording, probably made of a broadcast, and one side each of two additional 16-inch discs.
Young made this recording in his prime, not long after he had left the Count Basie Band, with which he had been the featured sax soloist, and sometime before he entered the Army at a time that began a downward spiral in his health and career.
Of this recording, Loren Schoenberg, executive director of the Jazz Museum in Harlem, said: "Yes, this was Lester's absolute zenith, and there is precious little extant from this period. Imagine a new Shakespearean sonnet, a Chopin nocturne or a Hemingway short story—that's what we have here, an American master, a true iconoclast, at his very best."
Engineer and jazz expert Appelbaum described Young as "the first cool-jazz musician" who coined phrases adopted by jazz musicians at the time and gave blues singer Billie Holiday her nickname, Lady Day. The 1986 film "'Round Midnight" featured a main character based on the life and music of both Lester Young and Dexter Gordon.
"Lester Young was the link between the swing sound of Coleman Hawkins and the bebop of Charlie Parker," according to Appelbaum. "He invented a new style, his own saxophone language. The way he played then is now the standard repertoire among sax players of today."
DeAnna compared the Lester Young recording with that of a Carnegie Hall concert recording that Appelbaum had discovered while listening to a Voice of America tape selected for preservation at the Library. Announced at last year's National Recording Registry event as a recent discovery, this rare recording of Thelonious Monk in concert with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall was made on Nov. 29, 1957. "You can imagine that audience, in formal dress, listening quietly and applauding politely. Even though they played with improvisations, the Monk quartet obviously had practiced; it was a tight performance," DeAnna said.
By way of contrast, Chalfin made his three-disc recording of Young and the others at a noisy nightclub, which some speculate was the Village Vanguard in New York City. While club guests smoked, drank, chatted and probably danced, Young and his group, were "loose," improvising on standards such as "Royal Garden Blues," and the listener can hear Young creating new sounds that were to influence the next generation of jazz musicians. Heard in the Chalfin recording is a club announcement that "the chili con carne is ready."
A CD of the Monk recording, titled "Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall," was a top-selling jazz recording in 2005.
DeAnna said no one has come forward yet to release and market the Lester Young recording, but the Library will make a digital master to preserve the sounds from the fragile lacquer discs. The entire Chalfin collection is a leading candidate for preservation in digital format, and the Young recording, "in our priority for preservation, is at the top," DeAnna said.
The electronic transcription technology that Chalfin used to make field recordings in the 1940s was the most advanced at that time. Amplifying sound to literally "cut" grooves in lacquer-covered discs was the next step up from acoustical recordings made with wax discs. According to DeAnna, the Germans invented magnetic tape technology during World War II, but the Americans had not yet acquired tapes as a recording medium in 1940.
When Chalfin took his "portable" recording equipment to South Carolina, he had to string electrical wire 600 feet from a barn to the Commandment Keeper Church, which had no electricity, DeAnna said.
"Thank goodness, these discs were aluminum-based, coated with a thin layer of lacquer. After the war started and aluminum became scarce, transcription discs were made of glass and covered with a layer of lacquer that peeled easily," DeAnna said. The Chalfin discs are in danger of peeling, too, if they are not maintained in cool, dry conditions.
The next step is to make a digital master directly from the lacquer discs. However, noise and vibrations from recent construction projects at the Library's Madison Building have made it nearly impossible to record analog discs at preservation quality, so this digital-preservation project may have to wait until a state-of-the-art digital preservation laboratory opens at the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Va., sometime next year.
MBRS preservationists also are in the slow, painstaking process of restoring the Hurston film and trying to synch the sounds captured by Chalfin's recordings with the action in the film. Both the film and three Chalfin discs are cataloged and awaiting discovery and use by scholars.
Gail Fineberg is editor of the Gazette, the Library's staff newsletter.