The first radio broadcasts have traveled trillions of miles across the Milky Way, and if there are any extraterrestrials out there trying to tune into the sounds that humans were making on Earth in the early 20th century, the signal is probably so attenuated that they’re picking up only static. We can’t outsource the responsibility of preserving our sonic legacy, and all too often even precious moments that were broadcast and recorded still fall into oblivion, severing another link to our ever-receding past.
When it comes to recorded sound, there's no institution in the Bay Area equivalent to UC Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archives for gathering, preserving, and presenting sonic treasures. No matter how singular and significant a recording might be, there’s little support available for archiving aural artifacts, which means that preservation efforts are more often than not ad hoc.
Last month the jazz public radio station KCSM offered an extraordinary reminder about what’s at stake, when they aired a broadcast of an interview that Richard Hadlock conducted with Ornette Coleman in 1959, when the alto saxophonist was on the cusp of radically expanding jazz’s rhythmic and harmonic vocabulary.1
Editorial Note: The previous version of this story included erroneous information about Richard Hadlock’s archives and interviews.
The station has long broadcast the aired episodes of Hadlock’s Annals of Jazz show (which is archived at the Stanford Library), but it required extraordinary efforts to preserve his private stash of interviews, like the Ornette Coleman encounter. Audio engineer Duane Gordon spent several years preparing and digitizing about 100 reel tapes and 100 cassettes for archiving by the Stanford Jazz Library.
It’s a labor-intensive process that starts with cleaning both sides of the entire length of tape by hand with 99 percent isopropyl alcohol. “A number of reel tapes were moldy and needed special handling precautions,” said Gordon, whose father, Jim Gordon, was an authority on early jazz history, particularly Chicago jazz, and a lifelong friend of Hadlock’s. “About a third of the tapes needed baking in a food dehydrator for 20 hours to remedy ‘sticky shed’ syndrome, which causes the tape surface to fall apart during playback.”
After receiving CDs with Gordon’s detailed logs, KCSM Production Director Chris Cortez started using Hadlock’s recovered interviews for rebroadcast on the Sunday morning program I’m Talkin’ Jazz (Sundays at 8 a.m.). The Ornette Coleman show was accessible on the KCSM website for two weeks, but due to licensing restrictions around use of Coleman’s recordings the piece is no longer available.
“Chris came up with the one from Ornette Coleman,” said Hadlock, the author of the seminal book Jazz Masters of the ’20s. “Ornette was so forthcoming that I felt like I had a lesson, like I was going to a saxophone teacher and getting a jazz lesson. I should have paid him. He was almost academic about his own music. He actually sketched out a page of a circle of fourths. All jazz musicians know the circle of fifths, but not all know the circle of fourths.”
Like all of Hadlock’s interviews it can be accessed via the Stanford Jazz Library, though because Hadlock didn’t obtain releases from the musicians Stanford can’t put them online “for one-click streaming via the library catalog or online exhibit,” said Nathan Coy, sound archives librarian at Stanford University Libraries. “Library copyright law exceptions don't accommodate for that, and we need interviewee releases in this case.”
The interviews are available to the public upon request at the library or via remote access “with a special agreement that they will not copy, capture, or distribute the recordings,” Coy said. “So this means that they will be available to researchers, but upon request.”
Copyright restrictions aren’t the only factor keeping invaluable recordings off the internet. If you want to hear a blazing set by Ornette Coleman from the 1994 Monterey Jazz Festival you need to actually go to Stanford’s Archive of Recorded Sound. “This is per our agreement with the jazz festival Itself to preserve their relationships with artists,” Coy said, while noting that several years ago some audio excerpts were cleared to share worldwide “and two years ago the festival gave permission to share all the programs and posters” worldwide.
KCSM plans to unveil a podcast series next year drawing on interviews conducted by Hadlock and veteran pianist and DJ Dick Conte, who has preserved decades of his own interviews on DATs, CDRs, and cassette tapes. Once the interviews are edited for a podcast format, the plan is to make them permanently available for anyone to stream or download from the KCSM website. Listening to Hadlock’s tapes, Cortez said he’s consistently struck by the easy rapport he established with musicians.
“He has some kind of truth serum and they just open up, leading into areas that are so interesting,” Cortez said. “We have a growing number of archives. The Al ‘Jazzbeaux’ Collins reel-to-reel tapes are sitting in Alisa Clancy’s old office. We’re not quite sure what to do with them.”
Hadlock’s tapes include interviews with vocalese pioneers Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, bassist Ray Brown, pianist Oscar Peterson, and New Orleans trombonist Kid Ory. KCSM has already broadcast his interview with Louis Armstrong conducted at the Fairmont Hotel in 1962, “one of the best I’ve ever done,” Hadlock said. “He was really enjoying someone who knew something about the ’20s. I asked him, ‘You used to have a Jay cornet. What was it about the Jay that you liked?’ He said, ‘No one’s ever asked me that.’ He was so tired of the corny questions.”
Corny questions were never in the mix when Art Sato brought musicians into the KPFA’s Berkeley studio for his weekly program In Your Ear. Often unfolding over several hours, these in-depth conversations with leading figures in jazz and Latin music have found a home in San Francisco’s Freedom Archives, a repository for audio, video and printed materials documenting progressive movements from the second half of the 20th century.
An effort organized by Sato and his son, the rapper and activist Equipto, the archival project involves preserving and eventually posting online more than 90 interviews conducted between 1981 and 2013. The artists include high-profile stars like Max Roach, Ruben Blades, Gerald Wilson, and Randy Weston, and lesser-known masters such as Red Callender, Joseph Jarman, Dewey Redman, and John Gilmore.
“I wanted to feature people who were overlooked, who were not in the mainstream,” Sato said. “My programming philosophy also stems from my belief that jazz music is Black music, and you can see that looking over the catalog. Not that anyone can’t play the music, but in its roots and foundation, when you look at the development of the music in terms of innovators, it’s clearly Black music.”
No radio station has covered music in more breadth and depth than KPFA since its inception in the late 1940s, but many of the station’s in-studio performances and interviews with composers and jazz artists have been lost over the decades. DJs often recorded their own programs on cassettes, and the station’s shoestring budget meant that reel-to-reel tape was a precious, bitterly contested resource.
“I’d take an allotment of tape for the month, maybe 24 10-inch pancake spools, which were just the tape,” said composer Charles Amirkhanian, who served as the Pacifica station’s music director from 1969 to 1992. “We couldn’t afford reels. The reels cost more than the tape. So we were stingy about what we recorded. And you had to lock it up somewhere after an interview, because people thought nothing of recording over an interview. And they still got pilfered. A good program might get grabbed by a volunteer in another department. Who’s Pierre Boulez? It’s horrifying.”
Amirkhanian spearheaded a major effort to save a huge trove of KPFA tapes when the station was about to discard them due to a dearth of storage space. Music often got short shrift in the balance between the station’s cultural coverage and political commitments, and the fact that the music broadcasts were more difficult to monetize didn’t work in their favor. For Amirkhanian, “that was a lame excuse for not preserving Pierre Boulez talking to Pauline Oliveros in 1957.”
When the call came in 1999 that a major tape purge was imminent, Amirkhanian reached out to Scott Atthowe, a new music aficionado who owns a company devoted to storing fine art. Atthowe happened to have space available, and the tapes are still under his care.
Most of the KPFA material is now part of the archives of the new music organization that Amirkhanian founded and directs, Other Minds, and is available to the public through Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive. The problem is the Internet Archive isn’t readily searchable, which makes perusing it or finding a particular file something of a challenge. Next year, Other Minds plans to unveil its own audio archive encompassing concerts, panel discussions, and interviews, augmented with photos and printed material related to musical events.
“Charles has done great work, managing to leverage this sort of independent position for preservation money,” said David Seubert, who specializes in audio archival work at the UC Santa Barbara Library, which contains one of the largest collections of recordings on the West Coast.
“That doesn’t happen often. If you look at 10 big symphonies and chamber ensembles, most don’t have really robust preservation activities. A lot of big universities that have great programs with books and film don’t bother with sound. It’s not as sexy. Print is still privileged,” said Seubert.
The question of preservation hangs over every institution devoted to creating and presenting music. And it’s not only the obscure and avant-garde figures whose work is at risk. A few years ago, Seubert was managing the retrieval of a huge trove of recordings owned by an avid collector named Wayne Knight. In the months after his death, the storage space rent was due, and the whole collection was at risk. Seubert managed to get the entire archive to Santa Barbara, and among the collection were discs cut by the Nat Cole Trio for broadcast to American troops on the Armed Forces Radio Service during World War II.
He hadn’t started unpacking yet when he got a call from Resonance Records producer Zev Feldman, who was working on a box set with the Nat Cole Estate. The material that Knight collected, which hadn’t been heard publicly since the original broadcast, made up about a third of the seven-disc set Nat King Cole — Hittin’ The Ramp: The Early Years (1936–1943).
“Are the Nat Cole recordings in danger of being lost? In fact, they were,” Seubert said. “Are there important print books not held by any library in the world? Probably not. Are there culturally important sound recordings that aren’t in a library or archive? Probably about half of them.”