Wolfgang’s Vault: Streaming Back to Life

Wolfgang’s Vault offers free, high-quality Newport Jazz Festival recordings online

As Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, Stan Kenton, Oscar Peterson and many other iconic artists performed at the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival, it’s a safe bet they never dreamed that the music they were making that Fourth of July weekend would be easily accessible a half-century later. But thanks to an arrangement between San Francisco-based Wolfgang’s Vault and Festival Network—the company that bought the rights to all things related to the Newport jazz and folk festivals in 2007, then went belly up the following year—some 27 sets from the ’59 fest are now streaming 24/7, for free, at wolfgangsvault.com.

And that’s only the beginning: By the time they’ve completed their work, Wolfgang’s Vault, which last year acquired the entire recorded archives of both Newport fests, plans to post a sizable percentage of the music heard on the Newport stages throughout those venerable festivals’ history.

Judging by the recordings posted thus far—they are also available for download in better audio for a fee—aficionados of live jazz will need to free up plenty of time for listening. Although nobody seems to know who actually made all of these recordings originally—in the case of the ’59 sets, record companies are suspected—or whether the artists were even aware they were being recorded, the Newport archive, when all of it is made available, will undoubtedly comprise the largest and widest-ranging collection of live jazz ever assembled in one place.

“It’s enormous,” says Wolfgang’s Vault founder Bill Sagan about the breadth of the acquisition, “about 1,100 or 1,200 performances. Some are short and some are ferociously long. It spans the period of 1955 through last year. It’s not every Newport Jazz Festival but it’s a lot of them.”

The trove of Newport recordings joins an already gargantuan archive. Launched in 2003, Wolfgang’s Vault—which began with more than 5,000 recordings of concerts promoted by the late Bill Graham (Wolfgang was his original first name)—has been called “the most important collection of rock memorabilia and recordings ever assembled in one business” by the Wall Street Journal. Although rock music remains the main draw, blues, country, jazz and other genres are also well represented, and the site sells some 35,000 unique music-related products.

The ’59 Newport sets are revelatory. Recorded in stereo using stage mics that picked up the nuances of the music as well as every stage utterance between the musicians, the performances offer a profound overview of the state of jazz at that point in time. (In addition to Basie, Monk, Kenton and Peterson, there is music by Herbie Mann, Dakota Staton, Maynard Ferguson, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Jimmy Smith, Horace Silver, Gene Krupa, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Dizzy Gillespie, Ahmad Jamal and more.) George Wein, who booked Newport from its inception until the sale to Festival Network, always took great pains to include all of the music’s tributaries, and as future years’ festivals are posted, fans will be able to chart the progression of jazz, as the avant-garde, fusion and other new subgenres begin to make their mark.

Bill Milkowski, a veteran music journalist (and regular JazzTimes contributor), is the lucky one who gets paid to listen to all of these tapes before they go online and determine who and what we’re hearing. Working with digital transfers made from the original tapes, some of which were stored in boxes containing little or no information, Milkowski, in his capacity as a consultant for Wolfgang’s, meticulously pores over the shows’ content, noting song titles, personnel, etc. “I’m like a detective,” he says.

Due to the age of the tapes, some are in less than pristine condition—the crisp, in-your-face quality of the ’59 recordings may prove to be the exception rather than the rule, at least with the earlier festivals. But according to Sagan, no expense is being spared in order to enhance the sonic qualities inherent in all of the recordings. Although he won’t divulge an actual dollar figure spent on the acquisition and enhancement process, he says that it’s “an enormous amount, in the millions. Do I think we’re going to get a return on our investment soon? No, I don’t. I think it will take four to five years before we break even. But we went out of our way to repair tapes. We’re using Grammy Award-winning guys to do that.”

All of this news isn’t only good for fans of the music: Wolfgang’s Vault is seeing to it that artists’ royalties are paid. Having triumphed in a lawsuit brought on early in the company’s existence by a number of record labels and artist managers who questioned Wolfgang’s right to post live recordings online, the company, says Sagan, is bending over backwards to operate above board.

“[For the Newport acquisition] we not only did the physical due diligence but the legal due diligence, and structured the agreement in such a way that we were protected and the artists were protected,” he explains. “I don’t want to come across as altruistic; this is a for-profit entity. … But we pay full mechanical royalties.”

According to Milkowski, all of this effort is well worth it, if only for the never-before-heard rarities that abound. Among the 1959 sessions, for example, he cites the Ferguson set, which includes the first meeting between Weather Report founders Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter. Among later performances, highlights include a live performance of drummer/bandleader Max’s Roach’s “Freedom Now Suite,” a 1964 Stan Getz-Astrud Gilberto outing with Gary Burton on vibes, and various lineups of Weather Report from the 1970s.

“Certainly the wealth of tapes from the archives represents, in some ways, not only the evolution of jazz but the evolution of technology,” Milkowski says. “And even within the context of a single artist you can see people moving, like Dizzy Gillespie, who from ’55 to ’76 went through so many permutations. You can be at these concerts when you listen to this stuff.”

Originally published in March 2010

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