Knox Boplicity: How Rare Live Recordings From Bebop's Heyday Wound Up in an East Knoxville Home

The voice was never meant to be heard again. But here it is, resurrected to once more promise entry into the most fabled club of a fabled era, for a night of jazz that has existed only as a memory for some 60 years:

"And here we are ladies and gentleman, our theme ‘Jumpin' with Symphony Sid.' We bring to you the hour that we set aside every Friday night and Saturday morning and make it for a real live broadcast presenting you with the current show here at Birdland, the Jazz Corner of the World, Broadway and 52nd Street, where for one dollar you can sit back and relax in the most talked about room and listen to all the wonderful things we have in store for you. And now ladies and gentlemen, we'd like to bring to you for the first portion of our live broadcast, a wonderful guy, an all-star winner on everybody's poll this year, let's bring him out with a great big hand, Miles Davis and His All-Stars!"

Sid's voice is low-key, nearly unexcited—a cool-jazz man to the core. But the performance is molten hot, not as laid-back as the tracks Davis was recording at the time, to be later collected for Birth of the Cool in 1957. The song is introduced as "Evan," an original composition not listed on Davis' official discographies, and the players rip into it, effortlessly flipping from solo to solo, showing what they can do with this fresh, new sound. Not yet legends in 1951, but clearly masters of a suddenly popular new form of jazz, they are names that still inspire awe: Sonny Rollins on tenor sax, J.J. Johnson on trombone, Art Blakey on drums, and of course, the incomparable Davis on trumpet. (The band is rounded out by lesser-known players: Kenny Drew on piano and Tommy Potter on bass.) Other songs from that night's show were released on CD (Birdland 1951, Blue Note Records), but not "Evan."

It's a remarkable document from a brief time when bebop was the new thing—before it made way for hard bop and West Coast jazz—and trailblazing DJs like Symphony Sid Torin were bringing it to a mass audience from radio stations such as New York's WJZ. Birdland, named after bebop architect Charlie "Yardbird" Parker, was the premier club for small-combo jazz at that time. But its live broadcasts were not officially recorded—they were meant to exist only in the moment they were sent out on the air. Who knows how many spectacular performances from the greatest names in jazz during their most creative periods have been lost forever?

But some of them weren't. How did this particular fragment of jazz history get saved? And why was it sitting forgotten in an East Knoxville house, along with dozens of other live recordings featuring Dizzie Gillespie, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Milt Jackson, and many other stars?

The answers to those questions require tracing a convoluted path through outdated audio technology, jazz fandom, and a long-forgotten Knoxville music scene. Which means it's a case for audio sleuth Bradley Reeves, co-director (with his wife Louisa Trott) of the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound. From their subterranean lab at the East Tennessee History Center, Reeves spends his days tracking down audio and video ephemera—local history that until recently had been falling through the cracks. That includes a jazz scene that thrived here from the 1920s through the early '60s, right in the heart of Appalachia.

"This is a crazy story!" Reeves declares (as he often does) but it's not, really—it's the sort of puzzle that he's become the local expert at regularly finding and solving.

In December 2011, TAMIS acquired the reel-to-reel tape collection of former WBIR AM radio disc jockey Don Lindsey, dating from the 1970s. There was one tape that featured Lindsey's interview with famed Luttrell-born country guitarist Chet Atkins, who talked about his Knoxville years in the 1940s—in particular his experiences playing on WNOX, a country music progenitor with a daily live show. "And interspersed within this interview were recordings of the Mid-day Merry-Go-Round, which I had never heard before," Reeves says. "I couldn't believe it!"

At the end of the Atkins interview, Lindsey announced, "We'd like to thank Mr. P.C. Dixon for loaning us his rare archival recordings." So, Reeves had a name—and a quest to find those rare recordings. He found Dixon's obituary, which mentioned his son, Prent Dixon—who still had a local phone number. Reeves called him and played the radio segment from 1975 thanking his father. Would Prent happen to still have those recordings? Yes—in fact, he had just moved back into his childhood home, and all of his dad's stuff was still there. Reeves wrangled an invitation to take a look.

"I'll never forget that day Louisa and I went over there," he says. "I thought there'd be just a few recordings, but this guy, P.C. Dixon, was absolutely serious in his fascination with what's now obsolete technology. When he got a disc recorder in the '30s, he went full-steam ahead recording things."

The small, unpretentious house on what is now Martin Luther King Boulevard is crowded with bric-a-brac from several different eras, but one room is mostly devoted to a particular sort: jazz records. Cardboard boxes stuffed with 78 rpm shellacs weigh down the shelves—a lifetime's collection devoted to Prentice Clifford Dixon's lifelong passion.

"He was an honest-to-goodness old-time collector, the kind that you don't see any more," Reeves says. "He collected the kind of records that are obscure today, but back in the '40s, they may have been more commonplace, things on weird labels like Lincoln or Cameo—really top of the line, good jazz."

A linotype operator at the Knoxville News Sentinel, Dixon was a jazzbo through and through, starting in the '30s when Chilhowee Park was the main venue for live music. He was the president of the Knoxville Jazz Club, and played sax and guitar himself, performing with the amateur big band the Par 40s. He introduced jazz to his son Prent at an early age.

"Some of the nightclubs on the Cumberland Strip I remember going to—I went to see Count Basie with him one time at the Townhouse when I was in the third grade," Prent Dixon says. "I remember 'cause I saw my third-grade teacher at Count Basie."

The indoctrination didn't stick, though. Prent, now 63, was taken by a much newer style of music as a teenager.

"I was listening to Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, that's what I liked," Prent says. "He didn't really comment on that, but he would talk of Elvis Presley as a hillbilly. He felt like the rock 'n' roll music was very simple and repetitive, where jazz was a very difficult thing to play. He appreciated the difficulty of the performance more than anything."

And maybe that's why P.C. spent so much time recording performances that would otherwise be lost—to capture an art that's nearly impossible to replicate, as jazz musicians improvise their performances, each show different from the last. Equipped with a disc cutter—essentially a record player that also records via a second tone arm that cuts into acetate discs—he carefully recorded live radio broadcasts and inscribed the discs' blank labels with song info.

Dixon recorded historically important local shows, including Nat King Cole and Gene Krupa at Chilhowee Park, as well as local artists like Charlie Hagaman and the Dixieland Swingers on WNOX, or pianist Charlie Queener, who went on to have a career in New York City. But it's the recordings from New York via ham radio that really grab a bebop jazz fan's attention: Charlie Parker jamming on "Coco" with Buddy Rich, Lester Young at the Royal Roost playing "Lester Leaps In," Benny Goodman in 1939 performing "Flying Home," Dizzy Gillespie at Birdland with Joe "Bebop" Carroll laying down an absolutely scalding scat. The performances are charged with youthful energy, radiating off acetate grooves that were only intended for about a dozen plays.

"The whole mood of the era is captured by these discs—that whole marijuana smoke-and-booze, New York vibe comes through in these unique, one-of-one recordings," Reeves says. "There is no master tape, no master disc, it is what it is—a flimsy, aluminum-based piece of cellulose acetate. And it really jumps out at you. I've heard them all, and I'm stunned at how great they are. They really capture an era that's long gone."

Preserving those sounds in a durable format requires a lot more effort and acumen than simply plopping the records onto a turntable with a USB port. Fortunately, Knoxville happens to be the home of well-known sound recovery expert Seva David Ball. He has donated his skills to the task of transferring the fragile recordings to digital, and then restoring as much of their sound quality as possible. Dixon had recorded many of the discs at an unusual speed of 54 rpm, trying to squeeze more recording time onto each disc (around five minutes), which presented a technical hurdle. But once in the digital domain, another issue arises with each song: how to remove as much extraneous noise as possible without taking away the energy of the music itself?

Making judicious use of Waves sound-editing software (which he helped develop), Ball is able to remove many clicks and pops while lowering the surface noise. Then he adjusts the EQ a bit to restore some of the high and low frequencies. Each minute of song takes him about three or four hours of work to restore. But the results have been worth it.

"When it's done well, I can hear the reverb in the room where they were," Ball says. "In some cases you can hear clinking of glasses, silverware on plates. There are a couple where you can hear stuff going on because they were in a live club—I find that to be the most remarkable of all. I tend to listen to these on headphones, because then it's almost like being in the room. You can actually feel like you could hear something that sounds distant—like there's somebody in the back of the club who's clapping, or you hear somebody laugh. As you pull away the noise, this stuff gets revealed."

Dixon wasn't the only jazz nut making live-broadcast recordings in that era, though. First and foremost, there's the late Boris Rose of the Bronx, who is believed to have recorded nearly every Birdland performance. His personal "Bop Book" shows that he indeed took notes for the 1951 Birdland shows, with dates matching those on Dixon's labels. But according to a Wall Street Journal article from 2010, Rose's family is still waiting to find an institution to acquire the entire collection. Until then, no one has access to it; few of the recordings have been heard.

Reeves, however, plans on sharing the Dixon collection. Some of the songs will be featured on the debut of his WDVX radio show, East Tennessee Quiver, airing Thursday, Jan. 31 at 10 p.m. (Listen in at wdvx.com or 89.9/102.9 on your FM radio dial. You can hear a preview on SoundCloud.) Ball says it's important to save home recordings like these for a variety of reasons.

"I think sometimes we assume that people in the past may not have had an interest in technology like we do now—or if they did, they were in California or somewhere else," Ball says. "But I think those assumptions are wrong. There's a great mixture of people who have been here a long time. And especially when we get to the recordings of performances that were actually here, it's really rather thrilling to listen to stuff and reach back in the past and hear what it was like to be there.

"I would encourage people, if they have tapes or records in their collection, that they shouldn't throw them out—they should really think about maybe someday getting them transferred. Because they're one of a kind in the whole world, and once they're gone, that's it. Even if it's someone in your family telling a story or playing the piano, there's a profound impact they have when you finally go and listen to them."

Updated with a mention of the Miles Davis CD 'Birdland 1951.'