music: June 2010 Archives
A woman's leg extends from a limousine. A man looks though a telescope on a tripod in the middle of Sixth Avenue. Jazz legend Thelonious Monk leans back from his piano bench-arms extended, fingers on keys, cigarette dangling from lips--as arranger-composer Hall Overton stands beside seated musicians, sheet music on their stands.
The original black-and white photography of W. Eugene Smith provided both inchoate pleasures and precise documentation in "The Jazz Loft Project," a recent exhibition at the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts. We'll never know if that woman was stepping in or out, or what that telescope revealed. But some of these images clarify moments in jazz history, specifically Monk's collaboration with Overton for a landmark 1959 big-band concert at Town Hall: When the photos are paired with excerpts of Smith's reel-to-reel recordings (as they were at the exhibit's listening stations), we can essentially see and hear Monk and Overton at work.
Complete though it seemed, the exhibition--original prints, sound recordings, film footage and personal artifacts--contained but a fraction of the contents from Smith's former home, known for a decade beginning in the mid-1950s as "the jazz loft." Nothing today about that nondescript building at 821 Sixth Ave., off 28th Street, provides clues to its past. But at the library one could see the loft through the eyes and ears of Smith, who in 1957 left the home he shared with his wife and four children in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., for that dilapidated, five-story building. By that point, Smith, who died in 1978, was a celebrated photojournalist; the building, a known congregation point for jazz musicians at all hours owing to the presence of its others residents (Overton, pianist Dick Cary, and painter David X. Young) and its four available pianos. Addicted to alcohol and amphetamines, Smith was also an obsessive regarding work. Eventually, he fixated on the loft itself: the sights within, and from his fourth-floor window, captured in some 40,000 images; and the sounds, preserved on more than 4,000 hours of reel-to-reel tape, carried by microphones wired throughout the building.
"He was a case," recalled drummer Ronnie Free, who lived for a time in Smith's loft, in one of the oral-history videos on display at the library. "Always working."