up in the jazz loft

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."

Little of this material would have come to public attention were it not for writer Sam Stephenson, who, beginning in 1998, immersed himself in Smith's archive. "When I saw the names on these boxes of tapes--Monk, Zoot Sims, Roy Haynes, Roland Kirk--I knew there was something important here. But I had no idea what." Stephenson set about raising funds; digitizing the tapes alone cost $600,000. He found "a natural home" for "The Jazz Loft Project" at Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies. Twelve years and some $2 million later, we can appreciate the fruits of his labors.

The New York Public Library's orderly, well lit Donald and Mary Oenslager Gallery is a far cry from Smith's rundown, overstuffed loft, yet it gave a sense of both the place and the man. Walls were lined with Smith's original prints, evidence of his darkroom mastery. Videotapes of formal interviews recalled the loft's heyday; more intimate footage (shot by Young) gave a peek inside. On an equipment case, a label reading "821 Sixth Avenue" was pasted over a stencil of Smith's former suburban address. Through one man's fascinating--if dark--tale, all these artifacts tied together strands of mid-20th-century Manhattan life: Salvador DalĂ­ and Norman Mailer are among the loft visitors seen in photographs.

Stephenson's work has yielded a book, "The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965" (Knopf, 2009); the library's recent exhibition, slated for the Chicago Cultural Center in July and Duke University's Nasher Museum of Art in 2011; and a permanent collection that will be available to the public at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

And the project has already inspired new creative work. When pianist Jason Moran wished to mark the 50th anniversary of Monk's Town Hall concert, he sought out the Smith tapes. "It was truly being a fly on the wall in a special place and time," said Moran. "I was hearing my hero reveal his process." Two of Stephenson's Duke colleagues, Gary Hawkins and Emily LaDue, created a dazzling new film, "In My Mind," chronicling a multi-layered undertaking: Moran's channeling of Monk's artistry through  Smith's documentation, as unearthed by Stephenson.

"I think the Jazz Loft Project is about dedication," said Stephenson, "the obsession of craft."  Moran sees something of himself in Smith's obsessive nature and always-on microphones. "It's important to know that continually documenting involves more than just satisfying myself," he said. "You're never sure what it will mean 50 years from now."


June 3, 2010 4:27 PM |


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