Mr. Ho is actually very pleasant when we find him, as Sam Stephenson promised, next-door and up the stairs, in a room full of wigs. There are no customers, but a group of Chinese women sits on boxes, eating lunch. The midtown traffic is far away. Mr. Ho goes to find the keys.
Mid-century, this block in Manhattan—Sixth Avenue just above 28th Street, the Empire State Building towering just to the northeast—was part of the wholesale flower district. There's a wicker store that still makes the street smell of pine. But it's also a good place to go, these days, if one needs some fake hair. And Mr. Ho has a rainbow of that, some imported.
Normally, it seems, he's a little reluctant to let anyone see the upstairs of 821 Sixth Ave. "They really don't quite get it," Stephenson explains. "They're a little bit suspicious." Not that the place probably has too many visitors—besides Sam Stephenson, that is.
Mr. Ho offers no trouble at all: "Lots of boxes," he says as we climb the five flights. And, indeed, when we get to the top, there are lots and lots of boxes. They block the light, destroy sightlines and create barely passable aisles, sometimes tipping onto one another to create miniature archways.
Figuring out the room's contours is nearly impossible. Like, say, where the pianos went, or where the darkroom might have been. But we do find a hole in the floor, several inches wide, probably hacked with a handsaw, intended for a microphone for jazz musicians. They passed through in droves, and now hover like ghosts: Thelonious Monk, Roland Kirk, Bill Evans, some 300 others. They came night and day, but mostly by night.
The most famous story about W. Eugene Smith—who in 1978 at the age of 59 died "of everything," according to one doctor—recounts the time the legendary Life photographer went to Pittsburgh on a three-week commercial assignment and stayed for a year, producing 17,000 images, no final product and a decade of utter emotional wreckage.
Among Smith's countless other unfinished projects contained in the 44,000 pounds of archives bequeathed to the University of Arizona was one project that not even Smith seriously considered finishing: 1,751 tape reels—about 4,000 hours—recorded between 1957 and 1964 at 821 Sixth Ave. Smith occupied space there for 14 years, taking up three floors by the time he and his 25,000 LPs and 78s were evicted in 1971.
Sam Stephenson has been studying Smith for 12 years. He has been running a full-time team for that purpose at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies for the last six. His second book, The Jazz Loft—a massive oral history of Smith's former home and the place Mr. Ho now occupies—is due from Alfred A. Knopf Books in October.
"The loft is a warm place, a relaxed fortress above its dirt," Smith wrote when he moved into what came to be called The Jazz Loft. A decade later, his amphetamine addiction had taken its toll. "It is all but shorn of its human chemistry," he wrote in 1967. "Ghosts seem to picket the place. It is now no more than the depressing slum it long has been."
Smith, says Sam Stephenson's wife, Laurie Cochenour, is "like the crazy uncle that's been living in our attic for 12 years. We love him, but he can be a real pain in the ass." Stephenson, 42, is tall and goateed. He does not seem the sort to be possessed easily.
But Stephenson has found the perfect partner in taking on Smith's enormous legacy in Aaron Greenwald, who, as head of Duke Performances, gave flesh to Stephenson's more academic work. In October 2007, Greenwald spun an 18-performance series around the 90th birthday of Thelonious Monk, Rocky Mount's prodigal son. He included several pieces based on Stephenson's research. This February, Duke Performances took two such pieces north for a weekend of well-received shows at Manhattan's Town Hall, where veteran arranger Charles Tolliver and sublime young lion Jason Moran reprised works debuted in Durham a year earlier.
Still to come is Stephenson's oral history, a series of radio documentaries on WNYC in New York, and a major touring museum exhibition launching next February at Lincoln Center. One imagines, too, that there will probably be box sets. Grammy Awards. That sort of thing. And all for some boxes that everyone neglected for a quarter of a century.
"The [Smith] archive is kind of mysterious," concedes Stephenson. "You have to request stuff, then the archivist disappears and comes back with a rolling cart. Finally, one time, they let me back there, and I noticed this whole wall of cardboard boxes that had 'WES' or something written on the side. And I said, 'What's that?'
"And they said, 'Oh, these are all these tapes he made in the loft,'" he remembers with casual disbelief. "The next time I was there, I wrote down 139 names I recognized on the labels."
Those names included Monk (Stephenson's favorite), Zoot Sims, Roland Kirk, Bill Evans, Henry Grimes and a cast of luminaries from bebop's peak and free jazz's infancy. Stephenson's discovery constitutes one of the most remarkable primary source motherlodes in jazz history, tapes that not only document legendary musicians at their most relaxed, but tapes that got everything. With mics dangling all over the building, controlled by homemade switchers, Smith captured noise in the stairwells, bands stacked one atop another, the sound of televisions playing, of roommates fighting. This is an oral/aural history of how jazz lived.
Once, the building was used for three rehearsals simultaneously: the Thelonious Monk Orchestra, a State Department-sponsored show featuring members of Count Basie's band, and a college Dixieland ensemble.
"Everybody got stoned in the building and we had three floors full of jazz," David X. Young, the painter who held the lease on the three floors, remembered in 1989. "Gene went out and put microphones in the hallway to record the cacophony. I'll tell you, you've never heard space music like this. I've heard the tapes. There is a certain point where all the music reached a climax: the Dixieland, the swing, the Monk. It's just the most ecstatic sound you ever heard in your life, just blood curdling.
"Another tape Gene made has some guy coming on to a chick with a jam session going on in the background. The guy is trying to make it while out on the fire escape two cats are screwing and howling. All three things are going on at the same time."
But, even in Shadow and Substance: The Life and Work of an American Photographer, Jim Hughes' sympathetic and otherwise meticulous 1989 biography of Smith, the loft's other inhabitants are mostly ignored, confined to a few sheets in a 110-page section on that period of the photographer's life. "The photography world thought the tapes were a waste of energy," Stephenson says.
The Jazz Loft achieved capital letter status only by Stephenson's hand, and then only out of informal pragmatism. It had to be called something. But from 1954 to 1964, "The Jazz Loft" was just another after-hours hang for musicians. Stephenson estimates there were at least another two or three within a 10-block radius.
"Everybody had lofts," remembered Robert Northern, the French horn player sometimes known as Brother Ah, who rehearsed with Monk at the Loft for the pianist's February 1959 Town Hall appearance. "We didn't start those rehearsals until 2 or 3 in the morning, 'cause that's when everybody got off work. That's the only time we could get our schedules together."
This particular loft, initially rented by Young for $120 month, comprised three floors above a tailor and a Greek luncheonette. Like much of Manhattan at mid-century, the neighborhood was semi-industrial, chosen—as musicians do everywhere—because of the cheap rent and lack of neighbors who might care about the late-night noise. On the second floor was—per Hughes—"a deaf-only club whose members gathered every Saturday night to play phonograph records at full volume in order to dance to the music's vibrations."
Smith arrived in 1957, using the space initially as a darkroom but increasingly as an escape from a tumultuous family life 40 miles up the Hudson River, in Croton. He split the fifth floor with Hall Overton, a pianist who had played with Charles Mingus, Stan Getz and others, and later arranged for Monk.
"One night, there was a break in a jam session," Young recounted to Hughes, "and all of a sudden, we hear this loud vibrating noise. One of the musicians looks down and there was this drill bit coming up through the floor, between his feet. The drill bit went down, and this wire poked its way up."
The musicians, mostly bemused by and taken with Smith, were fine with it. Even the notoriously reclusive Monk was relaxed around the photographer, whose photography style was described by assistant Bob Combs as "almost Oriental in [its] calmness."
Monk's son, T.S., has told Stephenson that—listening to the tapes of the pianist rehearsing with Overton while Smith clicked away—he could sense a "triangle of admiration" between the composer, the photographer and the arranger. They were contemporaries.
"Hey Lamont Cranston," saxophonist Zoot Sims once called out to Smith and his camera, referring to the film actor. "The Shadow knows."
Thelonious Monk's appearance at Town Hall with his Orchestra Feb. 27, 1959, hangs as a turning point in Monk's career and the history of jazz. Though he was unquestionably one of bebop's innovators in the early 1940s—alongside Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and others—as the house band at Minton's in Harlem, it took a while for the jazz establishment to come around to Monk. His behavior was eccentric. More, his playing could seem mockingly sloppy, fingers creating modern dissonances by brushing two keys at once.
After losing his cabaret card for a trumped-up pot bust in 1951, Monk returned to the New York scene in 1957 with a legendary seven-month engagement at the 75-person capacity Five Spot. There, the band often featured saxophonist John Coltrane.
Moving uptown to Town Hall, then, "was a very big deal," says Robert Northern, who played French horn in the 10-piece Thelonious Monk Orchestra that night.
But the gig itself was only warmly received—"a pipe-and-slippers version of music that is naturally querulous," wrote The New York Times' John S. Wilson—and a conjectured Orchestra tour was cancelled.
Stephenson argues that it was the beginning of an important arc for Monk, one that—five years later, to the day—would result in Monk being featured on the cover of Time. Soon, there was a new acceptance of Monk as "the basis for all modern jazz" (as Charles Tolliver recently put it), a comfortable career, and the establishment of a jazz archetype: the rediscovered genius.
The Town Hall show, then, was significant symbolically. It was, in a sense, a tribute concert of its own, built on a repertoire Monk had left mostly unchanged over 20 years. Hall Overton's arrangements telescoped Monk's solos into big band orchestrations, the harmonically adventurous improvisation given respectability through lush charts. That is, the lone nut given a chorus.
In the audience that night was a 16-year-old high school senior from Fort Greene, Brooklyn, who'd found his calling. "I was always by myself," says arranger and trumpet player Charles Tolliver of his forays into the Manhattan scene. "I had very few neighborhood kids who were into jazz. None, actually."
Earlier, Tolliver had snuck into the Five Spot to see Monk and Trane, and frequently kept his jazz-loving parents "waiting up at 3 or 4 in the morning, waiting for me to come back from some guy's house where I was listening to [records]. I was just trying to get an earful of everything." Another side effect of Monk's newfound accessibility, it seems, was all ages shows.
Built in 1921 and known in some circles as "the workingman's Carnegie Hall," Town Hall was a cheaper alternative to the venerable venue 13 blocks uptown, and the site of radical political meetings as often as performances. No one remembers if Monk sold the place out, but it was packed. Smith was in attendance, shooting away through the Monk Orchestra's hour-long set. Recorded by producer Orrin Keepnews, it was issued by Riverside as Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall.
"That concert didn't really sink in, except to say, 'I heard that,'" notes Tolliver. "I was more into Clifford Brown, like most trumpet players," he continues, laughing. "But something happens with a jazz player when they're really working on their delivery and improvisation. Somehow, Monk gets in there."
Most recently, Tolliver deconstructed "'Round Midnight" on a 2006 Blue Note session. A call from the Jazz Loft project set him on a Herculean effort to recreate Overton's lost scores to the exact note. The effort, which wore out multiple LPs, finally convinced the 67-year-old Tolliver—decidedly old school—to go digital.
"The whole point of my performance was to ensure that the music was done exactly as it was on the record," he says firmly, a week after his own Town Hall performance, sitting in a diner not far from where he boarded the train to Town Hall in 1959. "I had no other purpose. I wanted no other purpose. Nothing more, nothing less. It wasn't to prove anything. It was to have the music, so it could be performed."
Town Hall is virtually unchanged today. (One can see it in Christopher Guest's film A Mighty Wind.) Centerstage in a beret, tall and skinny, leaning back with his trumpet, Tolliver cuts a classic jazz figure. He is animated, punching the big, modern accents of "Little Rootie Tootie." Behind him, a nine-piece band—including masterful stride pianist Stanley Cowell—is arranged to mimic it as it was on the cover of Riverside's Town Hall release.
But Charles Tolliver never listened to the hours of rehearsal recorded at the Jazz Loft, of Monk articulating his music more fully to anyone than he ever did before, or ever did afterward. Sometimes too much information is still too much information. But somebody's got to do something with it.
Dan Partridge has been listening, full-time, to Jazz Loft recordings since 2003. He is about halfway through. A member of Stephenson's team at Duke, Partridge can identify musicians by voice and circumstantial evidence. "We've listened to all the ones with music on the labels, as well as all the ones that might have clues about something interesting," he emphasizes. Still, 2,000 hours of unlabeled, unheard tapes is a lot of content.
"There might be a brain surgeon at Duke who's more specialized than Dan," says Stephenson of Partridge, who knows the names of Smith's numerous cats (Desdemona, Broom-Hilda, Tabun, Tiger, to name a few). Like his boss, Partridge is oddly reserved in his fanaticism. He cannot, for example, identify the cats by their meows. Like Monk, he is fond of a good hat.
"You really get an appreciation for how active he was," Partridge says of Smith. "How much work he was doing, how much he was living." The amphetamines—to which Smith was addicted—surely helped, though Partridge notes "sometimes it doesn't sound like he's getting the benefit of them, when he's been up for several days. But you really get to know what it's like to live a life at full speed." Smith developed varicose ulcers in his legs from standing for literally days on end in his dark room.
Smith's handiwork is occasionally sublime, like a haunting tape of pianist Eddie Costa, where Smith's lo-fi technique turns the keyboard's upper registers into glistening moonlight shards. It is frequently mundane, too, sometimes manically autobiographical. Smith can be heard calling his editors at Life, demanding to know "who my enemies are."
There are a thousand tangled narratives: early performances by Chick Corea, as well as Steve Reich, who took weekly lessons with Overton for two years. (Reich will not allow the music to be aired publicly.) Partridge is on the hunt for a tape featuring photographer Diane Arbus. Alice McLeod appears, days prior to her elopement with John Coltrane. There might even be a small bit of Bob Dylan lore, too.
As Smith and a loftmate fight about the "dope fiends" who've been populating the unlocked space night and day, somebody declares that "a folksinger of note stole a camera." Stephenson's been on the trail. ("Bob has no recollection of being there" was the officially phrased statement from Dylan's office.)
Eventually, it seems destined for the music to be released, but nobody seems particularly excited to deal with the legal realities of that project, nor ready to prioritize. The best possible solution—likely the one Smith would've dug, given his aversion to authority—would probably be a free, streaming Web site accompanied by Partridge's scholarly annotations (see "Listening to the Loft" at indyweek.com). Contained in a sprawling spreadsheet, these notes are the ever-changing index of the Project's minutiae. In the form of entwined conversations, players and song forms, they comprise jazz's ever-breathing language.
For now, the Jazz Loft project researchers maintain Smith's vow of purity in their scholarly custodial duties, if only by default.
One person who has figured out what to do with the material, though, is 33-year-old pianist Jason Moran. A classically perfect improviser with a head for big concepts, Moran took to the Town Hall stage the night after Tolliver, reprising In My Mind, the video/audio suite debuted at Duke in October 2007. Moran—no stranger to working with source material—was already planning a Monk piece when Stephenson contacted him. "I didn't know what it was supposed to be yet," Moran says, laughing affably, "but it was supposed to be good."
"The first record I heard of [Monk] playing ''Round Midnight,' it was his left hand," Moran says, singing the bass part. "This was the '80s, so I'm listening to Big Daddy Kane, Run-DMC, so I'm very used to this big back beat, 808 bass drum madness that is '80s hip-hop, but hearing this somehow resonated in the same way. It never felt odd at all. At all. It all seemed to make sense. And it was the thing that started to mold my ears."
In My Mind is at once broad and personal. Footage of a North Carolina field near Newton Grove, where Monk's grandparents may have been slaves, appears. So do Moran's memories of the first time he heard Monk, "'Round Midnight," played as a requiem for a family friend who'd died suddenly in a plane crash, news footage muted on the flashing television. Projections of patterns and shapes scanned from old Dover books mix with Jazz Loft recordings.
"What I wanted to do was steer an audience," Moran says. "Not just have them think randomly about this anymore. I think jazz sometimes relies on its abstract nature too much. But what if I want to be a realist? How do I do that?"
Moran is a different type of jazz musician than Monk. He is tenured at the Manhattan School of Music, ready for an interview on public radio or with an alt-weekly, and occasionally accompanied by a publicist. His playing is generous and, even more unlike Monk, he is outright gregarious.
At the end of the show, Moran—playing cowbell—leads his Big Bandwagon down the aisle and into Town Hall's lobby. They dance and jam joyously for five minutes, the crowd filing out around them. Afterward, Moran stays and talks to anybody who wants to talk to him.
"This is the real fruit," he'd remarked a few days earlier, remembering his reaction to the Loft tapes. If that's true, then Moran is, perhaps, the flower. Whatever the metaphor, all seem sewn by W. Eugene Smith's unseen hand. There is something affirming, too, about the mass memory dump of the Loft tapes, the promise of being remembered, as some 200 people will be in Stephenson's book. It is Monk's story, too: reevaluation and discovery.
In the age of ambient social awareness, as Clive Thompson has put it, the over-documentation of Gene Smith is more important than ever. Because, in the snowstorm of data, we might be missing something. We might be missing Monk. We might be missing somebody who wandered up, off Sixth Avenue, sat down at a piano, completely reinvented the form while nobody but Smith's mics were listening, and then wandered back off into the flowers. Dan Partridge has years to go.
"I'm ready every day, man," Zoot Sims remarks early in March 1964, not long before musicians vacated the loft—and, incidentally, the same week Monk hit the cover of Time.
"Nobody likes to play anymore, Zoot," somebody says. "Nobody."
"Used to be a lot of playing up here," Sims replies wistfully.
Jazz hasn't gone away completely since 1964, but it's certainly crept deeper into the margins of American public life. But that doesn't really mean a thing either, given how many kids are still blowing, playing Monk charts in bedrock jazz education programs (and heading off into their own spheres) or squalling on dirty keyboards in deepest Brooklyn, where a loft scene of its own has taken root.
Like Monk, or like the light of a distant star, it all might take a while to filter out. Thelonious Sphere Monk had been recording, playing nearly the same songs over and over, for 20 years by the time he hit the stage at Town Hall.
"Picasso didn't take his work and have some gallery person present it," Tolliver observes. "He displayed it in his house. He brought the whole world to him. All the major guys went to Thelonious Monk's house. He didn't have to deconstruct or rearrange at all. His harmony is the basis for modern jazz, to this moment. It's that simple."
Monk's house—a first story apartment on 63rd Street on San Juan Hill on the Upper West Side—is still there. Or, at least the outside of the building, the Phipps House, is. The inside, according to a man in the rental office, was gutted long ago. The memory of Monk is mostly gone, too. "Thelonious who? That's his name?" says a woman at another desk. On the wall hangs a generic modernist painting.
"Oh, yeah," says the maintenance guy, coming in. "Thelonious Monk? He lived in 243."
"Not too many people in the neighborhood know about him," sighs the mailman. He knows, too.