The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965
By Sam Stephenson
Knopf; 288 pp.
Between 1957 and 1965, W. Eugene Smith—the eccentric Life photographer who snapped several of that magazine's most iconic photos, like Life's "Dewey Defeats Truman," before quitting due to what he felt was a lack of editorial autonomy—turned his attention to home. Or, rather, the married father of five devoted his eyes and ears to the world as it entered and surrounded 821 Sixth Ave., the five-story Manhattan loft building he called home during that pivotal period in American history: Civil rights pressed forward. A Catholic became president. Young minds liberated jazz. American minimalism pulsed ahead. Smith captured it all in fragments, snapping some 40,000 photos of people in and around the space and grabbing—with a tangle of microphones, wires and portable audio recorders—more than 4,000 hours of the sounds around him.
While working on his first book about Smith in 1998, researcher and writer Sam Stephenson stumbled across that neglected culture trove in Smith's University of Arizona archives. Under the aegis of Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies, Stephenson and a team of assistants spent much of the next decade poring through all that material. They've transferred and transcribed the tapes, identified the voices and the broadcasts, and named the faces, hands and silhouettes in the photos. The photos captured passersby in the streets below and firemen and policemen at work. The tapes captured operas, dramas, news broadcasts, Smith's private thoughts and the sound of the Sixth Avenue bus stopping every quarter hour at the corner of 28th Street.
But those reels and frames also captured the loose jams, diligent rehearsals and late-night conversations of some of the most important artists, musical and otherwise, of the 20th century—Thelonious Monk, Roland Kirk, Alice Coltrane, Zoot Sims, Ornette Coleman, Steve Reich, Hall Overton, Norman Mailer, Salvador Dali, perhaps, Bob Dylan and, of course, Smith himself. As Stephenson notes, the space—and Smith's exhaustive survey of it—"flattens the hierarchy of the normal jazz story."
So, 40,000 images, 4,000 hours and 13 years: Couldn't they have given us more than 300 pages?
If Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns was the sacred text of popular appreciation for one of America's most prized forms, Stephenson's The Jazz Loft Project feels a lot like the apocrypha. It's a progressive, warts-and-all story—where race matters less than skill, where brilliant artists come with heavy baggage, where the stars and the anonymous share space. A compelling alternate version of American history that otherwise would have never been known, The Jazz Loft Project filters the sleep-deprived mania through a dutifully articulate guide.
Stephenson writes with an attention to detail that his academic context might suggest. The transcripts included here note every laugh, pause and moan, and each conversation—like those between arranger Hall Overton and innovator Thelonious Monk, or blind multi-reedman Roland Kirk and saxophonist Jay Cameron. But he tells stories like a novelist with a journalism background. He traces interesting subplots, like tracking down Ronnie Free, a new drumming star who simply disappeared from the scene one day, and roots swift narratives in rich but restrained language, as when he describes the web of wires in the loft as "reaching like roots through walls and floors." Considering how interesting it all is, it's the sort of volume that makes you wish for sizable companion editions that tell more stories and disclose more of these uncanny conversations. What else did the mysterious Kirk have to say? And what of Albert Ayler or the woefully overlooked free jazz songbird/iconoclast Patty Waters? Even if they're only available in some online format, let's hope that more of this information eventually becomes available. (Find some of this material at the excellent Web site www.jazzloftproject.org.)
Of course, this is to say nothing of the substantive force behind this collection—Smith's photography. Like the recordings, they capture private moments sympathetically and in great detail. We see the ridges in cymbals and the lines in drummer's hands, the wind-busted canopies of grocers on the avenue and the man struggling to take his baby some flowers in the snowstorm. Beautiful, intimate snapshots of legends sidle up to pictures of ordinary people shuffling home or peering down manholes in the street below, relating a compelling view from an unassuming space. It's not only an essential perspective for jazz enthusiasts. It's an essential one for anybody interested in a vision of mid-century America that's too grand for textbooks.