Sam Stephenson: A "Loft-y" Vision of Jazz
When, in 1997, writer, scholar, and archivist Sam Stephenson serendipitously came across audio tapes, photographs and other documents involving jazz musicians congregating in photographer W. Eugene Smith's Manhattan loft in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was surprised as anyone. The wall of cartons had been unopened since before Smith's death in 1978. Stephenson and his cohorts spent several years studying the documents, including tapes in which one can hear jazz musicians conversing, brainstorming and playing in a relaxed, informal setting. Now, there is an exhibition of selected materials from these archives at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, as well as a book that contains a narrative of the project and some of Smith's multitude of photographs taken at or from the loft.
For photography enthusiasts, the value of this project is, of course, inestimable. Smith was one of the greatest of American photographers, legendary for his documentation of the Pacific campaign of World War II for Life Magazine, with whom he had severed ties before he moved from the ease of his home and family in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., to live in the dilapidated loft space at 821 Sixth Ave. in mid-Manhattan, in a building he promptly wired with microphones and recorders to capture all the sound that went along with the multitude of photographs that he was to take there for several years.
For jazz aficionados, the particular significance of The Jazz Loft Project is that it shows, in sound and pictures, a microcosm of the intensely creative jazz scene of the time, with luminaries and lesser-known musicians congregating, jamming and talking uninhibitedly before and after their gigs at the many nightclubs that sprung up in New York at that time. Three of the most frequent musical denizens of the loft were Thelonious Monk, his big band arranger Hall Overton, and legendary saxophonist Zoot Sims, joined at various times by Gerry Mulligan, Roy Haynes, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Pee Wee Russell, Charles Mingus and a multitude of others. Much if not most of jazz is created in the off-stage moments and hours between performances, and The Jazz Loft Project offers an intimate glimpse into how the music comes about in the woodshedding process and the relationships that develop between the musicians.
Whatever his personal and artistic motives were, Smith anticipated the reality television shows and live Internet video websites of today, where cameras and microphones witness the everyday goings on of lives in progress. Such direct witness adds to and qualifies what people do onstage, and when this is applied to jazz musicians who, at that time especially, kept some distance from their public, something a little differentunexpected, evencan be seen that may change perceptions about the jazz scene
- The History and Details of The Jazz Loft Project
- About the Jazz Loft Musicians
- A Digression About W. Eugene Smith
- Monk and Zoot Sims as Central Figures
- The Jazz Loft Exhibition and Website
- Sam Stephenson's Personal Reflections
- About the Jazz Loft Musicians
All About Jazz: First of all, what led you to the photographs, recordings, and other documents of The Jazz Loft Project? How did it all come about?
Sam Stephenson: I've been researching the life and work of W. Eugene Smith since January 1997. My first project on him consisted of a very large body of work that he created in Pittsburgh, PA, in the 1950s. It was an unfinished opus that he left behind. My wife is from Pittsburgh and I've been fascinated by that city for many years. I was planning to do my own book about it, when I stumbled on a reference to Smith's unfinished Pittsburgh project, and I ended up attempting to pull together the pieces of his Pittsburgh opus. I did that in a book published by W.W. Norton in 2001 and an exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and at the International Center of Photography in New York that was called Dream Street. And while I was working on Dream Street in 1998, I was in Smith's archives at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.
AAJ: Why would his collected work be in Arizona?
SS: Smith bequeathed everything he owned to the Center for Creative Photography in the 1970s. It was arranged by a group of people including the photographer Ansel Adams, who was a friend of Smith's. They arranged for the material to be deposited there before he died. It was kind of a miracle because he died only six months after he donated the material and had just taken a job teaching at the University of Arizona. He was 59 years old but his body looked like he was 100 years old; he just wore himself out. And his friends, including Ansel Adams, recognized that he was killing himself and he was dying, and that if they didn't have a home for his materials, it all would have been lost.
The audio tapes were part of part of his archives which required two 18-wheel trucks to ship it from New York City to Tuscon, Ariz. And parts of that shipment were 1,740 reels of tapes that he had made in his New York loft. But it's a photography archive and everyone that works there is trained in photography work. There aren't any audio people there. And since it's a public institution, their people are overworked and underpaid. So the tapes had just been sitting there for 30 years in the same boxes they were put in when they arrived.
So when I was in Arizona working on the Pittsburgh project, I noticed this wall of boxes filled with reels of tape. I was curious about it, so on one of my trips there in 1998, I spent a couple of days picking through all the tapes. I jotted down 138 names of musicians that I was able to decipher from Smith's chicken scratch labels. And that was really when The Jazz Loft Project began, with those 138 names. The University of Arizona had the correct policy that the tapes could not be played until they were properly preserved. So working with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke [University], I began to raise money to preserve those tapes, to transfer them to preservation sources. It took a lot of money, because the amount of tapes made it quite prohibitive.
AAJ: Just out of curiosity, what kind of tapes were theyquarter- inch plastic magnetic tapes?
SS: Yes, with almost all seven-inch reels. There are some three-and-a- half inch reels, but almost all of them are seven-inch reels.
AAJ: So you had to transfer them digitally?
SS: When I began the project, the existing standards of the audio preservation industry, which were dictated by several institutionsthe National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the Association of Recorded Sound Collectionsback then the standards said that digital recording was not a valid preservation method. And there's still a lot of debate in those circles. So at the beginning of the project, we had to create new analog reels. The standards gradually changed, and by the end of the project, they were allowing digital to be the primary preservation source, which saves money and space because to create a new analog reel, and containing that reel in an acid-free box is spatially challenging. So it took a lot of money, about $600,000, just to do the preservation, not to mention listening to the tapes and analyzing them. So I wrote a lot of grant proposals, most of which failed, but we did have enough success to get the transfers done.
AAJ: Were you the primary individual who listened to these tapes and checked them out?
View from a window in the loft
SS: I have a colleague named Dan Partridge who for the past seven years has put on headphones and listened to these tapes on a daily basis. He was the primary listener; I listen a lot but he listens to everything. The preservation process yielded 5,089 CDs of material.
Dan has listened to about 4,000 of those CDs so far. He's still listening every day. He thinks it'll take him another year and a half to hear everything once. He'll probably be the only person in human history to hear every second of Gene Smith's tapes. Not even Smith heard everythingsometimes he'd be gone while the recorder was still recording.
AAJ: What is Dan's background? Photography, music?
SS: Both. He is a musician in a couple of alt-rock bands and used to teach photography at the School for the Blind in North Carolina. He's a great guy, perfect for that job, because the thing is there's not only jazz on those tapes but also all kinds of conversations and sounds. The jazz is the easy part; it's listening to these conversations and also things that Smith captured from radio and TV that can be very challenging, so you need someone who's just as interested in that as in jazz, and a lot of the jazz historians would fast forward through that and go to the next jam session or whatever. Yet in our view it's this arcane material that really makes this project soar and it puts jazz in almost a cultural anthropological perspective that is unique, and Dan is really tuned into that.