Sam Stephenson: A "Loft-y" Vision of Jazz
AAJ: So these musicians, some of whom were pioneers at the time, like Zoot Sims, Thelonious Monk, and some who were not so famous, what made them congregate at this loft space? Did Eugene Smith himself have an interest in jazz?
SS: Smith was obsessed with music. He died, he had 25,000 vinyl records in his possession. He often proclaimed that his photography was more influenced by music and theater than by photography as such. You can see that in the drama of his work, and the way he would sequence his photos. He tried to sequence his visual images in a way that had rhythms and lyricism that he found in music.
But the jazz scene started in that building before he moved in. It started in 1954 and Smith located there in 1957. The original quote "jazz loft" tenants were a painter named David X. Young, a photographer named Harold Feinstein, who worked with Smith a lot, and two musicians named Dick Cary and Hall Overton. Also, vibraphonist Teddy Charles sub-let Dave Young's place while Dave was in Provincetown, Cape Cod and Haiti, where he went often.
The reasons that jazz popped up and lasted in this building are complicated but one is geography. It was a commercial, non-residential neighborhood in the dead center of Manhattan. It was also a downtrodden area, so it was cheap and convenient. Musicians could stop by from uptown or downtown, just to see if something was going on. And since it was not residential, no one would complain about noise in the middle of the night. Moreover there were four tuned pianos in the building so they could go and woodshed on a tuned piano. So word spread quickly.
I think that the other key answer to that question is Hall Overton. I've traveled to 19 states and interviewed over 350 people who lived in or came to this loft, and as the interviews started to mount it became clear that Hall Overton was a monumental figure in attracting musicians. Almost across the board, musicians loved him and loved being around him. They loved picking his brains for musical ideas, and he didn't seem to care about getting credit for this kind of work. So people trusted him, including Thelonious Monk and others. Steve Reich, the minimalist classical composer, was in the loft often to work with Overton once a week for two years. A large sweep of American musical history is represented by just Monk and Reich, and Overton was in the middle of it. So, for these reasons, the scene flourished there.
AAJ: There's a whole story here, just about Hall Overton and his influence.
SS: I've got enough material to write a book about him. There are a number of people besides Smith who are of interest to me, and he's one of them. He was a soldier in World War II. He went ashore at Normandy a few days after D-Day and he carried stretchers in Belgium and France. And Smith was a combat photographer in the Pacific for two years. There was something in common about these two men, who were not only in the war, but their duty was almost worse than fighters. Overton was carrying bodies, and Smith was paid to witness everything: he was photographing it.
So these two men who were intimately involved with the effects and residue of combat, ended up in this dilapidated building in the middle of Manhattan. In Overton's case, he was forgoing the hallowed halls of Julliard, and Smith was forgoing the all-powerful Life Magazine and living in this loft. So something about that is resonant. I'm trying to figure out what the wartime experience may have done to these guys that made them content being in this loft.
AAJ: That was my thought, exactly. Did Overton live in the loft?
SS: He stayed overnight a lot. He had family in Forest Hills, Queens and some in New Jersey. He had a wife and two sons but he spent most of his time in the loft. His wife, Nancy, was a singer in the Chordettes, of "Mr. Sandman" fame. And his son Rick is a famous comedian. It's quite a talented family. Sadly, Overton died in 1972 at age 52 of cirrhosis of the liver.
AAJ: A couple of questions about Smith and then we'll get down to the jazz. I was really intrigued to learn that he had a really nice life in Croton- on-Hudson, a suburb north of New York City, and suddenly gives up a family and kids, in a nice home, and moves into this dilapidated loft space. Then, on a seemingly bizarre impulse, he wires the entire loft with microphones for sound, even the stairwell. These two acts suggest to me that he was going through somethingan identity crisis, a trauma, mental illness, or a drug addictionany or all of the above. What do you think was going on?
SS: He moved into the loft when he was 39 years old. He had recently quit working for Life Magazine, where he had become a legend, and then he attempted the massive Pittsburgh project right after leaving Life. I suspect he was trying to show the world that he was a genius whom Life had been holding back. So the Pittsburgh project was an attempt to create a magnum opus the likes of which photography had never seen. He actually compared the project to Beethoven's symphonies and Joyce's Ulysses.
So his ambitions were unsatisfiable. I think he was desperate at that point, and for someone so feverish and so desperate, routine family life just isn't a very good fit, and everyday duties just didn't fit either. He was at his feverish pitch as an artist at age 39, so a life in the suburbs with a wife, kids, and a housekeeper was just not right for him, and I think this loft, where he could stay up all night and work several nights in a row, was a good match for him. Liked to work in the dark room with music blaring, and that's hard to do when the family is trying to sleep. So I think he loved this loft, and there were people like Overton and Monk there, just very brilliant people, and I think he related to all that better than to a comfortable life in suburbia.
AAJ: Is there a biography of Smith available?
SS: I'm actually writing one myself write now, but there's a biography of him by Jim Hughes [W. Eugene Smith: Shadow and Substance : The Life and Work of an American Photographer (self-published)], which is really good. It covers a lot of the facts well. The one big hole in that biography is that he didn't spend much time on the jazz loft years, which is actually Smith's largest body of photographic work. And if you add the tapes...
AAJ: It completes the story.
SS: Right. That's what my biography will do. It will fill out the story, and fill in that gap. On the tapes, too, you can hear Smith talking about his life and worksuch as his father's suicide, he's on the tapes talking about that and the tapes will be enormously helpful to my biography beyond just the jazz loft years, like finding a bunch of unseen letters. But otherwise, Hughes' book is excellent.
AAJ: It would be ironic if many music fans became interested in Smith's photography and biography as a result of The Jazz Loft Project. But why did he wire the whole building with sound recording equipment?
SS: He had microphones all over the place, through walls and ceilings and floors and the stairwell. On some tapes, you can hear someone open the door on Sixth Avenue and walk up five flights.
AAJ: Do you think it was Smith's idea of an audio version of capturing life itself through photography?
SS: Yes, I think that's right. I think the taping is a natural extension of his photography. And I think all people who feel compelled to be photographers have a little bit of voyeurism in them. They like looking at people when they don't know anyone is looking. And they like rendering life in a way that is true and real and poignant. For example, the jazz sessions he recorded are really hit or miss. Some of it is great and some is really bad. You rarely get to hear bad jazzespecially recorded jazz. In jazz history, what's recorded are the great bands and the great moments but for every one of those great moments, there were so many more when the musicians were just woodshedding, or trying something that didn't work, or where the bassist just couldn't get it. In this project, all that was saved on tape. And I think Smith knew he was capturing something that otherwise would never be captured.