Sam Stephenson: A "Loft-y" Vision of Jazz
AAJ: You made a video that is shown with the book at amazon.com, and in it you refer to the music on these tapes as mediocre. That made me do a double takewhy would anyone be interested in bad jazz? [Laughter]
SS: Let me put it this way: If you release the jazz history angle of what went on in this loft, then the people involved in the story almost become like the characters in a Eugene O'Neill or August Wilson play. So it doesn't matter if the music happens to be good or not, it's a human story. There were some musicians just as dedicated as the icons, but they just weren't as good. But they, too, are part of the human story of jazz. I think that's what Smith was trying to achieve: the human story. And it's not just the mediocre musicians but even the great musicians sometimes play not so well, or are just trying to find something. For example, in these tapes, you get to hear Monk and Overton with the weeks and weeks of work they did to achieve those great big band arrangements, performances and recordings.
AAJ: So it's rare instance where you have recordings of the music being created, being born.
SS: Jazz is often talked about as just an inborn, instinctive thing with the musicians, but the tapes show how much time and dedication is required in order to be good. On these tapes, the musicians are not playing for the money or an audience, they're just playing for the sake of the music.
AAJ: That's interesting because Monk himself was one of very few who would literally woodshed a piece with his group on stage with an audience. He'd sometimes correct or admonish the guys right there in performance, and sometimes he'd stop playing and re-do a particular passage. Most musicians totally choreograph what they perform before an audience or even more so, on a recording. So your tapes give a feeling of the process they go through in shaping up a piece of music. And not just rehearsing, but they're just hanging out trying things together.
When you were listening to these many, many hours of tape, were there particular moments that really grabbed you, that moved you in some way and/or struck you as relevant to the development of jazz during that time?
SS: There are a number of things that stand out. I think I could probably narrow them down to two. One of them is Monk, for example the amount of time he and Overton put into preparing that Town Hall concert music, and also the big band music of 1963-64. Smith recorded a lot of those one-on-one sessions. Just hearing Monk talking about his music with Overton is profound and moving. I love Monk. He was born in eastern North Carolina where I come from; he still has many family members who live in that area and I've gotten to know them. These tapes re- confirmed my love for Thelonious Monk.
The other person who jumps out in these tapes is Zoot Sims. He was a relentless player. He loved to play music and he was insatiable. And he was also a kind of Pied Piper: musicians revered him. I think he was really a musician's musician. He's not given enough credit by historians, perhaps because, to my knowledge, he never really cut an iconic album of his own. He was with Al Cohn at the Half Note all those years. But what you hear on these tapes is a man who lives and breathes this music. He never turns it off. We've got him on some sessions at the loft where he plays with Roy Haynes, Dave McKenna, Pepper Adams,Jimmy Raney, and Henry Grimes. We've got him on some sessions with great musicians. Zoot carries the day; he really influences the other players. In one session in January, 1960, where there are about 15 musicians in the room, Zoot is playing, and Roy Haynes walks in, and you can hear everyone greeting Roy, who has a strong personality as well, probably one of the five greatest drummers of all time. So he walks in, and Zoot's there, and within a half hour, the whole session boils down to Zoot and Roy. They're calling the tunes and they're deciding what happens next. That's got to be one of my favorite reels from our collection.
AAJ: For me and many other fans, Zoot Sims is certainly one of the greatest tenor sax players. I love to listen to him but I wasn't aware of how much he influenced the other players. That's a story in its own right for scholars and historians to take up.
SS: From my interviews and research, there are a handful of people from the loft that I would want to write more about and Zoot Sims is one of them. Roy Haynes, Sonny Clark, and Hall Overton are the other ones. Zoot should be given more recognition among the all time greats and I think the other musicians would agree. He had an easygoing personality but there was a certain relentless fever to him as well that made people love being around him, following him. He made people feel good. He always played great, no matter who he was playing with. He never phoned it in. I'd really like to learn more about him and write a biography or a long magazine article about him.
AAJ: Jazz is an interpersonal art form. A lot of what makes jazz great is the guys coming together with each other, and also with the audience. It's a mutual creative process, and it happens on a constant basis, even off stage. Your tapes seem to show Zoot not so much as an individual ego, but as someone relating to everyone around him, and in that way he was indeed one of the movers and shakers of jazz.
SS: I agree. He was equally beloved by both African American and white players. Everyone loved and respected him. Although he may never have cut the one recording that everyone considers his masterwork, his music was his whole life. He lived the music; there wasn't any separation. His whole life was his masterwork.
AAJ: It sounds like he didn't have the ambition to be a star, to create an image. By contrast, Monk, for example, deliberately fostered a certain image of himself that caught the attention of the critics and the public.
SS: But the more obvious comparison is with Zoot's peer, Stan Getz. Maybe Stan was a better marketer of himself.
AAJ: Also, Getz chose his music partly with the aim of latching on to a trend and achieving a high degree of popularity. Zoot is certainly considered to be one of the greats like Getz, but never became a legend so to speak.
Now, to get back to the loft project as a whole, do you know if there were any longer-term connections that emerged between the musicians who gathered in that space? Did the loft foster any group formations?
SS: Yes, there's some of that. There are numerous instances of musicians who played in the loft and then did gigs together. Some occurred with lesser known musicians. A high profile example might be Thelonious Monk with Pee Wee Russell. They played together at Newport in 1963 and a couple of interviewees told me that the two of them first met at the loft in 1959.
AAJ: I believe that Gerry Mulligan came to the loft a few times.
SS: Yes, Mulligan was there. From our oral histories, we learned that many musicians were there before Smith moved in. Charles Mingus used to go there a lot; Teddy Charles was there. Mingus used to work with Teddy and with Hall Overton in the loft and some of the guys from the loft show up on some of Mingus' recordings. I think it was Dave Frishberg who told me he met Zoot in the loft, and Dave ended up in Zoot and Al Cohn's band. Some of the others no one ever heard of, but they also ended up getting gigs with one another.
AAJ: What about that fellow Lou Ornstein, who gave you a lot of information about the loft?
SS: The first photo in my book is of the list he gave me in 2000, at the beginning of the project, and it was very influential Lou's list told me that I needed to pay as much attention to the unknown musicians as the stars.
AAJ: Your interest in the lesser-known figures fits with the postmodern understanding of history as having to do as much with everyday life as with the great historical events and individuals.
SS: In the book's prologue, I quote James Baldwin, who said, and I'm paraphrasing, "History is not a few spectacular moments; history is millions of anonymous moments." That's what the Jazz Loft project is about.
AAJ: Did [noted author] Baldwin ever show up at the jazz loft?
SS: I don't know, I wouldn't be surprised. He shows up on the recordings that Smith made off the radio of the time.
AAJ: The great jazz singer Deborah Brown made a record with Baldwin. But let me ask you an important question that I'm sure will be on readers' minds: How can the average person or perhaps the jazz scholar actually hear some of the tapes?