Sam Stephenson: A "Loft-y" Vision of Jazz
SS: On our website, www.jazzloft.org, we have about three hours of sound. We just put up a new hour. Also, there's a ten-part radio series that you can link to from our site. One day there may be some commercial products but that's not up to me. We don't own any of the recorded material, just our research. But I think the Smith estate will one day work to make this available. Also, at the Exhibition in New York, you can go to a couple of kiosks, put a headset on and listen.
Self-portrait by W. Eugene Smith
AAJ: Could you give us a brief guided tour of the exhibition, and what folks should look for there?
SS: The major component of the exhibition consists of 200 photographic prints that Eugene Smith made. We use prints he himself made some 50 years ago, they're beautiful. He was one of the great printmakers of all time. He worked very hard, painstakingly, and in an idiosyncratic, very personal way in the dark room. So this is also about the art of photography. I was very taken by a comment that a teacher at the International Center of Photography made to me. In our era of digital photography, there's been a recent uptick in the amount of interest in "analog" dark room photography by young students. So it will be very valuable for young photography students to go see these masterful prints.
We also have some great audio in the show. There are headsets with a touch screen where you can select tracks. There are 40 tracks of audio, some great jazz, and also some things that Smith recorded from radio and TV: Martin Luther King, JFK, Cuban Missile Crisis, UFO, flying saucer and alien sightings, especially during the early days of the space race. There was a late night radio program with Long John Nebel, where people would call in claiming flying saucer sightings and so on. All of that is part of the post-war culture that this show is about in many ways. There's also some video footage that we ourselves shot while interviewing some musicians, including Bill Crow, Joey Masters, Henry Grimes, Ronnie Free. There's an interview with Ruth Fetske who was one of Smith's assistants. I think this project will give people a feeling of what it was like to have been alive in a dilapidated building in the middle of Manhattan in 1960 [laughter]. I think this exhibition will do that.
AAJ: And, importantly for jazz, that dilapidated loft was within easy distance from all the important clubs of the time; the Vanguard, Café Bohemia, Half Note, Five Spot, and many others were all within easy reach by walking or public transportation.
SS: One of the points I want to make about the audio is that, due to storage and movement of the tapes over 50 years and a variety of other issues, the pitch can be off, half a step high or low. Some real hard core aficionados might find themselves frustrated with that. We chose not to correct that because we wanted to represent exactly what we found in those tapes and the sound. We made what is called a flat transfer, so in some audios, the pitch is off, and also affects the speaking voices too, so it complicates part of our detective work of trying to figure out who's talking at any point in time.
AAJ: Well, you're in good company. The best selling jazz album of all time, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) was actually issued half a step above the actual pitch due to the use of different equipment during the mastering process. That wasn't figured out and fixed until an anniversary CD was produced much later. I suppose there will always be those who prefer scholarly preservation versus those who want only the faithful reality versus those who prefer high-tech augmentation.
AAJ: I'd like now to ask how you were personally affected by this project. You listened to hours of tapes, looked at countless photos and other documents, and interviewed many, many individuals around the country. How did you react to all of this? What flashes of insight occurred? Were you personally transformed as a result?
SS: It's been the project of a lifetime. I feel very blessed and grateful to do this. And I'm associated with an institution called the Center for Documentary Studies which encouraged us to pursue this project on so many different levels. For a decade, I was enabled to travel around the country, going to 19 states and interviewing over 350 people. Those interviews were the heart of the project. I went to various homes, where most of the people were senior citizens, over 70 years old, and it was a privilege and an honor to listen to these folks tell their stories. I was very moved, and I realized that there are lots of stories out there and if we don't document them they're going to disappear. Our society has an urgent need to listen to these elderly people and learn from them. They can teach us how to live better lives. Our culture is "push, push, push forward," which is all right, but it's better to push forward while also reflecting on what happened in the past. And that's one of the most important things I learned from the project.
Great artists, like Eugene Smith, like Monk, are constantly mining the past for their material, but they're also pushing forward and doing something new with it. Monk is one of the most profound examples of that. His music is based so much in blues and gospel but he used that base to create something modern. I think that could be a model for all of us. We can look at the past, at different cultures, and try to understand it all, but unfortunately our modern society downplays that. Just last week somebody in New Yorka top editorpointed out to me that if you look at the current high profile, high brow magazinesThe New Yorker, Harper's, The Atlanticyou rarely see articles about history anymore. It's all about now, now, now, and the future. I find that frightening.
AAJ: So what are you thinking of doing down the road in this respect?
SS: I'd like to do more interviewing people. Apropos, I want to do a very large oral history project with doctors, nurses and midwives over the age of 75. I'd like to get a team of people to do these interviews of a thousand people around the country, and find out about care giving that way. I think that perspective is missing in the current health care debate: the caregivers, especially the ones who have seen it all over 50 years. Working on the jazz loft project has made me realize how important it is to listen to people's stories, especially the elderly.
AAJ: Coincidentally, I was an adolescent around the time of the Jazz Loft, and I obtained the use of a tape recorder with quarter-inch, single track magnetic tapes that were relatively new innovations then. Perhaps Smith was fascinated by the new technology, as I certainly was as a kid. I got my elderly grandmother, who was a great storyteller, to record her marvelous stories about emigrating to the United States and trying to make it with her husband and children in a new and mysterious world. I suppose that was my first experience doing interviews! Old folks have so much to share but we tend to not listen to what they can teach us.
SS: That's really a tragic part of our culture. Old people have seen it all, and they've often gained a wisdom, and at that age, they lose their materialism, so there's something more vital and true about their words and the way they see life.
AAJ: It's interesting that this sidelight of interviewing average Americans emerged from a project that is essentially about jazz and photography. It sounds as if you have a bit of Studs Terkel in you!
SS: He's a hero of mine, for sure.
AAJ: The Philadelphia Jazz Heritage Project is beginning to archive interviews and other documents with several old time Philly musicians like Jymie Merritt and Mickey Roker artists who've been around in the business for decadesand hopefully will be completed well before they've left us. Some of them have such great integrity and are such great role models. Part of the jazz story that needs to be told are the struggles of the musicians, their relationships with each other, and what the music meant to them personally. Your Jazz Loft Project has so much of that aspect in it.
SS: Tom Brokaw termed the WWII generation "The Greatest Generation." I think there is something about the jazz musicians who were born between 1920 and 1940. They are to some extent the same generation but it's a different group of people, and I think the phrase applies just as well to them. There's a certain kind of ethic they have in common. The decision they made to become professional musicians in the 1940s and 1950sthat's hard to understand these days. There weren't schools you could go to then to learn jazz, so by choosing to be a jazz musician you were choosing something very different. Back then, there was no definite path to a career in jazzyou just had to find some people to play with. You had to learn how to relate to others and how to be a team member. And also, these musicians had a robust sense of humor, which I think comes from being relegated to knowing you might not make a lot of money but you're going to enjoy yourself.
AAJ: And also, they were on the road for long periods of time, had a lot of down time, and humor was a way of developing camaraderie. It was a very tough life being a jazz musician back then. And many of them were so bitten by the music that they literally dropped out of the conservatories and society in general.
SS: That's exactly what happened to Hall Overton: he went to Juilliard and taught there as well but preferred to be in this loft doing jazz work.
AAJ: To conclude, could you say a bit more about what's on tap for you?
SS: What's on tap immediately is a biography I'm currently writing on W. Eugene Smith for Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. That'll take me a couple of years. After that, I'm not sure; I'm interested in the health care project I mentioned. I'm almost certain I will write something about Zoot Sims and Sonny Clark. Sonny Clark interests me very much. He grew up in rural western Pennsylvania very close to where my wife came from, a coal mining region, and Clark's father was a coal miner. Of course, Clark died at age 31 from a heroin overdose, and I've gotten to know his two surviving sisters and I'd like to write a story putting a human face on the stereotype of the jazz junkie. I also would like to write about Monk. I've already written something for a magazine called The Oxford American about Monk's connection to North Carolina.
Photos on Page 1, bottom Page 2: Sam Stephenson
All Other Photos: W. Eugene Smith, Courtesy of Jonathan Pace