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Sam Stephenson: A "Loft-y" Vision of Jazz

Victor L. Schermer By

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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 different—unexpected, even—can be seen that may change perceptions about the jazz scene

Chapter Index

  1. The History and Details of The Jazz Loft Project
  2. About the Jazz Loft Musicians
  3. A Digression About W. Eugene Smith
  4. Monk and Zoot Sims as Central Figures
  5. The Jazz Loft Exhibition and Website
  6. Sam Stephenson's Personal Reflections

The History and Details of the Jazz Loft Project

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 everything—sometimes 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.

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