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.

About the Jazz Loft Musicians

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.



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