The Jazz Loft Project

By October 26, 2009YADA!

Your Archive Deserves Advocacy! YADA!

The Jazz Loft Project

The moving image and sound preservation community, which is lead by committed professional archivists and dedicated individuals and organizations from other sectors of society, is usually more poised to communicate the challenges they face with their collections rather than beat the drum of the small and large battles they win every day.  The passage of time reverberates more acutely for those whose mission is literally to save our cultural history from the inevitable ravages of environmental and technological change. This tends to make the next preservation challenge more of a concern than the most recent success.  While their focus, like ours, is necessarily on what needs to be done, we can assist their efforts by highlighting what is already being accomplished.  There is no better incentive to persist than the story of a like possibility made real.

We are beginning this series with a story that many in our community are somewhat aware of, but which is so appealing at so many different historical, aesthetic and humanistic levels that it is really meant for a far broader audience. One of the beautiful things about this story is that it is achieving that audience. This is already an inspiration to others and will hopefully garner more support for audiovisual preservation generally.

Jazz Loft Tape Boxes taken by Matthew Thompson

Jazz Loft Tape Boxes - Photo by Matthew Thompson

A notable benefit of being in this field is that we get to say “Look what I found! Isn’t it amazing?”, and then we hold our hand out to share what we’ve found.  Sam Stephenson, The Jazz Loft Project Director at The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, has been reaching his hand out in this way for approximately 13 years and running. He has built up well deserved interest in the Jazz Loft Scene that has culminated in a number of  events this year and next which will further support his efforts in getting the story told.

Within his hand Sam offers us a unique perspective of a particular time and place where there was a convergence of characters working out their creative impulses in music, photography, and painting, while also working out the colorful dramas of their lives.  From 1957 to 1965 Pulitzer Prize winning photographer W. Eugene Smith recorded approximately 4,000 hours of sound on 1,741 reel-to-reel audiotapes and shot nearly 40,000 photographs in a New York City loft building christened “The Jazz Loft.” It was one of those burning centers of cultural vivacity, the embers of which have been hidden by the ashes of time, just waiting to be rekindled and light up the world again.

Decades after The Jazz Loft had seen its last character, Sam had his own personal passions to work out. It required a long term vision, great persistence, a flair for story telling and hard work in collaboration with teams of colleagues and outsiders. There was a new convergence of energy in town that would make sure The Jazz Loft story would be told.

This is Sam’s story.                                                                                                                 Kevin O’Neill, AVPS

The Making of the Jazz Loft Project

By Sam Stephenson, Jazz Loft Project Director

I’ve been researching W. Eugene Smith’s life and work ever since my wife, Laurie Cochenour, gave me a camera for Christmas thirteen years ago. When the owner of the camera shop in Raleigh, North Carolina, asked me what I’d be taking pictures of, I told him Pittsburgh. The city has captivated me since we first visited Laurie’s family there in 1995, and I’d just started researching its history and landscape. “Have you ever seen Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh photographs?” he asked. The previous night he’d caught an American Masters documentary on Smith and it mentioned a big project he did on the city in the 1950s. I left the shop and walked around the corner to the public library to look for more information.

Smith went to Pittsburgh in 1955 for a three-week freelance assignment to make one hundred photos for a book commemorating the city’s bicentennial. He’d quit his job at LIFE magazine, where his photo essays had made him legendary, because of escalating editorial struggles. He wanted to change the world with his photographs and LIFE wanted reliable staffers who met deadlines. Smith’s burgeoning ambitions quickly outstripped the Pittsburgh assignment, and over the next four years he made 21,000 photographs of the city. At one point he had 2,000 5×7 work prints pinned to walls and bulletin boards all over his studio. His Pittsburgh opus may have existed in that form, but it was utterly unpublishable. When eighty-eight of the images were finally published in Popular Photograph’s 1959 Photography Annual, he called the outcome a “debacle” and a “failure.”

In April of 1997 I made my first visit to the Smith Archive at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona (CCP).  I was attempting to pick up the pieces of Smith’s unfinished Pittsburgh study.  The results were Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project, a book published by W.W. Norton and the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) in 2001, and an exhibition of the same title for the Carnegie Museum of Art, which traveled to the International Center of Photography in New York in 2002.

My work with Smith’s Pittsburgh material led me to the 1,740 reels of audio tape and nearly 40,000 photographs made by Smith in his Manhattan loft between 1957 and 1965.  In 1957, Smith left his home and family in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, and moved into a loft building in Manhattan’s old wholesale flower district. 821 Sixth Avenue (between Twenty-eighth and Twenty-ninth streets) was an after-hours haunt of musicians, including some of the biggest names in jazz.

The Jazz Loft Project Staff in front of 821 6th Avenue - From left to right, Dan Partridge, Lauren Hart & Sam Stephenson. Photo by Ted Barron

The Jazz Loft Project Staff in front of 821 6th Avenue - From left to right, Dan Partridge, Lauren Hart & Sam Stephenson. Photo by Ted Barron

After moving in, Smith wired the building from the sidewalk to the fifth floor, making nearly 4,000 hours of astonishing audio recordings.  He documented Thelonious Monk, Zoot Sims, Paul Bley, Roy Haynes, Roland Kirk, Chick Corea, and hundreds of others in jam sessions, rehearsals, and casual conversations. He recorded Martin Luther King and President Kennedy giving speeches on radio and TV, Jason Robards reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s essay “The Crack-Up,” and late-night calls to Long John Nebel’s radio show from listeners claiming UFO sightings and alien abductions. Smith also kept the tapes rolling when not much was happening. He recorded mysterious voices, people hiking up and down the stairs, taxis honking, and the Sixth Avenue bus chugging by every fifteen minutes.

The reels had been unheard since they were deposited at CCP in 1977, when two eighteen-wheel trucks delivered 44,000 pounds of Smith’s work and personal belongings including letters, 25,000 vinyl records, thousand of 3×5 cards filled with notes to himself, and as many as a million negatives and contact sheets.  I picked through all the reels and noted 129 different names chicken-scratched by Smith on the labels. I began tracking down the people who were still alive—Bill Crow, Roy Haynes, Dave Frishberg, Bill Takas, Ronnie Free, Carole Thomas, Freddie Redd, Henry Grimes, Jimmy Stevenson, David X Young, and many more.

In December of 1999, after publishing an article in DoubleTake Magazine about the Jazz Loft Project, I received a miraculous phone call at my home in Pittsboro, N.C. from David Logan of the Reva and David Logan Foundation in Chicago.    He said, “I saw your article in DoubleTake.  What can I do to help?”  The Logan Foundation became the primary benefactor of the Jazz Loft Project. I will be forever grateful for this serendipitous phone call and the Logan family’s subsequent generosity.  The project has received additional funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the Grammy Foundation, the Duke University Office of the Provost, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, and Ken and Amelia Jacob.  In 2001, I established the Jazz Loft Project as my full time gig.  Smith’s work has become my work.

Not infrequently I wonder if I should be doing something else, doing my own work from scratch, as I intended more than a decade ago in Pittsburgh, but I believe his core material is too good to not keep going, and it leads me in too many interesting directions.  With the help of my colleague, Dan Partridge, I’ve interviewed over 330 survivors from Smith’s old loft scene. Some of them are famous, but most of them are unrecorded in the official annals of music, photography, or anything else. It is the wonder and fortune of my work.

As of fall 2009, catalog work has been completed for roughly two thirds of Smith’s audio recordings.  Based on the findings so far, we believe the total recorded sound will amount to roughly 4,000 hours.  On average, one hour of Smith’s audio requires three hours of work to properly index it for content.  Each new reel of tape yields a few new people to track down or a few new historical items to research.  Who is that drummer?  Where was the nearest Nedick’s hot dog stand?  Which businesses inhabited the ground floor of the loft building during which years?  Are these business owners still alive? If we track them down, will they remember Gene Smith and the jam session scene?

These stories, and many others, will be brought to life as the Jazz Loft Project unveils this seminal chapter in jazz music history.  The project culminates with a book published by Alfred A. Knopf Inc. (November 2009), a radio series in collaboration with WNYC Radio in New York (November 2009), and an exhibition that will open at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center (February 2010) and travel to the Chicago Cultural Center, the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, and the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, among other venues.

Interview with Dan Partridge, Jazz Loft Project Research Associate from The Jazz Loft Project

Visit The Jazz Loft Project Website at

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