The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965 - Sam Stephenson - First Edition


My musician and pro photographer friends raved about this gem, and so did a few others...

A breathtaking tome. — London's MOJO magazine

A book whose pages convey, beautifully, the strange cultural moment when a rat-infested hulk of a building hosted a perfect storm of creativity. — Financial Times Weekend Magazine

(A) lavish, must-read excavation of a photographic, musical treasure trove. — PopMatters, Best Non-Fiction Books of 2009

The most chaotic and soulful gift book this year...The book is an elegiac stew of sight and sound, and a singularly weird, vital and thrumming American document." — Dwight Garner, New York Times

The samples from the tapes that Stephenson had transcribed work with the photos to bring a moment in jazz loft life as perhaps no work in any other medium, including documentary cinema, ever has. Absolutely magnificent. — Booklist, starred review.

(A) landmark book...This will be an essential book for jazz fans, photographer lovers and those interested in the history of New York. — Publisher's Weekly, starred review

One of only thirteen books in 2009 to make each Year End lists of Publisher's Weekly, Amazon, and the New York Times

 So, why all the praise? What's the story behind The Jazz Loft Project: The Photos and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965 by Sam Stephenson?

Well, since you asked...

In January, 1955, W. Eugene Smith, a celebrated photographer at Life magazine — whose quarrels with his editors were legendary — quit his longtime, well-paying job. He was thirty-six,ambitious, quixotic, in search of greater freedom and artistic license. He turned his attention to a freelance assignment in Pittsburgh, a three-week job that turned into a four-year obsession and in the end, remained unfinished. In a letter to Ansel Adams, Smith described it as a “debacle” and an “embarrassment.”

In 1957, Smith moved out of the home he shared with his wife and four children in Croton-on-Hudson, New York and moved into a dilapidated, five-story loft building at 821 Sixth Avenue in New York City’s wholesale flower district. 821 Sixth Avenue (between Twenty-eighth and Twenty-ninth streets) was a late-night haunt of musicians, including some of the biggest names in jazz—Charles Mingus, Zoot Sims, Bill Evans, and Thelonious Monk among them—and countless fascinating, underground characters. As his ambitions broke down for the epic Pittsburgh project, Smith found solace in the chaotic, somnambulistic world of the loft and its artists. He turned his documentary impulses away from Pittsburgh and toward his offbeat new surroundings.

From 1957 to 1965, Smith exposed 1,447 rolls of film at the loft, making roughly 40,000 pictures, the largest body of work in his career.  He photographed the nocturnal jazz scene as well as life on the streets of the flower district, as seen from his fourth-floor window. He wired the building like a surreptitious recording studio and made 1,740 reels (4,000 hours) of stereo and mono audiotapes, capturing more than 300 musicians, among them Roy Haynes, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Roland Kirk, Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry, and Paul Bley. He also recorded legends such as pianists Eddie Costa, and Sonny Clark, drummers Ronnie Free and Edgar Bateman, saxophonist Lin Halliday, bassist Henry Grimes, and multi-instrumentalist Eddie Listengart.

Also dropping in on the nighttime scene were the likes of Doris Duke, Norman Mailer, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Salvador Dalí, as well as pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts, thieves, photography students, local cops, building inspectors, marijuana dealers and others.

Lots of good stuff about the entire Jazz Loft Project on the official website.

This First Edition copy of The Jazz Loft Project: The Photos and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965  is THE book about the sights and sounds of those magical days and nights. And your ticket back!

BOOK DESCRIPTION

  • Condition: New hardback
  • Edition: First Edition - Published November 24, 2009
  • Publisher: Alfred a. Knopf
  • ISBN/EAN: 978-0-307-26709-2
  • Pages: 270
  • Rating:★★★★ 1/2 (See FAQs)
TABS CODE
  • Sam Stephenson is the 2012-13 Lehman Brady Visiting Joint Professor of Documentary Studies and American Studies at Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill. For more than a decade he was the director of The Jazz Loft Project (JLP) at CDS. He has studied the life and work of photographer W. Eugene Smith since 1997.
  • His first book, Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project was published by W.W. Norton/CDS in 2001. In 2009 Alfred A. Knopf published his book, The Jazz Loft Project: The Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue. Currently he is writing a biography of Smith entitled Gene Smith’s Sink, for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Since 1997 Stephenson has conducted more than 500 oral history interviews, revealing an underground story of jazz and post-War arts unpreserved in the iconography. JLP won a 2010 ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award,and a 2010 Innovative Use of Archives Award from the Archivists Roundtable of Metropolitan New York.
  • Periodicals that have published Stephenson’s work include Paris Review, New York Times, Tin House, A Public Space, Oxford American, and Smithsonian. He won a 2001-2002 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He curated exhibitions for both Dream Street and The Jazz Loft Project that had runs at various museums such as the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, The International Center of Photography in New York, the New York Public Library, the Chicago Cultural Center, the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke.
  • He co-produced the Jazz Loft Project Radio Series with Sara Fishko and WNYC: New York Public Radio. He has been featured on NPR several times, NBC’s Today Show, CBS Sunday Morning, CNN, and the BBC. In April 2013 Stephenson formed the Rock Fish Stew Institute of Literature and Materials, a new platform from which to perform documentary work. Rock Fish Stew’s inaugural project is Bull City Summer: A Season at the Ball Park, which concerns a season-long project to document the sights and sounds and stories at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, employing a team of writers, art photographers, and mixed-media artists.
  • CURRENT PROJECTS A biography of W. Eugene Smith for Farrar, Straus and Giroux, working title Gene Smith’s Sink. Manuscript due February 2014.
  • A series of pieces for Paris Review Daily, some stemming from work on Gene Smith’s Sink, some unrelated. Pieces can be read HERE.
  • A documentary film based on his book, The Jazz Loft Project, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.
  • Working with director Sara Fishko and WNYC: New York Public Radio. Fishko was the director of the Jazz Loft Radio Project. Chaos Manor, a.k.a (A)Loft Modulation, a theater project in partnership with playwright Jaymes Jorsling and director, Christopher McElroen, who directed the acclaimed Waiting for Godot in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans after Katrina and directed the first-ever adaptation of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Chaos Manor’s first step was an experimental 45-minute incarnation at the Invisible Dog in Brooklyn September 15-17, 2011, and a public reading of Jorsling’s script on September 20, 2012, both Bookend events of the Brooklyn Book Festival. The project is now being workshopped for stage.
  • Spring 2013 Stephenson founded a new literary-documentary venture based in Chapel Hill-Durham called Rock Fish Stew Institute of Literature and Materials, a platform on which to develop collaborative documentary projects. Bull City Summer: A Season at the Ballpark and Beyond is the first pilot project of Rock Fish Stew. A team of fifteen photographers and writers are converging on the Durham Bulls Athletic Park during the 2013 season to document what happens on and off the field. The project website is HERE. Ongoing A multimedia project based on the seminal oral history tapes about John Coltrane recorded in the early 1970s by Coltrane’s first biographer Dr. Cuthbert Simpkins. A TV series pilot set in 1959 in a Manhattan loft building which is an after-hours haunt of jazz musicians, most struggling.
  • The following is excerpted from the prologue of The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965

    January 29, 1960 

    W. Eugene Smith sits at the fourth-floor window of his dilapidated loft at 821 Sixth Avenue, New York City, near the corner of Twenty-eighth Street, the heart of Manhattan’s wholesale flower district. He peers out at the street below, several cameras at hand loaded with different lenses and film speeds. His window faces east from the west side of Sixth Avenue. The dawn light begins to rise behind the Empire State Building and other Midtown skyscrapers looming over the modest neighborhood. Three musicians stand together on the sidewalk below talking and laughing. One holds an upright bass in its case, another has a saxophone case slung over his shoulder, and the other is smoking a cigarette. It is six o’clock in the morning; the temperature is a moderate thirty degrees. The musicians are going home after a night-long jam session. Smith snaps a few pictures.

    Across the street flatbed trucks unload fresh blooms for the shops that are preparing for daily business. At this time of year the local farms in Long Island, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania’s Dutch country grow roses in the greenhouse while spider mums, lilies, carnations, orchids, chrysanthemums, and birds of paradise are imported from Florida. Smith snaps a few more pictures. Then he hears the familiar sound of quarter-inch recording tape flapping at the end of a reel on the tape machine sitting in his nearby darkroom. He walks into the darkroom and turns off the machine. He places the reel in a box and labels it “Zoot Sims, Roy Haynes, Ronnie Free, Eddie DeHaas, Dave McKenna, Henry Grimes, John Mast, Fred Greenwell. January 29, 1960.” He loads a new tape into the machine and presses “play” and “record.” The only sounds in the loft now come from a transistor radio in the corner tuned to the morning news (supporters of Fidel Castro clashed with dissenters in Central Park the day before; fifteen of New York’s hospitals teetered on the brink of bankruptcy). Sounds from the awakening city—honks and chugs of taxis and the Sixth Avenue bus—waft through Smith’s open window.

    January 20, 2009

    It isn’t necessary to imagine too much of what happened inside 821 Sixth Avenue from 1957 to 1965. Smith documented the goings-on with more than one thousand rolls of film (roughly forty thousand exposures), both inside the building and through his fourth-floor window. He also wired the building from the sidewalk to the top (fifth) floor and made 1,740 reels of audio recordings.

    For thirteen years I have been researching Smith’s life and work. Once enough money was raised (more than half a million dollars) to transfer Smith’s analog tapes to digital files (resulting in 5,079 compact discs of material), my colleague Dan Partridge and I began listening to them for the first time. We’ve traveled to nineteen states and the District of Columbia and interviewed 315 people who passed through the loft building. We played these recordings for as many loft participants as was practical and affordable.

    On December 8, 2000, I visited the saxophonist Lou Orensteen in his apartment on Fifty-fifth Street, New York City, between Eighth and Ninth avenues, where he’d lived for four decades. He shared two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a small living room with his wife, Ingrid, their young daughter, LouLou, and their cat, Nadine. I took the elevator to the ninth floor and knocked on his door. Before I sat down, Orensteen handed me a slip of paper torn from a pocket-sized spiral notebook. “I’ve racked my brain,” he said, “and these are the people I remember being at the loft.” He had listed Gil Coggins, Al Haig, Elvin Jones, Gary Hawkins, Ed Levinsohn, Hod O'Brien, Tom Wayburn, Lin Halliday, Chick Corea, Al Levitt, Eric Dolphy, Sonny Clark, and Jimmy Wormworth.

    Orensteen was sixty-eight years old when I visited him. He stood a lean, muscular six feet, and his considered movements, strong jaw, and squinty eyes made him seem like a retired longshoreman. He said that he suffered from Dupuytren’s disease, which causes fixed flexion contracture in the hands. He’d undergone surgery three times to free up some movement, but holding the saxophone and executing the fingerings were no longer possible. Aside from some occasional teaching and arranging, his jazz career existed mostly in the recesses of his memory.

    Orensteen was born in Los Angeles, and at age eight he moved with his family to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he graduated from high school in 1950. After playing with military bands in the Korean War, he moved to Chicago and met musicians such as Johnny Griffin, Ira Sullivan, Clifford Jordan, John Gilmore, and Chris Anderson. Everyone was moving to New York in those days, though, so Orensteen followed suit and made the move in 1957. It didn’t take long for him to find the jam-session scene at 821 Sixth Avenue.

    Orensteen’s small scrap of paper stands outside jazz history. It flattens the hierarchy of the normal jazz story. Three icons are listed—drummer Elvin Jones, pianist Chick Corea, and saxophonist Eric Dolphy—and two other musicians of historical significance, pianists Al Haig and Sonny Clark. But they are no more important in Orensteen’s memory than Tom Wayburn, Gary Hawkins, Ed Levinsohn, Al Levitt, and Jimmy Wormworth—five obscure drummers. James Baldwin once said, “History is not a procession of illustrious people. It’s about what happens to a people. Millions of anonymous people is what history is about.” Orensteen’s list represents Baldwin’s kind of history. Everyone is worthwhile, like characters in a Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams play. Among Orensteen’s thirteen names are six drummers and five piano players.

    Drums and pianos can’t be carried around town easily. The lofts at 821 had tuned pianos and tuned drums set up all the time. Word got around. The thirteen names also represent birthplaces in at least eight different states.

    The loft building was a kind of funnel, with people from all over the country finding their way to the dank stairwell of the building. Of these fourteen musicians (including Orensteen) we know, as of this writing, that at least eight are recorded on W. Eugene Smith’s tapes: Orensteen, Coggins, Hawkins, Levinsohn, Wayburn, Halliday, Corea, and Clark.

    If Smith had not moved to 821 Sixth Avenue in 1957 and turned his quixotic documentary fevers toward his new home, I never would have traveled to visit Orensteen. I wouldn’t even know his name.

    About the Author

    Sam Stephenson is a writer, instructor, and director of the Jazz Loft Project at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. He is the author of Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project and W. Eugene Smith 55. He lives in Chatham County, North Carolina.

    The following is excerpted from the prologue of the book.

    January 29, 1960 

    W. Eugene Smith sits at the fourth-floor window of his dilapidated loft at 821 Sixth Avenue, New York City, near the corner of Twenty-eighth Street, the heart of Manhattan’s wholesale flower district. He peers out at the street below, several cameras at hand loaded with different lenses and film speeds. His window faces east from the west side of Sixth Avenue. The dawn light begins to rise behind the Empire State Building and other Midtown skyscrapers looming over the modest neighborhood. Three musicians stand together on the sidewalk below talking and laughing. One holds an upright bass in its case, another has a saxophone case slung over his shoulder, and the other is smoking a cigarette. It is six o’clock in the morning; the temperature is a moderate thirty degrees. The musicians are going home after a night-long jam session. Smith snaps a few pictures.

    Across the street flatbed trucks unload fresh blooms for the shops that are preparing for daily business. At this time of year the local farms in Long Island, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania’s Dutch country grow roses in the greenhouse while spider mums, lilies, carnations, orchids, chrysanthemums, and birds of paradise are imported from Florida. Smith snaps a few more pictures. Then he hears the familiar sound of quarter-inch recording tape flapping at the end of a reel on the tape machine sitting in his nearby darkroom. He walks into the darkroom and turns off the machine. He places the reel in a box and labels it “Zoot Sims, Roy Haynes, Ronnie Free, Eddie DeHaas, Dave McKenna, Henry Grimes, John Mast, Fred Greenwell. January 29, 1960.” He loads a new tape into the machine and presses “play” and “record.” The only sounds in the loft now come from a transistor radio in the corner tuned to the morning news (supporters of Fidel Castro clashed with dissenters in Central Park the day before; fifteen of New York’s hospitals teetered on the brink of bankruptcy). Sounds from the awakening city—honks and chugs of taxis and the Sixth Avenue bus—waft through Smith’s open window.

    January 20, 2009

    It isn’t necessary to imagine too much of what happened inside 821 Sixth Avenue from 1957 to 1965. Smith documented the goings-on with more than one thousand rolls of film (roughly forty thousand exposures), both inside the building and through his fourth-floor window. He also wired the building from the sidewalk to the top (fifth) floor and made 1,740 reels of audio recordings.

    For thirteen years I have been researching Smith’s life and work. Once enough money was raised (more than half a million dollars) to transfer Smith’s analog tapes to digital files (resulting in 5,079 compact discs of material), my colleague Dan Partridge and I began listening to them for the first time. We’ve traveled to nineteen states and the District of Columbia and interviewed 315 people who passed through the loft building. We played these recordings for as many loft participants as was practical and affordable.

    On December 8, 2000, I visited the saxophonist Lou Orensteen in his apartment on Fifty-fifth Street, New York City, between Eighth and Ninth avenues, where he’d lived for four decades. He shared two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a small living room with his wife, Ingrid, their young daughter, LouLou, and their cat, Nadine. I took the elevator to the ninth floor and knocked on his door. Before I sat down, Orensteen handed me a slip of paper torn from a pocket-sized spiral notebook. “I’ve racked my brain,” he said, “and these are the people I remember being at the loft.” He had listed Gil Coggins, Al Haig, Elvin Jones, Gary Hawkins, Ed Levinsohn, Hod O'Brien, Tom Wayburn, Lin Halliday, Chick Corea, Al Levitt, Eric Dolphy, Sonny Clark, and Jimmy Wormworth.

    Orensteen was sixty-eight years old when I visited him. He stood a lean, muscular six feet, and his considered movements, strong jaw, and squinty eyes made him seem like a retired longshoreman. He said that he suffered from Dupuytren’s disease, which causes fixed flexion contracture in the hands. He’d undergone surgery three times to free up some movement, but holding the saxophone and executing the fingerings were no longer possible. Aside from some occasional teaching and arranging, his jazz career existed mostly in the recesses of his memory.

    Orensteen was born in Los Angeles, and at age eight he moved with his family to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he graduated from high school in 1950. After playing with military bands in the Korean War, he moved to Chicago and met musicians such as Johnny Griffin, Ira Sullivan, Clifford Jordan, John Gilmore, and Chris Anderson. Everyone was moving to New York in those days, though, so Orensteen followed suit and made the move in 1957. It didn’t take long for him to find the jam-session scene at 821 Sixth Avenue.

    Orensteen’s small scrap of paper stands outside jazz history. It flattens the hierarchy of the normal jazz story. Three icons are listed—drummer Elvin Jones, pianist Chick Corea, and saxophonist Eric Dolphy—and two other musicians of historical significance, pianists Al Haig and Sonny Clark. But they are no more important in Orensteen’s memory than Tom Wayburn, Gary Hawkins, Ed Levinsohn, Al Levitt, and Jimmy Wormworth—five obscure drummers. James Baldwin once said, “History is not a procession of illustrious people. It’s about what happens to a people. Millions of anonymous people is what history is about.” Orensteen’s list represents Baldwin’s kind of history. Everyone is worthwhile, like characters in a Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams play. Among Orensteen’s thirteen names are six drummers and five piano players.

    Drums and pianos can’t be carried around town easily. The lofts at 821 had tuned pianos and tuned drums set up all the time. Word got around. The thirteen names also represent birthplaces in at least eight different states.

    The loft building was a kind of funnel, with people from all over the country finding their way to the dank stairwell of the building. Of these fourteen musicians (including Orensteen) we know, as of this writing, that at least eight are recorded on W. Eugene Smith’s tapes: Orensteen, Coggins, Hawkins, Levinsohn, Wayburn, Halliday, Corea, and Clark.

    If Smith had not moved to 821 Sixth Avenue in 1957 and turned his quixotic documentary fevers toward his new home, I never would have traveled to visit Orensteen. I wouldn’t even know his name.

    About the Author

    Sam Stephenson is a writer, instructor, and director of the Jazz Loft Project at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. He is the author of Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project and W. Eugene Smith 55. He lives in Chatham County, North Carolina.

     

     

  • Official Jazz Loft Project website

    The Jazz Loft Project, organized by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University in cooperation with the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona and the W. Eugene Smith estate, is devoted to preserving and cataloging Smith's tapes, researching the photographs, and obtaining oral history interviews with all surviving loft participants. The transferred recordings reveal high sound quality and extraordinary musical and cultural content, offering unusual documentation of an after-hours New York jazz scene.

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