The Jazz Loft Project — Rehearsal

FROM MY piece that should be going up soon . . . Friday on the site SonicBoomers.

When you think about the “jazz idiom,” the fluid interplay among musicians and, in turn, between artist and listener; the music’s symbolism has always gone beyond notes. That’s the magic of jazz. The jazz vernacular, its modes, its symbols, its very atmosphere has been transmuted into visual “moods” – hence, “the jazz life.”

That “life”, translated through the lens of various photographers can be high gloss, after-five (Herman Leonard) or ethereal, moody beauty (William Claxton); or sweaty, sessions in-session from the musician’s point-of-view (Chuck Stewart) and so on.

We seldom see jazz in its full context, as a sort of workaday world of concepts, conversation, analytical equations worked out step-by-step. Seems fitting then that photographer W. Eugene Smith, most famous for his documentary work for Life magazine, his unblinking, front-line examination of World War II would interpret jazz differently and document a hiding-in-plain sight jazz scene in mid-century New York. City..

The Jazz Loft Project, a book, exhibit and now-ongoing online project, assembled by Sam Stephenson, a writer and instructor at Duke University and Smith scholar, is a study of serendipity stumbling into serendipity. Stephenson, who is also the author of W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project and W. Eugene Smith 55, was at work on something else entirely when he happened upon this treasure trove of Smith’s work – which included not just photographs of musicians and their sessions but the surrounding bustle and city noise of NYC’s flower district from 1957 to 1965.

Smith, by chance ended up, pushing off – away from his wife and family – and relocating to the fourth floor this broken-down industrial building to try to finish his expansive documentary project about Pittsburg, PA. He’d hit a dead-end of the creative sort and decided to hole away as an attempt to concentrate fully. He had no idea what threshold he’d walked over at 821 Sixth Avenue. It was its own crossroads for jazz musicians – some names that will perpetually echo others that might have been lost forever except for Smith’s copious record-keeping. For a decade, beginning in 1954, musicians found their way to the nondescript commercial building; climbed the stairs with their cases, often in the middle of the night, to sit-in on sessions that could go well into the next day. Smith collected the evidence – Theonious Monk, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, Don Cherry, im Hall, Jimmy Giuffre, Orenette Coleman, Paul Bley, Pee ,Wee Russell, and more.

Smith however, had the presence of mind to go one step further – he didn’t just photograph the jam sessions – but as well the audio equipment, the neighborhood’s comings and goings, the seasons changing, the tops of Fedora’s the swing of a pair of silk-stocking legs emerging from a big, American sedan. Smith didn’t simply record the sessions on film, he taped, and taped and taped. And Stephenson happened upon all of these too – the sessions, sure, but again the aural context – the world that was a-swirl around these sessions, the music that was being made on the spot — the radio talk shows, and sppeches and news reports which All of them stored away on nearly 2,000 reel-to-reels that work as a time capsule of sorts – that too, incrementally exhibit the seasons changing in the country – from the Cold War to the Civil Rights movement — in a much more philosophical and metaphorical way.

The photos are portals; the details intimate: Hands on keys, fingers on strings; men in motion so that the line separating the musician from the instrument has been rubbed away.

Smith’s main goal, writes Stephenson, was to record the people in the loft, as both an aural and visual document. “He once asked a visitor,” writes Stephenson “ ‘Do you mid if I turn on my recorder in case something brilliant happens?’” The idea, suggests Stephenson is that he gained more than inspiration from the musicians who wandered in to play but rather, “sustenance.”

— By Lynell George

(photots: w. eugene smith from the jazz loft project)

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