Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith

The legendary photographer, W Eugene Smith, in the fifties through the early 1970s when he was evicted after a dispute with his landlord, rented floors in a Sixth Avenue building in the 'Flower District' of Manhattan. Smith had been a famed photo journalist for Life Magazine and is renown for his pictures of Pittsburgh. Through the mid-fifties until the mid-sixties, his space became a focal point for jazz musicians as well as Smith's own photography. This documentary from WNYC Films and directed by Sara Fishko, and available on DVD from FilmBuff, follows up a coffee table book from Sam Stephenson, and a WNYC radio series (that I believe Ms Fishko produced) to tell this fascinating story of this photographer and the space that was both home and his work space.

Jazz musicians then, and now, continue to struggle in funding places to play and rehearse, as well as live. When Smith moved into his loft in the mid-fifties, others were doing the same thing, illegally setting up homes and work places in  a commercially zoned area of New York City. Smith had been famous for his photo stories in Life Magazine, but with an obsessive nature, including his desire to control the layout of his photo stories, eventually became estranged from Life. In the fifties, when he was associated with the Magnum Agency, he was contracted to do a book of 100 pictures in Pittsburgh. He ended up taking thousands which he then tried to go through in the home about an hour up the Hudson from New York City.

With slow progress on a book getting done, and Smith failing to pay taxes, he moved away from his family and the house to the Manhattan loft. He set up a dark room, started shooting out the window, and started recording not only the music played by musicians, but his phone calls and the like as he spread out proofs on the walls and more. and word got out about his loft and musicians of all stripes would play there. He even drilled holes in the ceiling to place mikes on the floor above to capture the music. Obsessive about documenting everything, he had many reels of tape as well as his photos he took. 

Musicians like Freddie Redd, Ronnie Free, Gerry Mulligan and others were there and can be seen in some of the photos. Free even started living there as well as often serving as house drummer, and one of the other musicians he met then introduced him to heroin. He went on the road with Sarah Vaughan, but his habit made him so unreliable, he returned to the loft not long after. 

 Bill Crown is among those interviewed and here is a clip of him interviewed for the film

Smith's focus on his photography (and there is considerable discussion about his skills not simply in capturing the moment, but his darkroom and printing skills) and recording the music and all the goings on in the loft sometimes had him forget mundane things like paying the rent (or paying back someone like Hall Overton who lent him money (and is supposed to have threatened Smith with pinning him to the wall if he did not repay). 

Overton is another central figure besides Smith. On the faculty at Julliard, he was equally comfortable in either classical and jazz contexts and at the loft,m started teaching composition and other matters with students including Carmen Moore, Carla Bley and Steve Reich. Besides this, he also collaborated with Thelonious Monk on Monk's Town Hall concert which was significant in that at the time Monk had lost his cabaret card and unable to play in Manhattan clubs, but could play concerts. 

 Here is a CNN documentary on The Jazz Loft Project

A mix of rehearsal tapes, photos of the two working together take us from Monk teaching Overton how to play his music to working out concepts and arrangements of the music that would be performed. We hear from Harry Colomby, who was Monk's manager at the time, participants in the concert like alto saxophonist Phil Woods and french horn player Robert Northern about the experience, and the rehearsals with commentary from Monk's son T.S. Monk, monk biographer Kelley and the prominent contemporary pianist Jason Moran. One hears Phil Woods discuss the difficulty of the music, and  Robert Northern mention how Monk helped him get beyond simply his academic treatment of the notes to get the rhythmic feel down. The results of the three odd weeks of rehearsal was a musical triumph.

Here is a brief overview of Eugene Smith's contribution to photography

Nothing lasts forever, and the eventual demise of Smith's loft is discussed. Throughout this documentary, Smith's photographs and audio from the performances as well as his own life are skillfully weaved in with the interviews with musicians and others making for some fascinating viewing. This is a superb film that will intrigue those into either/and jazz and photography. I purchased this as a download although it is available on DVD and can be rented if one does not wish to purchase. For more information visit which includes a trailer for the film. Finally we have a clip of Sara Fishko and Calvin Skaggs discussing the film at Docs NYC in 2015.

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