'Jazz Loft Project' provides behind-the-scenes look at jazz greats
May 30, 2012 1:10 p.m.
Sam Stephenson, Jazz Loft Project director, author and instructor at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.
This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Being at the right place at the right time is a formula for good luck. Being at the right team at the right time and knowing what to do with that is brilliant. W Eugene Smith was a photographer in New York in the late 1950s. He found himself in a place where the future legends of Jazz were creating their music. He took pictures, so that mics, turn on a tape recorder and compiled reels and reels of music history. The sounds and images have been compiled by my guest Sam Stephenson is an author and instructor at the Center for documentary studies at Duke University. Sam Stephenson curated the exhibit the Jazz loft Project W Eugene Smith in New York City in 1957 to 65 and it's now on display at the Museum of photographic arts in Balboa Park. Sam, welcome to the show.
SAM STEPHENSON: Thank you Maureen, thanks for having me.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now you've researched and written about the work of W Eugene Smith and you know all about him, you've researched this for some time, tell us about him if you want.
SAM STEPHENSON: He is most famous for being a Life magazine photographer from the early 40s through the mid-50s, which was really the heyday of life magazine. He started out as a combat photographer in World War II and became I guess what might be called, is often called the master of the photographic essay. He really perfected the photographic story, the linkage of photographs rather than the individual image. And that's probably what he is most known for and everything he's most known for is a body of work he did in Japan in the 1970s which really was a pioneering work in revealing corporate pollution.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What led him to New York living alone in the late 1950s?
SAM STEPHENSON: He was extremely obsessive and feverish and he was married young, had kids very young, but he was never really meant to be a family man in a certain sense. He just worked all the time. He worked around the clock. And he was in the middle, he was in his mid to late 30s and really at the peak of his powers, but he was also at the peak of his obsessions and he left his family in a suburban bedroom community outside New York City and moved into this dilapidated loft building in the middle of Manhattan which was a legendary after-hours scene of jazz musicians.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want you to talk a little bit more about that, Sam, because we hear about loss now they are gorgeous open floor plans lots of windows, what was this loft like a 21 six Avenue?
SAM STEPHENSON: I know what you are saying. When you think of a lofty think of Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware. But this left was a wood plank and brick shell of the building. It was built in 1853 and it was just a shell. There was no insulation. There was no plumbing. There was no electrical work. All of the utilities were basically homemade. And the other thing about it was that it was in the middle of a commercial district even know it was invented center of Manhattan it was not a residential center it was actually illegal to live there. There was nobody around at night. Was really desolate Antarctic night which of course made perfect for late night just because there was nobody around to complain about noise at three o'clock in the morning.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So all of these musicians after they did their paying gigs, they actually went to this left and created this new music that Eugene was able to record. Now, tell us about the photographs, before we talk about the sound he recorded, tell us about the photographs that Smith took in the loft.
SAM STEPHENSON: Between 1957 in 1965 he made about 40,000 photographs of the building and about half of them are inside and they are of the nocturnal jazz scene. And the other half are out of the fourth floor window. The same window every time. And he photographed, those were mostly made during did daytime. So there's a series of successive nocturnal images with these outdoor daylight window pictures, which I can provide a lot of relief. And I think it provided relief for him, too. And visually, it provides relief. So, it's kind of a day night cycle that you get to see indoor, outdoor Circle.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And then of course there are the audiotapes. Smith acquired, pit mics all over this loft and just let the tape roll, is that what happened?
SAM STEPHENSON: That's what happened, yeah, when he moved in in '57 he wired the building from the sidewalk all the way up to the fifth floor which was the top floor and he had microphones running like vines or roots throughout the building, through the walls, through the ceilings and floors up and down the stairwell and he was able to control the recording from his darkroom, so he could record anywhere in the building at any given time and he would, so a lot of what he recorded were these jazz jam sessions but he also recorded conversations and things of TV and radio and people walking up and down the stairs and I mean it's really kind of a miraculous potpourri of postwar American culture that comes through on those tapes.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's hear some of those tapes recorded at the Jazz loft. Here is Thelonius monk and his big band as they rehearse for their legendary town Hall concert in February 1959.
(Jazz music playing)
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: that's a cut from the composition of minor performed by Thelonious Monk and his big band and it's part of the Jazz loft Project which is on display right down at the Melbourne Museum. Now, Sam, this is pretty good sound. How have these tapes been restored?
SAM STEPHENSON: We had to raise a lot of money to transfer the sound from the original reels, 7 inch reels of tape to digital format and we hired a gourmet company to do that because we figured that the material was historic although we didn't know because nobody had ever heard them. But it turned out to be true and what you just heard, that is the looniest monks solo is remarkable and the sound is good, and what we learned from listening to the tapes is that Smith applied the same level of obsession and fever to his taping that he did to his photography.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And we also learned some things that actually rewrite jazz history. I'm thinking of the relationship between Thelonious Monk and Juilliard trained Hall Overton who scored Monk's music these tics revealed that Monk had a larger say in this course and everybody once thought is that right?
SAM STEPHENSON: That's exactly right the way that the concert has been written about and all of the big band concerts, there were three of them that Monk and Overton collaborated on and Overton was a Juilliard professor. He was also white and Thelonious Monk was black. With it it's been written about is that Overton basically cook Monk's music off into his corner and Overton scored the music for a big band. What these tapes reveal is that Monk made every one of those decisions. And Overton, he and Overton had a very direct and full collaboration on this and so, that's a real change in the perception of those shows, and then points to I think the achievement of Smith in general is that he provided access to behind-the-scenes qualities and nature of jazz that normally you don't have access to. The jazz history is written from the point of view of the official recordings and usually you don't have access to the rehearsals and practice and record it goes behind those recordings.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: . Since Eugene Smith tape just about everything we have a recording of 20 is Monday and all over 10 at conversation and they just left.
THELONIOUS MONK: There's a tenor, what do we have a baritone there? There's a baritone coming on the inside.
HALL OVERTON: During the last what about spine, that's the band.
THELONIOUS MONK: That's got to be on the inside. Trombone inaudible
HALL OVERTON: (Inaudible
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's Thelonious Monk talking about his compositions with Hall Overton. You know, what can we expect to see when we go to the Museum of photographic arts to see the Jazz loft Project?
SAM STEPHENSON: I think one of the most important things you will see there our prints and made by Smith in his darkroom. There are around 150 prints in that show that he made and I think that even people who don't like his style of photography, which is very moody and very contrast with heavy blacks and whites in every color in between, but even people who don't like that style will admit that there was perhaps no better, no more meticulous craftsman in the darkroom then Smith. So, you get CDs, in the day and age of instant photography, everybody has a camera in their pocket, you get to see these prints that were made the old-fashioned way which was incredibly arduous and tedious and it took an enormous amount of time and all of these prints were made by him by hand.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now do we have any idea what compels Smith to document this space, you know the sights and sounds of it so extensively?
SAM STEPHENSON: You know, I've been studying this material for 12 years and I'm now writing a biography of Smith and, in my biography among the going to be able to speculate about that. He didn't talk about it much.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: He never showed this worker, right?
SAM STEPHENSON: He never really showed it. Had several chances late in his life to create retrospectives of his life's work and even though this project works the rest of his career even photographically it dwarfs the rest of his career if you have the tapes it is by many folds the largest body of work of his career and he never really representative. And I think the reason for that is because it was really private and personal and it was not a journalistic imperative. It was loaded with the kind of journalistic imperatives of his more famous work. It was much more personal and private. And so I think he always thought of himself as a journalist and as a public journalist and somebody who is going to reveal something to the world. And he did that with this work, but it wasn't the kind of, it wasn't the exercise of journalism where you go out into the world and come back with a story. Instead with this material he was just documenting what was right around him.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now you are a big fan of jazz. What went through your mind when you first discovered this treasure trove?
SAM STEPHENSON: When I discovered the tapes in 1998 it was four years before I ever heard them and the only information I had to go by were the names. There were 138 names that I was able to make out that Smith had chicken scratched on the labels of the tapes and that was really when the Jazz loft Project began was with the 138 names and I began tracking down musicians that were still alive among those 138 and interviewing them about the loft and they would tell me the stories and I just was stunned. Though it was four years before I could actually hear anything, but there is also, the tapes did not have a very good reputation in the photo world because Smith really used a lot of time and resources on these tapes and people in the photo world, which back then consisted of about 12 people who were arbiters of photography in New York at the time, so the word spread fast that he had kind of lost his mind once and for all. He always would've teetered on the edge anyway, but when he started making the tapes he was judged you really have gone over the heads of the reputation was not very good. I was concerned we would spend all this money transferring them and find out it's garbage.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's not what you found out though, Sam. I've got to end it there, I'm running out of time. I want to let everyone know that I've been speaking with the director of the Jazz loft Project Sam Stephenson and the exhibits, the photographs and you can hear the music in kiosks at the exhibit. It is on view now through October 7 at the Museum of photographic arts in Balboa Park. Sam, thanks so much.
SAM STEPHENSON: Thank you for having me, Maureen.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Be sure to watch KPBS Evening Edition tonight at 6:30 on KPBS TV. Join us again tomorrow for discussions on San Diego's top stories right here on Midday Edition on KPBS FM. I am Maureen Cavanaugh, thanks for listening.