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Jazz Loft Project’ Provides Behind-The-Scenes Look At Jazz Greats

W. Eugene Smith,

Credit: Courtesy of MOPA

Above: W. Eugene Smith, "Thelonious Monk and Town Hall Band in rehearsal," c. 1957-1965. Collection of the W. Eugene Smith Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona and The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith.

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In the late 1950s, photographer W. Eugene Smith quit his job at Life magazine, left his family in the suburbs and moved into a run-down, five-story loft building in New York City's flower district. Located at 821 Sixth Avenue, the building served as a late-night, underground haunt for jazz musicians, including Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins and Zoot Sims among many others, as well as a refuge for creative types seeking a new life.

Over the course of eight years (1957-1965), Smith shot over 40,000 photographs of the musicians as they jammed and rehearsed, as well as the street life below from the vantage point of his fourth-floor window. Not only did he capture images of music-history-in-the-making, he also captured the sounds. Smith wired the building from the sidewalk to the top floor, recording 1,740 reels (4,000-plus hours) of stereo and mono audiotapes.

But the tapes remained unheard until more than two decades after Smith's death in 1978. While researching Smith at his archive at the University of Arizona, author Sam Stephenson made the discovery of a lifetime: a large wall of cardboard boxes filled with the reels. Stephenson, an instructor at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, spent four years raising money to preserve and restore the tapes. In addition to rare jazz performances and jam sessions, the tapes revealed the everyday life of the space, from candid conversations and phone calls, to TV and radio programs that Smith was listening to while he worked, even cats meowing. (Listen to a sampling, along with an interview with Smith, in this New York Times audio slideshow.)

Thanks to Smith's relentless documentation, "we have access to a behind the scenes, off-stage world of jazz that we normally don’t have access to," says Stephenson, who also spent several years traveling throughout the country to interview the many individuals whose names were written on the tapes.

Stephenson has compiled these stories along with Smith's images and sounds into The Jazz Loft Project, a book, public radio series, website and traveling exhibition, now on view at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park.

Stephenson speaks with KPBS Midday Edition about his research and process in putting the Jazz Loft Project together.

The Jazz Loft Project: W. Eugene Smith in NYC, 1957-1965” is on view now through October 7 at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park.


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