The Jazz Loft Project : Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965
In 1957, Eugene Smith, a thirty-eight-year-old magazine photographer, walked out of his comfortable settled world--his longtime well-paying job at Life and the home he shared with his wife and four children in Croton-on-Hudson, New York--to move into a dilapidated, five-story loft building at 821 Sixth Avenue (between Twenty-eighth and Twenty-ninth streets) in New York City's wholesale flower district. Smith was trying to complete the most ambitious project of his life, a massive photo-essay on the city of Pittsburgh.
821 Sixth Avenue 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 his quixotic Pittsburgh opus, 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 his loft, making roughly 40,000 pictures, the largest body of work in his career, photographing 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 recorded, as well, 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 Dal�, as well as pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts, thieves, photography students, local cops, building inspectors, marijuana dealers, and others.
Sam Stephenson discovered Smith's jazz loft photographs and tapes eleven years ago and has spent the last seven years cataloging, archiving, selecting, and editing Smith's materials for this book, as well as writing its introduction and the text interwoven throughout.
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November 24, 2009
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Excerpt from The Jazz Loft Project by Sam Stephenson
821 Sixth Avenue
See, actually I'm doing a book about this building itself . . . out the window and within the building, because it's quite a weird, interesting story.
--W. Eugene Smith,
recorded on his loft tapes, ca. 1960
Eight twenty-one Sixth Avenue, a nondescript five-floor loft walkup, was built in 1853 for commercial purposes by someone named George E. Hencken. Today, the narrow building is slightly wider than the length of the parking space in front of it. Its bricks are painted gray and layered with decades of accumulated scum and grime. High-rise condo towers, which have sprouted since the neighborhood was rezoned residential in the late 1990s, loom over the building. In a matter of time 821 Sixth Avenue will be sold and demolished to make way for more condos. Meanwhile, the Chinese-American owners, the Chang family, import and sell wigs there, very successfully. They bought the building in 2002 from Bernie's Discount Center, which sold televisions, microwave ovens, air conditioners, and other appliances in the space for four decades. It is an unprepossessing place, bearing no clues of the crossroads of jazz, art, and postwar urban- American lore that it used to be. The Chang family never heard about it.
For ten years, beginning in 1954, jazz musicians by the hundreds climbed the creaky, mildewed wooden stairs for sessions--both impromptu and formal--in the middle of the night. Many of the biggest names in jazz hung their hats there, for at least a few hours, if not for several years.
Thelonious Monk and Hall Overton rehearsed the music for Monk's legendary big-band concerts at Town Hall in 1959, at Lincoln Center in 1963, and at Carnegie Hall in 1964. Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and Teddy Charles honed the sound heard on the record Blue Moods there. The place drew such prime players as Bill Evans, Roland Kirk, Zoot Sims, Jimmy Giuffre, Roy Haynes, Sonny Clark, Stan Getz, Jim Hall, Don Cherry, and Paul Bley, who formed ad hoc ensembles that often included veteran stars like Buck Clayton, Vic Dickenson, and Pee Wee Russell. Ornette Coleman went there to play the beat-up, idiosyncratic Steinway B piano on the fifth floor by himself. Alice Coltrane and Joe Henderson rented rooms on the fifth floor for a few months after moving to New York from Detroit in 1961.
Musicians from other genres frequented the place, too: minimalist composer Steve Reich, conductor Dennis Russell Davies, and folksinger Nehama Hendel. Photographers Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, and Henri Cartier-Bresson went there, as did painter Salvador Dal� and writers Ana�s Nin and Norman Mailer.
For every renowned musician who visited 821 Sixth Avenue, however, there were dozens who were obscure. Strangers--unproven newcomers-- wandered into the place: if you could play an instrument, you were okay. Fifteen-year-old pianist Jane Getz came in from Texas, pianist Dave Frishberg from Minnesota, and bassist Jimmy Stevenson from Michigan. But this was no romantic oasis of "cool" acceptance and warm fellow feeling. If you couldn't play--if you weren't good enough-- there was no reason for you to be there, unless you had other assets. There was dope to be smoked, and sometimes heroin or methadrene to shoot up, and every once in a while there was sex to be had. The door facing the sidewalk could be unlocked or completely missing--a cave or mine shaft in the dead center of Manhattan--and junkies snuck in, climbed the stairs, and stole things to pawn. Roaches and mice and rats and stray cats loved the place, too.
During the daytime the smell of flowers wafted through the neighborhood and the open windows of the loft building. Growers from Long Island had begun ferrying and carting their flowers to the intersection of Sixth Avenue and Twenty-eighth Street sometime around the Civil War. Before refrigeration, perishable merchandise required a central distribution point, and this corner was perfect for burgeoning Manhattan. The same location was also good for vice. The flower shops closed down late in the afternoon, and the Sixth Avenue elevated train canopied the street. Before World War I the neighborhood was known as "the Tenderloin," the primary red-light district in New York. The notorious dance hall the Haymarket was at Sixth Avenue and Thirtieth Street, and the upper floors of many of the flower shops turned into brothels or gambling joints after dark. The artist John Sloan documented the seedy scene with numerous paintings and drawings.
Sex, gambling, and flowers--fleeting pleasures; it made sense for them to find a home here. A few decades later, the real estate cheapened by its legacy and made affordable for artists, the flower district was the place to hear some of the best after-hours jazz in New York City. The unorthodox rhythms of the music meshed with the daily patterns on the street. At dawn the flower growers would arrive to peddle their blooms in the neighborhood markets as musicians were stumbling out of the building. Then, after midnight, with the shops closed and quiet again, the jazzmen (and a few women) resurfaced for a night of full-tilt blowing.
W. Eugene Smith moved into the building in 1957, during a period in his life that he later called "the worst"--a relative term, given his always stormy affairs. The scene anchored and inspired him. It was an intersection of people that could have occurred nowhere other than New York. Jazz musicians were flocking there from all over the country, along with many others aspiring to new lives. Suddenly this building, which had been abandoned for decades, became a spot where you could stop by and see an icon, or see unknown junkies strung out on the fourth-floor landing, or see nobody at all, only empty Rheingold bottles, hundreds of cigarette butts, and tin cans of half- eaten food. Some nights, from the sidewalk, you'd hear transporting saxophone solos coming out of the fourth- or fifth-floor windows. Other nights, the only sound would be the periodic throttle of the Sixth Avenue bus, which had a stop at the corner of Twenty-eighth Street.
Somewhere floating on the premises, or peering out his fourth-floor window, the furtive Smith and his camera clicked away. In a November 1958 letter to his friend Ansel Adams, Smith wrote: "The loft is a curious place, pinned with the notes and proof prints . . . with reminders . . . with demands. Always there is the window. It forever seduces me away from my work in this cold water flat. I breathe and smile and quicken and languish in appreciation of it, the proscenium arch with me on the third stage looking it down and up and bent along the sides and the whole audience in performance down before me, an ever changing pandemonium of delicate details and habitual rhythms."