The JAZZ LOFT PROJECT: A multimedia must!

This morning on NPR’s Weekend Edition featured its last installment of the JAZZ LOFT PROJECT, a story of the early 1960’s as captured on audio recordings captured by photographer W. Eugene Smith in his NYC loft at 821 6th Avenue, which was a gathering place for jazz musicians, often jamming late into the night.   In today’s segment, the sounds from Smith’s radio in the background told of life in America in the 1963, which along with Smith’s life, was falling apart.  The Jazz Loft Project tells us of the life of a photographer, the movement of modern jazz, and of our country in a time of great turmoil.

From the Jazz Loft Project website:


In January 1955 W. Eugene Smith, a celebrated photographer at Life magazine whose quarrels with his editors were legendary, quit his longtime well-paying job at the magazine. He was thirty-six. He was ambitious, quixotic, in search of greater freedom and artistic license. He turned his attention to a freelance assignment in Pittsburgh, a three-week job that turned into a four-year obsession and in the end, remained unfinished. In a letter to Ansel Adams, Smith described it as a “debacle” and an “embarrassment.”

In 1957, Smith moved out of the home he shared with his wife and four children in Croton-on-Hudson, New York and moved into a dilapidated, five-story loft building at 821 Sixth Avenue in New York City’s wholesale flower district. 821 Sixth Avenue (between Twenty-eighth and Twenty-ninth streets) 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 the epic Pittsburgh project, 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 the loft, making roughly 40,000 pictures, the largest body of work in his career.  He photographed 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 also recorded 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 Dalí, as well as pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts, thieves, photography students, local cops, building inspectors, marijuana dealers, and others.

The Jazz Loft Project, organized by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University in cooperation with the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona and the W. Eugene Smith estate, is devoted to preserving and cataloging Smith’s tapes, researching the photographs, and obtaining oral history interviews with all surviving loft participants. The transferred recordings reveal high sound quality and extraordinary musical and cultural content, offering unusual documentation of an after-hours New York jazz scene.”

Read about the book component to the project here.

WYNC’s  Jazz Loft Project Radio Series was presented in 10 episodes.

“Sara Fishko and WNYC, in collaboration with partners at the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) at Duke University, have build a radio series from the tapes of loft life discounted in W. Eugene Smith’s vast archive.”  Hosted by Sara Fiscko, Produced by WNYC. Read Fisko’s introduction to the Jazz Loft Project Radio Series and read complete credits here, and a listing of content featured in each segment here.

From the credits, expanded credits to Smith’s Estate, and the Center for Creative Photography, which together enabled this project to commence: “Smith’s photographs and tapes from the loft building at 821 Sixth Avenue, New York City, 1957–1965, represented in the Jazz Loft Project, were generously made available by the CCP and the Smith Estate. The CCP collects, preserves, interprets, and makes available materials that are essential to understanding photography and its history. Through its archives, collections, education programs, exhibitions, and publications, the CCP promotes research into and appreciation of the photographic medium. The archives of significant American photographers—including Ansel Adams, Harry Callahan, W. Eugene Smith, Edward Weston, Garry Winogrand, and Louise Dahl-Wolfe—form the core of the collection. The CCP has an integrated program of preservation, access, and education that celebrates the history of photography and its contemporary practice. The CCP was established in 1975 by photographer Ansel Adams and University of Arizona president John P. Schaefer. It is a special collection within the University of Arizona Libraries.”

Click here to view WEB EXTRAS which include a slide show of 25 of Smith’s photographs with ambient sound recordings made in the loft.

WNYC’a Leonard Lopate  Show Interview with Sam Stephenson (December 8, 2009):

“W. Eugene Smith’s Jazz Loft Project has been legendary in the worlds of art, photography, and music for more than 40 years. Sam Stephenson, writer and instructor at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, tells about his seven-year project to catalog, archive, select, and edit Smith’s jazz loft photographs and tapes for his book, The Jazz Loft Project. It includes photographs of some of the biggest names in jazz—Charles Mingus, Zoot Sims, Bill Evans, and Thelonious Monk among them—and countless underground characters who hung out at 821 Sixth Avenue late at night, as well as street scenes that Smith took from his fourth-floor window. ”

Sam Stephenson has spent many years studying the work of Smith.  Learn more about Stephenson from this link on the CDC website:

“Stephenson became interested in Pittsburgh’s history and character during a visit to the city to meet the family of his fiancée seven years ago and began researching the life and work of Smith. Since then, he has edited two books on the photographer: Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project, published by the Center for Documentary Studies in association with W.W. Norton and Co., and W. Eugene Smith,published by Phaidon Press in its Photography 55 series. Stephenson also wrote the script for the documentary film Brilliant Fever: W. Eugene Smith and Pittsburgh, which will screen at CDS on Thursday, January 23, at 7 p.m. The National Endowment for the Humanities recognized Stephenson’s work and awarded him a fellowship to continue his research on Smith; currently, Stephenson is directing a documentary and oral history project about the New York loft where Smith lived and worked and where jazz greats, such as Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and Charles Mingus, frequently held all-night jam sessions.”

Stephenson’s curatorial work continues: this exhibition is coming to the New York this spring:

“The Underground Story of Photographer W. Eugene Smith and the Jazz Loft is Told in a New Multimedia Exhibition at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.  Photographs and audio feature the anonymous and celebrated, including; Thelonious Monk, Zoot Sims, Salvador Dali, and Norman Mailer. The Jazz Loft Project on view from February 17, 2010 to May 22, 2010 in the Donald and Mary Oenslager Gallery.”

I’ll post more about this exhibition as it approaches.

Lastly, click here to read a review of the Jazz Loft Project published on November 27th, 2009 on the CONSCIENTIOUS weblog authored by Joerg Colberg

…and more press links are archived here.

SO much to learn from this fantastic project!


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