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 Dalí, 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.
W. Eugene Smith’s Jazz Loft Project has been legendary in the worlds of art, photography, and music for more than forty years, but until the publication of The Jazz Loft Project, no one had seen Smith’s extraordinary photographs or read any of the firsthand accounts of those who were there and lived to tell the tale(s) . . .
The photographs, transcribed conversations and belated memories collected in the remarkable The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965 can make you nostalgic for an era that you didn't live through and for a social milieu that you never were part of. Sequestering himself in a dingy loft in Manhattan's Flower District after a series of professional and personal setbacks, the famed photographer W. Eugene Smith began to scrupulously document both the street life around his home and, much more extensively, the comings and goings of a constant stream of jazz musicians who had an open invitation to participate in the all-night jam sessions that took place in his loft. A world-class obsessive, Smith wired the building -- which he shared with other musicians -- with recording devices in order to tape any spontaneous musical happenings that might occur. A partial listing in the back of the book documents the staggering roll call of visitors, including such luminaries as Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and Bill Evans.
Yet what the evocative Jazz Loft Project so vividly reminds us is that for every iconic figure now residing in the high culture pantheon, there were scores of lesser-known but staunchly creative artists who seeded the cultural field. Which brings us to tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims. The secret hero of the book, Sims keeps popping up again and again in pictures and personal anecdotes. (The estimable bop saxophonist Phil Woods recounts a priceless memory of Sims wiping out a room full of competing players: "THERE'S NOTHING BUT BODIES ALL AROUND HIM, AND HE'S STILL GOING!") Still, this legendary improviser remains a "musician's musician." Think of Richard Yates as a literary equivalent -- only subtract the posthumous fame. Sims, who died in 1985 at age 59, may have been out of step with the postwar times; while he could fit in effortlessly with bop-inclined partners, his true role models were earlier Swing-era giants like Lester Young and Ben Webster. Still, few jazz instrumentalists ever swung harder while spinning out gorgeous lyrical improvisations in the most luxurious of tones. By the time of such late-period album masterpieces as "If I'm Lucky," "Warm Tenor," and "In a Sentimental Mood," Sims had achieved a state of golden artistic maturity that is a joy to experience.
Smith, much like the jazzmen he virtually lived with, appreciated this invaluable underdog. Check out the glowing shot on page 79 of Sims communing with his horn; it's a picture that speaks equally of the photographer's mastery and the saxophonist's passion. --Steve Futterman