He wired the whole place for sound recording—from the street level entry at 821 Sixth Avenue, to the fifth floor walk-up loft at the top. It had been a derelict, virtually abandoned building. From the time he occupied a fourth floor loft in 1957 until he left it at the end of the 60s, photojournalist W. Eugene Smith recorded over 4,000 hours of live music, radio and TV programs, and just plain everyday talk, on quarter inch audio tape, using a variety of open reel machines. He also exposed some 1500 rolls of 35mm. still film, a total of about 40,000 photographs. Some of the images, like the audio recordings, documented the all night rehearsal and jam sessions of Manhattan’s top jazz musicians, arrangers, and composers who had discovered the loft to be an ideal playing venue after-hours or between their club gigs. The area’s daytime streets in the heart of the bustling flower market were deserted at night: no neighbors to complain, no police likely to show up to bust the booze and drug-fueled impromptu sessions. Smith’s elaborate wiring handiwork was not meant to be hidden; the exposed cables were splayed like spider webs along walls and ceilings, all leading to the central control recorders in his fourth floor photo darkroom. Jam sessions were sometimes interrupted by the sound of Smith’s drill poking up through a floorboard, followed by a snaking microphone cable. The mikes were visible where they were near the musicians, but not so visible in other areas. The five-story loft was Mecca for a generation of jazz stars, as well as for up and coming unknowns, and even down and outers—anyone who could blow or play at a level that could pass muster for Monk, Mingus, Zoot Sims, Bill Evans, Roland Kirk (all regulars at one time or another), and dozens of hipsters who made the loft a sometimes second home.
When Smith arrived at the loft he was in a state of deep personal and career crisis. Two years earlier, he had finally broken off a fractious but long term relationship with the editors of Life magazine. Their insistent oversight and messing with the image selection and layout of his already legendary photo essays had reached for him a breaking point. After quitting Life, he got an assignment from historian Stefan Lorant that took him to Pittsburgh to create a photo portrait in celebration of the city’s bicentennial. He hoped this would be a document on the order of Joyce’s literary portrait of Dublin, Ulysses. But a planned three week stint turned into a year; he made over twenty-two thousand photographs of the city and its people, hoping to cull it down into a two thousand image photo essay, the intention being to launch an exhibition and book.
Although the loft was virtually wallpapered with the 5x7 work prints of Pittsburgh that he was struggling to edit, the project never came to fruition, even though there are dozens of photographs that rank among his finest. Many of these were compiled almost fifty years later into a 2005 book of more than 150 images, as well as a companion exhibition at ICP in New York City.
Smith had deserted his wife and four children, leaving their comfortable home in Croton-on-Hudson. He moved into this vermin and rat-infested building in order to find his way through the life crisis that had made him virtually unemployable. Fellow photographer Robert Frank said of him at this time:
Gene went from a public journalist to a private artist in the loft. I’m sure the intensity was still the same, but there weren’t the goals of changing the world with this body of work, at least not like before.
Smith’s space was adjacent to Hall Overton, a classical music composition teacher at Juilliard (and mentor to developing composer Steve Reich), jazz fanatic, chain smoker, and arranger and cue sheet creator for Thelonious Monk.
The great pianist was soon rehearsing at the loft with Overton, working out the complex big-band arrangements for his now legendary Town Hall Concert of February 28, 1959:
The idea for the jazz loft was not, however, the brainchild of Gene Smith. Its creator was David X. Young, a twenty-three year old, mainly abstract, painter who, with three friends, had rented the building in 1954.
Young, along with Overton, arranger and composer Dick Cary, and photographer Harold Feinstein (soon to be a sometimes assistant for Smith) each paid forty dollars a month rent. It was a space without heat or water—all of which Young added by illegal installations. Pay-offs kept city inspectors at bay. Young’s paintings were not selling very well, so he supported himself by designing album covers for Prestige Records artists like Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and Art Farmer. This is one way he established contact with the sometimes-hermetic society of many cutting edge musicians. Overton moved two pianos onto the fourth floor; Cary added a Steinway B piano in his third floor loft. Eventually, there were four pianos scattered about, and they were all kept in tune. Having pianos, drum sets, and basses always there was a powerful attraction to players who could not easily transport the unwieldy tools of their trade. The loft became a magnet not only for musicians but for writers, painters, celebrities, hangers-on, even street bums who wandered in through the often door-less entry on the west side of Sixth Avenue. Salvador Dali, Norman Mailer, Alan Ginsberg and a host of New York’s hip intelligentsia paraded through the loft, often having to walk around the derelicts and dopesters who camped out on the stairway.
Smith had spent most of his career on the road, traveling the highways and back roads of America and five other continents. His deeply empathic and humane photo essays were perceived by fellow journalists to be the sine qua non of their profession, but such tightly focused work had become a diminishing commodity in the age of television. As a photojournalist in WWII, Smith had been seriously wounded in 1945, in the Pacific, and had spent more than a year in rehab. The first post-injury photograph he made was of his children, its title coming from an operatic interlude by English composer Frederick Delius.
Smith remained a haunted man throughout much of his career, the euphoria of powerful assignments alternating with periods of doubt and crisis. Once installed in the fourth floor loft, he began (like David X. Young before him) taking pictures—most of them from inside his window, aimed out toward the ceaseless activity below him or across to the east side of Sixth Avenue. He looked; he waited. The images he quietly and deliberately created constitute a portrait of a society; as you examine them, their sheer visual variety belies the reality that they are photographed from a single perch.
Smith used many lenses, shot at many times of day, in many changes of weather, but his perspective remained always the same. It is as if this fearless world traveler were now fearful of even going out into the street, out into the neighboring world. Fellow lofters testified that he could sit at the window for hours, watching the procession of ever-shifting street life below him unfolding, as if he were watching a film.
It is uncertain exactly how soon he began to photograph and tape the musicians or even which work began first. Establishing a chronology of “who, what, and when” has been the challenge undertaken by The Jazz Loft Project.
In 1998, scholar Sam Stephenson was rummaging through the Pittsburgh photographs at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, Tucson, the archived repository of Smith’s and many of the century’s great photographers. He noticed a pile of boxes in the corner and asked about them. He was told that they contained open reel audiotapes made by Smith, as yet unexamined and unheard. When Stephenson returned to the Center, he began to explore the boxes. What he discovered was jaw dropping; there were hundreds of tapes, the contents of which were haphazardly noted in Smith’s scrawl. Stephenson quickly made a list of 138 musicians named on the boxes.
It was evident that listening to these tapes was going to be much more complicated and time-consuming than archiving the photographic prints, many of which were already well known. It took almost five years to accrue enough funds to undertake the project. Stephenson and his associate, Dan Partridge, began listening to and annotating the tapes in late 2003. They are still at it. Over five thousand CDs have been made so far from the analog tapes. Smith had created a Herculean venture from what had started as a simple and casual project. Smith was no mere recordist of the music. He loved jazz and classical music with a passion. At the time of his death he possessed upwards of 22,000 vinyl discs.
Many of Smith’s loft window photos are in Sam Stephenson’s book, The Jazz Loft Project.
But this is only the beginning of the book’s contents. There are also photographs of the tape boxes covered with Smith’s notes, photographs of album covers of key LP recordings by the loft’s artists, a timeline written by Stephenson, and transcripts of conversations between Smith and the loft’s musicians and visitors.
Deciphering the unidentified voices has been especially difficult; the pitch changes with the uneven recording speeds. There is, also, enough ambient noise at times to compete with the music. But one of the most surprising discoveries is how much other recorded material there is—recordings that have nothing to do with the activities of the loft’s denizens. Smith’s recording verged at times on the obsessive. There are programs indicating a serious cultural bent, (many of them from WNYC and WBAI live broadcasts), as well as the day’s news stories. Here is a sample of the contents of audio tapes Smith gleaned from radio and TV: the John F. Kennedy election and assassination, Blood Wedding by Federico Garcia Lorca, Dylan Thomas poems, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Henry Cowell’s 10th Symphony, the soundtrack of Luchino Visconti’s feature film, Ossessione, Mr. Magoo cartoons, a World Series Game from 1963, The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill: even a conversation between Tennessee Williams and Yukio Mishima from WNYC, a tape which apparently isn’t even in the radio station’s archives—in short, an audio portrait of America, much as Smith’s loft photographs are a portrait of New York.
A recent exhibition at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center includes many of the 5x7 work prints from the loft, as well as a selection of larger show prints. There are listening stations for the music, and for video interviews with some of the still living loft musicians.
Several vitrines contain Smith’s tape recorders (a small Wollensak and a more professional Ampex), open reel tapes and boxes, and several of his cameras, lenses and accessories.
Prominent is the 400mm lens he used to shoot the most intimate portraits.
David X. Young’s earlier contributions to the Jazz Loft is the subject of two CDs, a booklet of interviews, his photographs, and reproductions of his paintings:
If you want to dig even deeper into the wealth of this cultural archeological trove, WNYC’s morning program host, Leonard Lopate, interviewed Sam Stephenson last December. Their twenty-minute conversation engages the history of the Jazz Loft Project with fascinating anecdotes about Smith. Also, Sara Fishko, of the same station, has created a ten episode audio record of the Loft’s history, music, and interviews.
Scroll down past the introduction to this logo:
All ten episodes are listed. Number eight covers the rehearsals and prep for the Monk Town Hall Concert of 1959.
When Gene Smith moved into the loft, he took over the space of his friend, Harold Feinstein, also a photographer. Feinstein has said of his friend,
They say all photographers are voyeurs. So, part of it is to look; part of it is to eavesdrop. And I also think Gene had a sense of history. There’s always a major project in the back of his mind.
Smith’s mind may have been restless and troubled, its highs and lows swept along on an ocean of drugs and alcohol, but the voyage that Gene Smith undertook into the uncharted cultural waters of this very different mid-century America, provides an alternate view of a nation that is too often seen through the materialistic lens of the Eisenhower and Kennedy era. Smith may have crashed his mind and his body on the shoals in pursuit of his vision, but he left behind a glorious wreck.