If you’re a jazz lover, like me, particularly the be-bop sounds of the 1950s and ‘60s, then I urge you to not miss the new exhibit, The Jazz Loft Project, now at the Chicago Cultural Center. It’s a photography exhibit capturing a special time in jazz with a fascinating back story.
The exhibit’s brochure tells that story best. “In 1957, W. Eugene Smith, a celebrated former LIFE photographer, walked 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 (between Twenty-eighth and Twenty-ninth Streets) in New York City’s wholesale flower district.”
Abandoned lofts were common in that run-down industrial area in those days. Smith took over the apartment on the fourth floor from his artist friend, David X. Young. The rent was $40 a month for a bare bones room with crumbling staircases, no running water or electricity.
Smith turned the studio into his living room, darkroom and photo perch. He set up a tripod to clandestinely shoot scenes of street life below. He also wired the building, creating a surreptitious recording studio, and from 1957 to 1965, he recorded the midnight jam sessions that rocked the apartment above. It became a favorite haunt of New York musicians.
The sessions usually began after the clubs closed and ran until 5 or 6 a.m. the next morning. They featured some of that era’s jazz giants: bassists Charles Mingus, Charlie Haden, Steve Swallow, pianists Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Chick Corea, saxophonists Zoot Sims, Roland Kirk, Ornette Coleman and guitaritst Jim Hall and Jimmy Raney.
Smith said that his ambition was to produce a book “about the building itself…out the window and within the building, because it’s quite a weird, interesting story.” The photographs and tapes were unknown in Smith’s lifetime (he died in 1978) and only the indefatigable efforts of researcher, Sam Stephenson, director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, brought Smith’s photos and recordings to light in 1998.
Digging through Smith’s archives, Stephenson discovered that Smith had developed 1,447 rolls of film at the loft (roughly 40,000 pictures) and made 1,740 reels (4,000 hours) of stereo and mono audiotapes. Besides the jazz jams, Smith recorded radio and TV programs of the day to produce a kaleidoscope of time and place within 821 Sixth Avenue’s walls.
I was fascinated when I came across the exhibit by accident in New York this March and am thrilled that the Cultural Center is hosting it through September 19th in the Sidney R. Yates Gallery on the Fourth Floor.
My only complaint is that the installation hangs the photos in a hodgepodge manner so that evocative street scenes are placed alongside the jazz photos. Since Smith’s intention to focus on the building had a two-fold purpose, capturing the world both inside and out, it would have been better to divide the jazz and city shots for greater viewing clarity.
Upon entering the Yates Gallery, turn right immediately and enter a private hearing room where you can listen to some of these historic tapes and radio broadcasts. A must-listen are the rehearsal tapes of Thelonious Monk’s ensemble preparing for their historic Town Hall concert of 1959.
This private listening space is a distinct improvement over the New York installation. It’s the best way to gain a proper orientation for what you’ll view on the walls.
To date, Stephenson and staff have documented 591 persons who appeared in Smith’s photographs and tapes. In addition to the musicians who came to 821 to play, many other cultural figures passed through its ramshackle stairways and studios. Among them were artists Salvador Dali, Willem DeKooning, Franz Kline, photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, actors Paul Newman, Zero Mostel, Jackie Gleason, writer Norman Mailer and dance choreographer, George Balanchine. Only Dali and Mailer appear, however, in the exhibition photos.
Stephenson has also published a book on the project: “The Jazz Loft Project, Photographs and Tapes of Eugene E. Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-65 (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).
Stephenson will give a Gallery Talk on Thursday, August 26th at 12:15 p.m. A film featuring jazz pianist/composer, Jason Moran, and commemorating Monk’s Town Hall concert with Smith’s audio and visual documentation of the original rehearsals will be shown on Sunday, August 8th at 1 p.m. and again on Friday, September 3rd at 6:30 p.m. in the Claudia Cassidy Theater.