Brain Pickings

The Jazz Loft Project

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Wired lofts, 1,447 rolls of film, and what pimps and Salvador Dalí have in common.

In 1957, 38-year-old magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith, most likely undergoing a creative midlife crisis, left his well-paying job at Life, his comfortable home, his wife and four children, and moved into a 4th-floor loft in a run-down 45-story building at 821 Sixth Avenue, between 38th and 39th streets, in the wholesale flower district of New York.

Why? Smith had been struck with the inspiration for his life’s most aspirational project — to create a monumental photo-essay about the city of Pittsburgh.

But 821 Sixth Avenue was a peculiar place to work. Late at night, the dilapidated building blossomed into a thriving epicenter of the jazz music scene, with underground legends and mainstream greats alike — from Zoot Sims to Bill Evans to Thelonious Monk — roaming the decaying halls. At the heart of this chaos and glory, Smith’s ambitions for the Pittsburgh project dissolved into his fascination with the loft’s secret life and he redirected his artistic focus towards this newfound inspiration.

Thelonious Monk and his Town Hall band in rehearsal, February 1959

Photos credit W. Eugene Smith. Collection Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona. © The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith

For the following 8 years, Smith went through 1,447 rolls of film, resulting in some 40,000 photographs of everything from the nocturnal jazz scene to street life in the flower district outside, observed Hitchcock-style from his loft window. And he didn’t stop at image — he secretly wired the building with recording equipment, producing over 4,000 hours of stereo and mono audiotapes on 1,740 reels. The recordings captured more than 300 of the era’s greatest musicians, from Alice Coltrane to Roy Haynes to Sonny Rollins, as well as piano masters like Eddie Costa, legendary drummers like Ronnie Free and Edgar Bateman, saxophonist Lin Hallday, and multi-instrumentalist Eddie Listengart.

Loft interior, fifth floor (ca. 1964)

Photos credit W. Eugene Smith. Collection Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona. © The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith

The cultural landscape Smith documented spread far beyond the immediate circles of jazz, spanning icons like Salvador Dalí, Robert Frank, Doris Duke and Henri Cartier-Bresson, as well as local cops, photography students and a vibrant array of the city’s less reputable practitioners — pimps, prostitutes, junkies and drug dealers.

White Rose Bar sign from the 4th floor window of 821 Sixth Avenue (ca. 1957-1964)

Photos credit W. Eugene Smith. Collection Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona. © The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith

In 1998, Sam Stephenson discovered Smith’s jazz loft photographs and tapes, which had remained unseen for 40 years, and spent the following seven years cataloging, archiving, selecting, and editing Smith’s materials for a brilliantly ambitious book, The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965.

Today, the book is finally out.

Here, Stephenson speaks about the project and the cultural import of Smith’s endeavor.

The book’s eclectic mix of characters and callings, of cultural icons and little details of daily life, offers the colorful threads that weave the fabric of an era. With its superb photography and vintage enigma, The Jazz Loft Project is a slice of life from a time long gone but never forgotten, an epoch that left a permanent mark on the culture of music, celebrity and New-Yorkism.

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