Ethan Iverson of the seminal jazz trio, the Bad Plus, has one of the most thoughtful blogs in not only jazz but all of music and the arts in general. Like all good blogs Iverson’s is a public service. The long study he did a couple of years ago on jazz records released from 1973 to 1990 – when jazz was supposed to be dead – was classic, and important. His interviews are remarkable, too, including the recent one with Tootie Heath.
So I was pleased when somebody told me he’d written about the Jazz Loft Project last week. Here is a link to his brief mention (scroll down a bit).
In the first sentence of his entry he writes that “you need a certain amount of patience with some of the tracks” on the Jazz Loft Project web playlists. We aren’t entirely sure what Iverson means, but whatever he means we completely agree. His comment provoked some banter among JLP staff this morning, reflections on the last decade of our work on this project, and a little bit of wry joking: “If he’s impatient with these tracks, then wait until he hears cats meowing, or eight hours of hammering, sawing, and drilling (as Smith and Jimmy Stevenson were preparing the loft for a city building inspector in 1963), or four hours of John Doe (name withheld to protect the innocent) drinking and noodling on the piano, or all those callers to Long John Nebel’s radio show talking about UFO’s and alien abductions…”
Joking aside, Iverson’s comment jibes with our belief that the most lasting value of these tapes will be cultural and anthropological and historical, not musical, despite some really good moments of music on the tapes (which Iverson also points out). The bassist Steve Swallow, who lived next door at 823 Sixth Avenue for a time, told us: “Those jam sessions may have been more fun to play than they are to listen to.” In Chamber Music magazine I was quoted by Gene Santoro saying, “We almost don’t care whether (the music) is good or not. In some ways the bad stuff is almost more interesting. History isn’t just spectacular moments; like James Baldwin wrote, its millions of anonymous moments, too. That’s what we’re interested in: the human story, the texture of these lives.”
I began working on this project in 1998, but we didn’t hear any of these tapes until the summer of 2002 when we’d finally raised enough money to start making the gourmet transfers to digital files. (Smith’s archive at the University of Arizona had a rightful policy that the tapes had to be properly preserved before we could hear them, fearing catastrophic loss during improper playback). The reputation of Smith’s tapes wasn’t particularly good. When he quit a high profile job at LIFE, gave up a big salary and expense account, and ended up in this derelict loft making tape after tape after tape, the photography world thought Gene Smith had once and for all lost it. Maybe he had.
One of the things we noticed in hearing the first tapes was that the pitch wasn’t consistent. The problem could be that Smith’s original tapes were recorded at a slightly different speed – a tad faster or slower – than the equipment setting (usually 3.75 inches per second or 7.5 inches per second). It’s not an unusual issue with old reel-to-reel tapes and our expert consultants picked up on it immediately in our first batch of recordings. From that date we made a philosophical decision to make “flat” transfers; i.e. to duplicate and preserve what is recorded on Smith’s tapes as closely as we could. What you hear on our playlists is the sound found on the reels.
The pitch differences affect not only the music but the speaking voices, which can be especially maddening when you are trying to identify voices on a given tape. Is that Hall Overton speaking? It doesn’t quite sound like him on this other reel. Is that Gil Coggins? Is this same Judy the same Judy on this other reel? Does this person sound drunk or high or have a bad cold?
Since the summer of 2003, JLP Research Associate and primary tape listener Dan Partridge has reported to work, donned headphones, and patiently listened to approximately 3,500 compact discs (to date) of material recorded by Gene Smith. Dan expects to have heard every single Smith tape – 5089 compact discs – by summer 2011. Dan has become one of the most specialized employees at Duke University. There’s only one person in the world that can do this work; that can recognize the speaking voices of Alice Coltrane and Eddie Listengart and Jimmy Stevenson and Carole Thomas. There’s a good chance that when human history ends Dan will be the only being to have heard every second of Smith’s tapes.
Even during some of the best moments on the tapes you have to be patient, such as one night when Roland Kirk is in the loft in 1964 talking about opening up a jazz club of his own. While Kirk is talking, the brilliant bass player Henry Grimes is across the room woodshedding on his bass with a bow, making some of Kirk’s words hard to hear. Phil Woods and Steve Lacy were also compulsive noodlers on their saxophones (great guys, too, we learned in the oral history part of our project). Sometimes, when we are honing in on interesting talk in the room, we just want to reach through the headphones, grab their horns, and muffle them so we can hear the conversation better.
Smith knew he was recording something rarely recorded; everyday life. Documentarians do their best to fade into the vapor so they can capture real life, not something rehearsed or posed or packaged or self-conscious. It’s hard to do, and the process includes many more misses than hits. In September 1961, Smith recorded himself in conversation with loft resident Jimmy Stevenson and Alice Coltrane (McLeod at the time). Stevenson asked Smith about the difference between his tapes and a formal demo or practice tape musicians make to promote themselves. Smith answered: “What you’d lose there (with the demo) is the very quality I’m after: The wonderful spontaneity, the addition of the dialogue that happened, you couldn’t duplicate it, you see. It’s just something that couldn’t be repeated, including the cat in heat wandering around, the wonderful side effects…”
* Update: Iverson responded to this post here. We hear that the Bad Plus and Aaron Greenwald are cooking up something unique and significant for the ’10-’11 Duke Performances season. With these two minds on fire – Iverson and Greenwald – there’s no telling what might happen. I’m excited to see what they come up with. We hope it becomes official and that our paths cross then or before.
- Sam Stephenson