Archive for November, 2009

A Certain Amount of Patience

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

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Thanksgiving in the loft

Yesterday I asked longtime Jazz Loft Project Research Associate and primary tape listener Dan Partridge to mine Smith’s tapes for Thanksgiving material.  Here are a few samples of what he found.  This array of sound is fairly indicative of what you might find on any given sample of loft tapes:

In 1959, Thanksgiving Day was on November 26.  On November 23, Smith recorded a jam session with what sounds like several dozen people in the room.  It’s in the loft space of David X. Young and it sounds like a big party.  Several unnamed women are in the room, presumably girlfriends or wives.  You could imagine them having day jobs like the secretaries on the AMC show Mad Men but these women were probably more like the downtown pot smoker that Don Draper had an affair with in the first season of the show.

Musicians confirmed on this tape include Zoot Sims, Jon Eardley, Dick Scott, Bob Brookmeyer, John Mast, Bill Potts, Bill Takas, and Herb Geller.  The group plays a few standards and as always Zoot sounds like he’s playing a really important gig, passionate and effortless in the unique and infectious Zoot manner.  There is also a lot of talking, room chatter, and laughter.  Joints such as Martin’s Bar, Matty’s Towncrest, Junior’s (which was on ground floor of the Alvin Hotel at Broadway and 52nd Street) are mentioned.

Somebody says, “I’m playing the Macy’s Parade this year.”  We aren’t sure who that person is or what they were playing.

There are numerous recordings made by Smith after Kennedy’s election in November 1960, lots of news reports about the new administration.

On Thanksgiving Day 1960 Smith was in the loft talking with George Orick, an attorney who acted as Smith’s agent and counsel for a brief time.  Smith recorded much of the conversation.  Smith goes on and on, as he was wont to do, about his philosophy of photo editing, making disparaging remarks about LIFE magazine where he had logged a long, legendary career before resigning due to frustration in early 1955.  Orick had wandered into Smith’s chaotic loft world and was trying to help him.  Smith had a way of attracting helpers like this.  There was a series of them.  Most of them would throw up their hands and leave sooner or later, sometimes never talking to Smith again.  In this conversation Orick is trying to help Smith figure out a constructive way in which he could return to LIFE and, thus, regain his former, much-needed salary and benefits.  Orick left Smith less than a year later and he and his wife Emily wrote angry letters to him.

Thanksgiving, 1962, Smith recorded the late night radio talk show hosted by Long John Nebel on WOR.  Nebel announces:  “Tonight’s show is about prominent figures in Jewish history and our guest is Robert St. John, author of the new book, They Came from Everywhere:  Twelve who Helped Mold Modern Israel.”

Happy Thanksgiving (2009) to everyone.

- Sam Stephenson

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The Jazz Loft Project Reviewed in Booklist

Jazz Loft in Booklist

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Sam Stephenson discusses his new book, The Jazz Loft Project, at 821 Sixth Avenue

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Dick Katz, Rest in Peace

Last week while we were in New York City and got word that 85 year old pianist Dick Katz had passed away.  It was a sad day.  Here is a link to his New York Times obituary by Ben Ratliff.

Dick was one of the first people I interviewed as part of the Jazz Loft Project in 1998.  His tremendous respect for loft resident Hall Overton impacted my research.  In my first piece of writing on the Jazz Loft Project which appeared in DoubleTake magazine in 1999 I quoted Dick on Overton:  “Hall should be a famous figure today.  But he had absolutely no capability or willingness to promote himself.  He was satisfied hanging out at that loft and playing music without getting any attention.  But he had an enormous impact on many of us.”

In December of 2000 I interviewed Dick again in his studio and he talked about the kind of jazz he enjoyed:  “My criteria that it must sound new to you.  If it feels new it’s succeeded.  Even if a guy has played something fifty times or a thousand times before, you don’t know that.  It doesn’t sound like a routine.  That’s why Zoot Sims was so great, or Errol Garner or Monk.  They could play the same thing over and over but it never came out the same even though it is the same.”

- Sam Stephenson

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Gene Smith’s Sink

In 2007 I wrote a short piece about my long saga researching W. Eugene Smith.  It was published in Brigid Hughes’ wonderful literary journal, A Public Space, and it’s just been put back up on the journal’s website.  You can read it here.  I called it, “Gene Smith’s Sink,” referring to the custom-made stainless steel darkroom sink that I had recently purchased from Smith’s son, Pat, and my own sinking into Smith’s story.

The “Sink” describes a few of the zigs and zags on my journey, which began in January 1997 when I first began reading about W. Eugene Smith.  But I left out a key serendipity.  My wife Laurie Cochenour had lived in Tucson, Arizona, for a few years before we met and two of her closest friends still lived there.  In late 1996 we’d planned a trip to Tucson for the second week in April, 1997 and we booked our plane tickets.  In January, 1997 while sitting in our town house in Raleigh reading Jim Hughes’ excellent biography, W. Eugene Smith: Shadow and Substance, I learned that Smith’s archive was established in Tucson at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona before he died in 1978.  “You aren’t going to believe this,” I told Laurie, “but guess where Smith’s archive is located?”  I spent that week in April digging around in the archive for the first time.

I’ve made more than twenty trips to Tucson since then and it has become like a second home.  Our friends Carol Buuck and Linda, Dane, and Jimmy Armijo have provided complementary lodging on each and every trip, and often Laurie has accompanied me.  There will be more Tucson trips in the future.  The Jazz Loft Project exhibition will be at CCP in late 2011 or 2012, and I will continue to conduct research in the Smith archives while working on my own biography of Smith for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  The working title is Picture Paradise.

- Sam Stephenson

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Radio Series Begins Today

The Jazz Loft Project radio series begins today on WNYC radio.  Episodes will be available online each day.  Listen here.


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New York Times Feature

The Jazz Loft Project book is featured in the New York Times 2009 Holiday Gift Guide.

“The most chaotic and soulful gift book this year…an elegiac stew of sight and sound, and a singularly weird, vital and thrumming American document.”

Jazz Loft Project

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Sam Stephenson on the Today show

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Jazz Loft Project Radio Series Schedule

The Jazz Loft Project radio series premieres on WNYC during Morning Edition on November 16, 2009. The series coordinates with The Jazz Loft Project book (published November 24th) by Sam Stephenson of the Center for Documentary Studies. One episode will be heard each day for 10 days.  The series will begin its national broadcast on December 6, 2009.


Monday Nov 16
Episode 1 “Introduction” runs in Morning Edition.

Tuesday Nov 17
Episode 2 “Images of the Loft” (Eugene Smith) runs short in Morning Edition. Full piece runs in All Things Considered.

Wednesday Nov 18
Episode 3 “The Tapes” runs short in Morning Edition.  Full piece runs in All Things Considered.

Thursday Nov 19
Episode 4 “Hall Overton” runs in Soundcheck.

Friday Nov 20
Episode 5 “Before the Loft” runs in All Things Considered.

Saturday Nov 21
Episode 6 “Ron Free” runs in Jonathan Schwartz (scheduled to run at 2 PM).

Sunday Nov 22
Episode 7 “Flower District” runs in Weekend Edition.

Monday Nov 23
Episode 8 “Monk Town Hall Concert” runs short in Morning Edition; full piece runs in All Things Considered.

Tuesday Nov 24
Episode 9 “More Tapes” runs in Soundcheck.

Wednesday Nov 25
Episode 10 “Times Change” final episode runs short in Morning Edition; full piece runs in All Things Considered.

Thursday Nov 26, Thanksgiving Day
1-hour special featuring “Jazz Loft Jam Sessions” runs on FM at 3PM and 9PM.

Saturday Nov 28
1-hour special featuring “Jazz Loft Jam Sessions” runs on AM at 2PM.

Sunday Nov 29
1-hour special featuring “Jazz Loft Jam Sessions” runs on AM at 8PM.


Sara Fishko, WNYC’s Jazz Loft Project radio series producer, and Sam Stephenson, Jazz Loft Project Director at the Center for Documentary Studies, preview the radio series and book at WNYC’s Jerome L. Greene Performance Space on November 10, 2009.  Photographs by Tom Rankin.

Sara Fishko, WNYC’s Jazz Loft Project radio series producer, and Sam Stephenson, Jazz Loft Project Director at the Center for Documentary Studies, preview the radio series and book at WNYC’s Jerome L. Greene Performance Space on November 10, 2009. Photographs by Tom Rankin.

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