Archive for December, 2009

This Website Honored by Communication Arts

We are proud to report that Communication Arts magazine, a major arbiter in the world of media arts, selected this website as its Webpick of the Day yesterday.  We owe this honor to The Splinter Group of Carrboro, N.C.  Splinter’s Steve Balcom and Lane Wurster and their colleagues absolutely killed this site (to borrow an utmost positive term from music parlance)  Plus it was fun to work with them.  Also, mention should be made of Jazz Loft Project Coordinator Lauren Hart who shepherded the site from here and Jazz Loft Project Research Associate and chief audio listener/cataloger Dan Partridge who provided audio content and input at every stage.  Many colleagues at the Center for Documentary Studies helped us turn corners at pivotal moments along the way, too.  Team efforts reaching a pinnacle.

- Sam Stephenson

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Jazz Loft Project in New York Magazine

This week’s issue of New York magazine has a new piece on the Jazz Loft Project by the eminent writer Fred Kaplan, whose latest book, 1959: the Year Everything Changed, was published to acclaim earlier this year.

- Sam Stephenson

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Santa Claus on Sixth Avenue

Santa Claus on Sixth Avenue

Photograph by Gene Smith from his fourth floor loft window circa 1960.

Happy Holidays and New Year to everyone.

- Jazz Loft Project staff.

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Smith on Robert Frank

In 1995, I made my first visit to the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, where I now work with the Jazz Loft Project. I went there on a field trip as part of Bill Bamberger’s documentary photography class at UNC to see a photography exhibition of Robert Frank’s The Americans. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is presenting these Frank photographs through January 3, 2010 as “Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans .” Frank made these photographs  from 1955-56 and Smith moved into the loft in 1957.   The Americans would make excellent prerequisite viewing before seeing and hearing Smith’s work as part of The Jazz Loft Project exhibition which debuts at the Library for Performing Arts at Lincoln Center on February 17, 2010.

Robert Frank’s photography comes up on a 1965 recording from the loft where W. Eugene Smith and Carole Thomas are discussing the possibility of creating a magazine called Sensorium with a potential partner and backer named Virgil Cory. Smith planned to publish a fully realized essay of his loft photographs with a flexi disc of loft recordings in the debut issue, but the magazine never came out. While elucidating his vision regarding the ideal relationship between photographers and editors, Smith compares Robert Frank to Franz Kafka. The following is a fragment from their dialogue, transcribed by yours truly, with an interpretative punctuation scheme based on how it sounds.

–Dan Partridge, Jazz Loft Project Research Associate

W. Eugene Smith and Carole Thomas talk to Virgil Cory about Robert Frank and Franz Kafka, with a nod to Norman Mailer (1965)

W. Eugene Smith: I simply will not, under no circumstances, accept the word “objective reporting.” A man can be as honest as he possibly can, and possibly he will be approaching the truth… maybe not, depending on his own abilities, his perception, his knowledge. I’m sure Norman Mailer, for instance, is an honest guy, but sometimes I think he blows the bloody truth, right out the… uh, exhaust pipe, just by the own intensity of his feelings on certain matters. And this is what I tried to point out, the difference in my opinion, one of the differences between the so called, (I phrased it once fairly well, but uh, I don’t think I can remember now) the so called, say “free artist” and the disciplines of the journalist. It’s not that actually, as for the ability of creating this final work, I think there’s an equal chance, but um, the artist, the free artist….gee, I can’t remember how I…

Carole Thomas: Well, I think the main point of it was that there is… it’s true there are certain responsibilities on both ends but when they’re presented, if the so called “free artist’s” work is presented as journalism…

Smith: …Thank you. Now, for instance, there’s a young photographer by the name of Bob Frank. I think one of the better photographers in the world that I know of, but he, he’s kind of a Franz Kafka.  Kafka, I don’t think, is a good journalist, if you’re presenting him as a journalist. And I don’t think you can present Bob Frank, say “here’s a journalistic, photographic journalistic report,” but you use these people for their qualities, you present them for what they are: “Here’s a very unique insight, a man of great talent and…” Present it. And use it that way, instead of…

Thomas: But without as much responsibility to his subject.

Smith: Yeah, you present it as the prejudices of a man. And you can learn an awful lot:  “Gee, I’m certainly glad we have a Kafka around…. I’m glad we have a Mailer around.” I think an editor’s job is to have the wisdom to use the greatness of others to create a totality of a magazine or whatever he’s editing into a greatness.

Thomas: And to know the difference between the two different aspects.

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Not Giving Up on Jazz in NYC

This week there was an interesting email roundtable on Nate Chinen’s blog.  The last two entries, by Andrey Henkin and Ben Ratliff, ponder whether New York City is still the best “farm” (Ratliff’s term) for jazz.  I like Ratliff’s hopeful wish for the future.

Back in the spring of 1964 Gene Smith made a priceless nocturnal recording on the fifth floor of 821 Sixth Avenue in which he caught saxophonist Zoot Sims and others lamenting the decline of the scene.  The clubs were dead, they said; the jam session scene was dead, too.  Zoot described resorting to a gig playing with strippers in Boston.  Bassist Vinnie Burke suggested there was a pall cast by JFK’s assassination (November 1963).  “It’s like Lincoln repeating itself,” said Burke.  Later in the morning saxophonist Clarence Sharpe knocked on the door and entered with his wife Shofreka.  Within minutes he and Zoot were blowing a blues, soloing and trading fours for about ten minutes.  Then, Smith’s tape ran out, mid-tune, and we have no idea what happened next.

We know the music lived on in general.  Zoot recorded several classic albums after 1964 (including this and this among many others) and C-Sharpe played enough good music to inspire Stanley Crouch to write a moving piece about him in the Village Voice on March 24, 1987 (I wish I could link to the piece but it doesn’t appear to be online).  Crouch called C-Sharpe “a figure glowing in the shadows.”

In today’s Times Ratliff and Chinen list their top 10 albums of 2009 and they offer a number of recorded reasons to believe the music isn’t dead.  But the possibility that the music might harvest more successfully on farms outside of NYC in the 21st century is interesting to ponder.  Certainly, at mid-20th century, the scene at 821 Sixth Avenue could have happened nowhere other than NYC.

- Sam Stephenson

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Book Event in Raleigh

Tomorrow night, 12/16, at 7:30 pm there’s a Jazz Loft book event at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh.  I can trace everything I’m doing today back to my days working part-time and full-time at QRB 1993-1997 while I was failing at graduate school (first economics and then religious studies) and struggling to be a writer.  I met my wife there for one incalculably epochal thing and I also met a bunch of other people who remain important to my life and work today.  One day I’ll tell that full story.

David Felton at Regulator Bookshop in Durham recently tipped me on a book called Air Guitar by cultural critic Dave Hickey and early in that book Hickey describes how his parents took him to indy bookstores and record stores as a kid.  He learned that those stores – the good ones – incubated a culture that was uniquely advanced, a culture that exists outside the conventional perspectives of, say, TV news or mainstream journalism, or even universities.  These stores could be a university all their own, perhaps the best kind for a certain cast of mind.  Anything was possible.  The books and records in those stores, and the community of people that developed around them, were all the evidence you needed.

QRB worked that way for me.

-Sam Stephenson

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A Unique Gathering

Earlier this week at Barnes & Noble on Broadway near Lincoln Center there was a Jazz Loft Project book event.  I read, talked, and former loft resident, drummer Ronnie Free played four tunes with a young group from the New School.  Ron was more or less the house drummer in the loft 1958-1960 and is the most ubiquitous presence on Smith’s tapes, recorded on approximately 100 reels, roughly 300 hours, often to tremendous effect.

The outstanding contemporary pianist Frank Kimbrough attended the event and made this extraordinary snapshot.  L-R, bassist Henry Grimes, drummer Frank Amoss, drummer Ronnie Free, drummer and owner of the Manhattan store Drummers World, Barry Greenspon.  All four are veterans of the 821 Sixth Avenue scene.

b&n event 12 09Grimes, originally from Philadelphia, and Free, from Charleston, S.C., were recorded by Smith playing together in loft jam sessions in late 1959 and early 1960 including other musicians such as Zoot Sims, Jimmy Raney, Pepper Adams, Eddie Costa, Freddie Redd, Hall Overton, and Freddy Greenwell.  They hadn’t seen each other since then.

In the summer of 1960 Free left the NYC jazz scene in the middle of the night and never returned, giving up a mercurial but promising career.  He ended up driving a taxi in San Diego and playing beach volleyball in Charleston, S.C., among other things.  Today he plays drums at the Homestead Resort in the mountains of Virginia.  The night Ron left NYC in 1960 he failed to report to a gig he had with Marian McPartland.  Thirty years later Ron and McPartland crossed paths randomly in Columbia, S.C. and the first words out of McPartland’s mouth were, “What happened to you that night?”  People thought Ron had died.

(You can listen to Sara Fishko’s moving radio piece on Ron which is a highlight of the Jazz Loft Project radio series.  I wrote an article about Ron for the Oxford American magazine in 2000 and I’ll link it here in the next day or two).

Grimes disappeared, too, but a little later than Free.  He’s recorded on some of Smith’s best recordings in the loft including Paul Bley, Roland Kirk, and Edgar Bateman in 1964, and also on a stunning television broadcast with Sonny Rollins, Bley, and Roy McCurdy, hosted by Hall Overton at the New School in 1963, which Smith recorded.  People thought Grimes had died, too, until he re-entered the music scene in the middle of this decade.  He’d been living in a hotel room in downtown Los Angeles where I interviewed him for the first time in the summer of 2003.

Frank Amoss, a Baltimore native who lived in the loft for six months in the middle of 1961, hadn’t seen Grimes or Free since the loft days, either.  Frank left NYC in 1971and moved to the West Coast where he recently retired from a long, productive career as president of the musicians’ union in Orange County.  After the event Frank asked Ron, “Didn’t you have a set of blue sparkle drums?”  Ron replied affirmatively.

(For those who have read the book you’ll remember Frank as a loft resident in late September 1961 when Smith was packing for Japan.  Frank went to bed before the harrowing wee hour episode involving musicians Sonny Clark and Lin Halliday in the hallway).

The fourth member of the quartet in Kimbrough’s photo, Barry Greenspon, moved to NYC in the mid-1960′s, after studying music as a teenager in his native Raleigh, N.C. with jazz flute player Don Adcock, who coincidentally became one of the Jazz Loft Project’s most important musical consultants from the early days of the project (just a few days ago we sent 83 year-old Don a loft clip of saxophonist Booker Ervin so Don could help us identify the tune and the additional musicians).  Greenspon found his way to 821 Sixth Avenue and studied with Hall Overton.  The two men – teacher and student – became trusted friends and Barry was a pall bearer when Overton died of cirrhosis in 1972.

Free’s band that night consisted of young musicians from the New School led by a promising saxophonist Levon Henry.  Pianist Javier Santiago and bassist Brian Wilson filled out the group.  Free told me on Friday, “I love playing with those kids.  They were just great.  They inspired me.”  The tunes they played were Ellington’s Take the Coltrane, Monk’s Reflections and Green Chimneys, and the standard Softly as in a Morning Sunrise.

- Sam Stephenson

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New interviews with Sam Stephenson

Check out the latest interviews with Sam Stephenson, one from the Portland, OR bookstore, Powell’s,,and the other in the Independent Weekly.

Plus, you can listen to Leonard Lopate’s interview with Sam on WNYC on Tuesday December 8, here.

- Lauren Hart, JLP Coordinator

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Jazz Loft Project in New York December 8

Sam Stephenson will read from The Jazz Loft Project at the Barnes and Noble at Lincoln Triangle. Also, tune in to the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC on Tuesday, December 8 at 1:00 PM to hear more about the Jazz Loft Project from author Sam Stephenson.

Jazz Loft Project Reading at Barnes & Noble
December 8, 2009
1972 Broadway at 66th Street
7:30 PM
Featuring live music by loft veteran Ron Free

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JLP on NPR’s Weekend Edition

For the next four Sundays, beginning December 6, Sara Fishko’s brilliant radio series will be featured on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Program.

What a nice public gift for the holiday season.  Enjoy.

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