Last week bass player and former resident of 821 Sixth Avenue James “Jimmy” Stevenson died at age seventy. He was one of the youngest participants in the loft scene, having moved into the building at age twenty-two in the summer of 1961. Originally from Detroit, James was the oldest of twelve children. We were told by his son Star Stevenson, his nephew Tom Stevenson, and his ex-wife Sandy Krell that he died peacefully, surrounded by dozens of family members and loved ones. Up to his last day he was singing and talking and enjoying his time.
I knew about Jimmy (as he was known in the loft) from an early stage in the project but I didn’t know much more than his name. Gene Smith had made an iconic photograph of him playing piano in the loft. Smith used the image in his 1969 Aperture monograph and in his legendary 1971 exhibition at the Jewish Museum. Smith’s tapes also had Jimmy’s name written on many labels. But Jimmy wasn’t a part of the official American jazz annals and I had no idea who he really was or his role in the loft story. Another obscure musician, saxophonist Ira Jackson, also from Detroit, was the first to tell me that Jimmy was a Detroit native. In 2002 a volunteer for the project, Natalie Bullock Brown, submitted a random post to a Detroit jazz website asking anyone for information about Jimmy.
Months passed and we forgot about Natalie’s post on the Detroit site. We kept trying to find Jimmy by conventional means, which was proving to be painstakingly difficult. Musicians from the loft hadn’t seen or heard from him in years. Then in early 2003 we had a wonderful surprise. Tom Stevenson randomly came across Natalie’s post. He had been doing research on his grandfather (Jimmy’s father) also named James Stevenson, who had had a local TV show in Detroit in the early 1950s. Tom’s google search for “James Stevenson” yielded Natalie’s post on the Detroit jazz site. He was elated that somebody was interested in his uncle. Tom put us in touch with Jimmy and Sandy. It was a breakthrough in the project. A major, unknown chapter in the story opened up.
Jimmy moved into the fifth floor of 821 Sixth Avenue in the summer of 1961 with Sandy and their baby son, Jimmy, Jr. He had friendships with many Detroit musicians such as pianist Alice McLeod (Coltrane) and saxophonist Joe Henderson, both of whom sublet loft spaces from him in late 1961. As we learned from more interviews and from Smith’s tapes, which by 2003 we were just beginning to understand, Jimmy was the host of some the loft’s great jam sessions. There were so many sessions with so many different musicians that Gene Smith took to simply writing “Jimmy Jam” on reels recorded in Stevenson’s space. Some of the musicians who played there were Ronnie Cuber, Sonny Clark, Lin Halliday, Roy Brooks, the McKinney brothers from Detroit, Booker Ervin, Clarence Sharpe, Eddie Listengart, Paul Plummer, Pete Yellin, Jane Getz, Gil Coggins, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Steve Swallow, and on and on. On April 7, 1964, in a session with musicians such as Chick Corea, Joe Farrell, Joe Hunt, and countless others Smith wrote “Jimmy’s Last Jam.” The next day Stevenson moved out and Smith took over the fifth floor of 821 Sixth Avenue. It had been a long and substantial “career” for Stevenson in the building, an era that would have been almost entirely forgotten if it hadn’t been for the obsessive compulsions of Gene Smith.
In 2003 when I visited James (as he was known in his post-loft years) and his second wife, Suzanne Roach, they had a business selling wind chimes in a tent on the side of the road near Forestville, CA, a couple of hours north of San Francisco. I made a date to meet James there during a two-week trip to visit other loft veterans in California in the summer of 2003 and I spent an afternoon with him.
In 2004 James and Suzanne visited us for a week at the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS). He listened to loft tapes and told us many stories. He told us about driving to up-state New York for a duo bass and piano gig with Sonny Clark one night and they were stopped by cops who gave the African-American Clark a hard time because he didn’t have a photo ID. James had been driving, so why did it matter so much that Clark didn’t have an ID? Clark had with him several vinyl records he’d recorded on the Blue Note label and he held up one of them to the police – one with a big picture of himself on the cover – and he said, “This is me.” Both James and Sonny ended up in jail, for no reason.
On December 12, 2009 I got two voicemails from James, one in my office and one on my cell phone. Both messages were exuberant and warm. It was a tone of voice I came to expect from him in the six and a half years I knew him. Every time I talked to James he always asked about Jazz Loft Project Research Associate Dan Partridge, who began working for the project shortly after my 2003 California trip and who organized the tape listening sessions when James and Suzanne visited CDS in 2004. In these two messages on December 12 he told me to give Dan his best regards. I forwarded one of those messages to Dan. In neither message did James indicate he was ill. My wife and I had been traveling for the holidays and I planned to return James’ call after the New Year, but by then I’d gotten word from Sandy that he was on life support and would die in a few days. A day later I heard from Star and Tom, both of whom indicated James had lived the life he wanted to live, without any regrets.
James is one of the numerous people I never would have met if it hadn’t been for Gene Smith’s tapes. When James visited CDS to listen to the tapes in 2004 he made a statement that is one of my favorite passages in the Jazz Loft Project book: “Hearing these tapes is like somebody playing back your memories for you, only these are memories you forgot you had. But these aren’t just memories, this is real!”
Here is the obituary from the Santa Rosa (CA) Press Democrat.
- Sam Stephenson