Archive for January, 2010

Smith & Frank versus “Mad Men”

We are pleased by Martin Johnson’s new review of the Jazz Loft project book on the terrific website, The Root.  First, Johnson mentions Jazz Loft alongside our friend Robin D.G. Kelley’s great new biography of Monk and Terry Teachout’s new Armstrong biography as well as a new jazz history opus by Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux.  That’s good company.  I haven’t read the latter two books but surely will.  They’ve received much acclaim.

I like Johnson’s linking of Smith’s work to that of Smith’s longtime friend, Robert Frank.  I know Frank would appreciate that association and Smith would, too, if he were still around.  I also like the subtle contrast Johnson draws between their work and a new book of jazz album cover photos which Johnson likens to work done by advertising agencies depicted in AMC’s outstanding series set in early 1960s Manhattan, Mad Men.  “Searing” is the word Johnson uses to describe Frank’s work – a word the opposite of cool.  Jazz album cover art is the epitome of cool.  Both are necessary for rounding out the story of this period.

Backstage at a festival in Saratoga Springs in 2002 I heard a famous, younger female vocalist ask Roy Haynes about the “good ole days” of jazz and he responded:  “It was horrendous.  You went to work at 9pm and you played 6 forty-five minute sets for a room half full of people who were maybe paying attention, but more often not, and you left the joint at 3am with a few dollars in your pocket and a greasy dinner in your stomach.  I wouldn’t want to return to those days.  You did this five or six nights a week.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed playing the music, but it was a constant hustle it would have been better to avoid.”  Haynes is a beautiful contrarian by nature.  He likes to sear the conventional view.  But more often than not he’s right.  His point  jibes with our Jazz Loft research, too.  The scene was gritty and topsy-turvy.

Today you can go into Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware in a standard suburban mall almost anywhere in America and you might hear a muted trumpet by Miles Davis or Chet Baker, and you might find a coffee table book of album cover photographs available for purchase.  What won’t be revealed in these books are the sad, agonizing moments in 1964 when a middle-tier, thirty-five year old musician hocked his saxophone and went to work for a fire extinguisher company (I couldn’t make that up if I tried).

-Sam Stephenson

p.s. Last year Johnson also wrote an excellent piece in New York magazine about the Town Hall shows, particularly Jason Moran’s IN MY MIND, engineered by Aaron Greenwald of Duke Performances.

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Jimmy’s Last Jam

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

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“The Parade” by Loft Drummer Ron Free

By the time I was eight years old, I already knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I wanted to be a jazz drummer.  Go figure.

How does one account for such a peculiar “calling?”  Well, for starters, I suppose it helps to have a father who is a jazz buff and owns many 78 rpm recordings of the Norman Granz Jazz at the Philharmonic series featuring the likes of Roy Eldridge, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Lester Young, and many other giants of the day.  And to top it all off, there were the famous drum battles between Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa.  I was hooked, especially when I discovered that I shared the same birthday with Krupa, January 15th (one that we now have in common with Martin Luther King, and that everyone enjoys as a national holiday.  More about MLK in a future blog). Surely my destiny was in the stars!

My father also took me to hear live music whenever possible, especially the big bands when they came through my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina.   I remember standing ringside to catch Louis Bellson and his revolutionary  two-bass drums with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, Buddy Rich with the Harry James Band, and, when I was 12 or so, Gene Krupa himself brought his big band to town.  And he actually let a very scared and awed little boy sit in with the band to the cheers of a huge home town crowd. Talk about a first class gentleman; Krupa broke the mold.

But prior to all of that, my first recollection of really being smitten with the drum bug is graphically portrayed in a poem I wrote a few years ago. Sam and Dan suggested I include it on the Jazz Loft Project Blog, and I’m delighted to do so.  It’s a just a simple little child’s poem, really, and I cried tears of joy when it first came through me. It arrived almost in its entirety with very little tweaking required. Hope you enjoy.

The Parade

The crowd, the clowns, the straining to see
Over shoulders of people much taller than me,
When suddenly in the distance I hear
The sound of the drums drawing near.

Then add a few trumpets and other brass horns,
The floats, the horses and pink unicorns.
I’m six years old and do not expect
To feel hair standing up on the back of my neck.

Louder and louder the sound of the drums
As something wondrous this way comes.
Along with the drums my heart is beating
Over and over the cadence repeating.

Parump-ta-tum-tum, parump-ta-tum-tum,
How compelling, how thrilling the sound of the drum.
Goose bumps crawling all over my skin,
Street beats repeating again and again.

I push through to the front so that I might see
This wonder of wonders so inspiring to me.
Girls with batons flying high in the air,
Other little children are standing near.

All looking and listening to the music coming,
The sound of the brass and the drummers drumming.
Many years have passed since that day,
My eye has grown dim, my hair turned gray.

Yet how vividly I still can recall
The sight, sound, taste and scent of it all.
And to this day there’s been no greater joy
Than the sound of the drum to that one small boy.

–Ron Free

The Parade from The Jazz Loft Project on Vimeo.

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Hall Overton’s Moment

The musician Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus has posted a new blog entry entitled “Six Degrees of Hall Overton” including, remarkably, two recordings of himself playing compositions by Overton on piano.  What a treat for the New Year, and another generous public service by Iverson.  I’m heartened by this attention to Overton from a musician and writer as influential as him.

When I first began doing oral history interviews on 821 Sixth Avenue in 1998 the only thing I knew about Overton was that he’d worked with Monk.  With each new interview (Lee Konitz, Teddy Charles, Steve Reich, Richard Davis, Dennis Russell Davies, Jim and Jane Hall, Carman Moore, Phil Woods, Calvin Albert, Ronnie Free, Charles Russo, Marian McPartland, Ben Johnston, dozens more) Overton’s figure grew larger, to the point where we believed an outgrowth of this project could be some kind of resurrection of Overton.  This belief was reinforced when we began hearing Smith’s tapes for the first time in 2002.  Maybe Overton’s moment, as mentioned by Iverson, is indeed starting to occur.  Joel Sachs is responsible for the performance of “Pulsations” at Juilliard on January 25.  Additionally, there is a loose orbit of former Overton associates and like-minded souls who are interested in doing something.  Five years ago when the art world was flush, a major project on Overton would have been easier to accomplish.  Maybe it can still happen.  We’ll do anything we can do to help.

Overton is one of a handful of people in this project who intrigue me the most, people I’ll write more about one day.  (Others are Zoot Sims, Sonny Clark, Roy Haynes, Ronnie Free, Monk, and Smith).  I traveled to Chicago several times to visit Overton’s brother, Harvey, a retired professor of humanities; his late widow Nancy Swain Overton in New Jersey; and to rural Oregon to visit Overton’s youngest brother, Richard, who shared with me a long, beautiful letter written to him by Hall from the front lines of World War II in Europe (Hall carried stretchers in France and Belgium as a member of the Third Armored Division).  Young Richard had expressed interest in architecture in a previous letter and his older brother responded with a missive on how to begin studying architecture on a serious level.  Overton’s handwriting is beautiful and meticulous and it hearkens to his chart writing, in my view.  With Richard’s permission we might post this letter on this site soon.

We also have an image of a plaster bust of Overton made by the late sculptor Cal Albert, who I interviewed in Margate, Florida a few years ago and was Overton’s oldest, closest friend.  They met in Chicago before the war when Overton was a music student and Calvin an art student.  We’ll post that soon, too.

By the way, in response to Iverson’s blog query, there is indeed a reference recording of the original performance of Overton’s Huckleberry Finn opera conducted by Dennis Russell Davies in 1971.  We got a reel-to-reel copy from Nancy and had it transferred.   We also have a recording of a live radio broadcast of one hour of Finn excerpts performed by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and conducted by Dennis circa 1975.

You can listen to Sara Fishko’s wonderful Jazz Loft Project radio segment on Overton here.  This version, broadcast locally in New York by WNYC on November 19, is twice longer than the version which was broadcast nationally on NPR two weeks ago.  This piece moved me deeply when I first heard it a year ago, and it still does.

-Sam Stephenson

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