Archive for February, 2010

“Jimmy and Me” by Tom Wayburn

Tom Wayburn, aka Tommy Wayburn, is a jazz drummer and chemical engineer from Detroit.  As a young man he earned a chemical engineering degree but he preferred playing jazz.  In the official jazz annals his pinnacle is playing drums on pianist Lennie Tristano’s 1956 recording Manhattan Studio.  Tom was in and out of the 821 Sixth Avenue loft scene for many years, even living there after Gene Smith moved out, but he never altogether dropped science.  On one of Smith’s tapes from 1960 Tom can be heard discussing his part-time work translating Russian scientific journals into English.  In the late 1960s he did PhD work in math at NYU and left with an MS degree when the student strike of 1970 began.  In 1979, suffering from addictions and tiring of the jazz struggle, he noticed an article in the Wall Street Journal about a shortage of petroleum engineers in America.  He went to the library and noted several universities with petroleum engineering programs.  He settled on the University of Utah.  During his flight from New York to Utah, and the next day while walking the streets of Salt Lake City looking for housing, he went cold turkey on his drug habit.  For the following three decades Tom has been teaching in universities, playing music, developing software, doing research, and writing on energy, economics, and politics.  He also indulges his hobby of model railroad construction.  We caught up with him in Houston in 2003 and have remained in touch.  Below are some of Tom’s memories of 821 Sixth Avenue and loft resident Jimmy Stevenson whom he knew from Detroit, written this month. – Sam Stephenson.

Jimmy and Me

By Tom Wayburn

I began smoking marijuana shortly after I became the regular drummer on a few jazz scenes, including scenes like the jazz loft at 821 Sixth Avenue which was frequented by a host of drummers, most of whom were better than me.  Baritone saxophonist Jay Cameron somehow arranged matters so that from 1956 into 1958 I was always living in a place where we could jam; and, I was ready and willing at all hours.  I always say that the most important thing is to be there, and I was.  (I had not seen the Peter Sellers movie Being There yet.)

The first such place was 49 Horatio.  Jutta Hipp installed a piano in the basement of 47 Horatio.  Jay, Jutta, Paul and Carla Bley, and I lived on the premises of 47 or 49 which were adjoined.  Visitors included Zoot Sims, Bill Evans, Paul Motian, Ira Sullivan, and many others.  Stan Getz came one night, however we had all smoked grass through Jay Cameron’s gas mask and I had to be put to bed.  Other places included a railroad flat on East 20th Street for which I paid $19.05 a month, and a loft at 53 West 24th Street, the same building where Charlie Parker had visited me while I was attending night school at New York City College in 1953/54.  (I may have attended class in the same classroom in which I taught calculus many years later).

I left New York in 1958 and headed for Florida chasing a girl I wanted to marry.  With nothing much to do once I got there, I took a job with a Ray Charles-type of band at Ken’s Airport Lounge in Hialeah.  I enrolled in the University of Miami School of Music.  At the end of the semester, I headed for a summer job in Fox Lake, Illinois with another student.  I was fired shortly thereafter when the FBI searched my belongings for marijuana.  I then joined a band at a nearby resort.  It seems the young man who drove with me from Miami to Illinois had reported me to his local FBI office as soon as he got out of the car.  Fortunately, I had smoked the last of my small stash before I arrived in Fox Lake.  When summer ended, my first cousin Larry Tyler, an employment agent in Chicago, got me contract work at Dow Chemical in Midland, Michigan.  Midland had no jazz scene, so I traveled to Detroit every weekend.  That’s when I met Jimmy Stevenson.

On the weekends, I played in jam sessions at Jimmy Stephenson’s house (no relation to Jimmy Stevenson or Sam Stephenson) and elsewhere and stayed with various musicians or with my mother who still lived in Detroit.  One weekend I drove back to Midland with an ounce of pot in the trunk and enough in the front seat to get me pretty ripped.  I got so nervous when I passed a state police car that my driving was affected.  Suffice to say, I got busted.  I lost the job in Midland.  Jimmy Stevenson and a few of the others helped me move my piano from the rental house in Midland and it ended up in Jimmy’s family’s garage.  Billy Steen was a busy traveling drummer and he let me stay in his apartment with his student roommate while he was out of town.  Gino Biondo and I provided a rhythm section for the pianist Boo Boo Turner for a few evenings of jazz in a coffee house.  I got kicked out of Billy Steen’s apartment when Boo Boo Turner and Philly Joe Jones cut an electric shaver cord to clean a hypodermic needle — for the second time in as many weeks!  All of that time, I saw a lot of Jimmy Stevenson who subscribed to the idea of being there too.  Some time during that period, Jimmy and I traveled to Flint with a few other musicians and played at a couple of places there.

The jazz scene in Detroit was quite circumscribed back then.  There was nearly no work at all.  Donn (he spells it with one N now, I believe)  Preston, the piano player, had a job at the Brass Rail in downtown Detroit just a few blocks from his loft which was over a barbershop on Grand River Avenue near its intersection with Woodward Avenue.  Soon, his loft became the Detroit equivalent of 821 Sixth Avenue.  Practically every visiting jazz musician stopped by after hours for the all-night jam sessions.  It became expedient to have a house drummer; so, I moved in with Donn, his wife Rowena, and his kid Mook.  Soon, the floor was littered with musicians who had played until they dropped and slept right there, among them were two bass players, Gino Biondo and one Jimmy Stevenson.  It was while I was living at Donn’s that Jimmy met Sandy.  I remember that I was disappointed that she didn’t like me better (if she ever finds that out, it will be because she is reading this).

I got work playing in the pit orchestra at the Gaiety Burlesque in Detroit. It was one of the last old-fashioned burlesque theaters in the United States.  Later on, I auditioned for a jazz gig at Frank’s Lounge in Downtown Detroit with Jimmy Stephenson (alto and co-leader), Stormy Nightingale (piano and alto and co-leader), Wesley Fields (trumpet), and Gino Biondo (bass). We got the job six nights a week at nine dollars per night.  We may have been the only full-time working jazz band in Detroit at the time.  It seems that every unemployed musician in Detroit was in the audience waiting for a chance to sit in.

Shortly after the job began, Gino got tired of the drummer’s propensity for drink and quit.  Jimmy Stevenson was in the audience.  He was hired on the spot.  This was my first chance to play every night and it must have helped me; but, this was Detroit.  New York was an entirely different matter.  After a number of months playing in various venues in Detroit, chief among which was Donn Preston’s loft, Jimmy and I decided to try our luck in New York.  We got in the car and hit the road.

I don’t remember a thing about the automobile trip from Detroit to New York.  Probably, we took turns driving Jimmy’s 1949 Plymouth; but, it is possible that he drove all the way.  It was not a difficult trip.  The Pennsylvania Turnpike had been built by that time.  I don’t think we had a place to stay when we got there.  But, that turned out to be of secondary interest at the time.  Although New York is a walking town, most New Yorkers would rather ride than walk; and, Jimmy had a car.  I remember going from one playing situation to another with any number of people, many of whom I did not know from living in New York previously.

A certain type of person is fond of saying, “Nobody sticks a needle in your arm.” That’s not always true.  One night shortly after arriving in New York, we were playing at a party in Greenwich Village with a large number of guests.  While I was away from New York, the group of people later identified as “the amphetamine set,” a term I had not heard at the time, began hanging out together.  Billy Gaton, whose last name spells “no tag” backwards, a member of the set, was at the party dispensing amphetamine gratuitously to all and sundry.  A friend of mine could buy a large bottle of pharmaceutical grade amphetamine sulfate for ten dollars from Schramm Drug Store on Lower Broadway.  Thus, amphetamine was essentially free.  While I was playing my drums, Billy walked up behind me and without my permission he stuck his needle in my arm and injected a reasonably large dose intramuscularly.  I never saw him coming, but it changed my life – not because I didn’t like it, but because I loved it.

Something similar must have happened to Jimmy Stevenson.  To this day, I believe that by that one shot both of us contracted the same strain of hepatitis C.  In addition, I contracted acute hepatitis B, which I will describe later.

Somehow we found places to live, initially with Larry Mortlock, the long-time trumpet player who played like Miles but only with records.  Later on I stayed at bassist Peter Ind’s loft on Houston Street and Jimmy rented a loft at 821 Sixth Avenue.  I do not recall how Jimmy got enough money for the rent as inexpensive as it was in those days.  Perhaps his parents sent him some money or he may have had some money with him.  I remember when Jimmy married Sandy at the church next to the Babel Piano Store on 23d Street.  Coincidentally, I rented a small room upstairs from the piano store and next to what I remember as trombonist Clyde Cox’s loft where many of us played music.  My window looked out at the side of the church where Jimmy and Sandy got married.  They lived together at 821 where money was scarce and life was hard.  While they were living at 821, Jimmy presided over many jam sessions, many of which I attended.  Jimmy was a bass player, and bass players were always held in greater esteem than were drummers in those days.  Drummers were a dime a dozen at the sessions.  On the other hand, bass players who liked to play their own instrument were somewhat reluctant to carry them around New York.  Drummers will play anyone’s drums most of the time.  In New York in those days, it was fairly easy to find a place to play and very difficult to get paid for it.  The best I ever did was play for tips in Greenwich Village coffee shops about which more in another installment.

To get money, I took a job as a free-lance editor of Russian scientific periodicals.  My immediate supervisor was Len Corwin, a man who became a good friend over time.  He introduced me to all his friends who played music most of whom were recent graduates of Swarthmore College.  At first, I lived in the tiny room above the Babel Piano Store next to Clyde Cox’s loft.  I remember playing in that room and in Clyde’s loft with my old friend Lin Halliday, a saxophonist who had lived with me briefly on 20th Street.  It must have been through Lin that I became the semi-voluntary roommate of Chet Baker and Philly Joe Jones in 1958.  Lin was with Virginia McEwan in those days.  Gin helped me with my science journal editing chores until I contracted hepatitis B after staying awake for six or seven days trying to finish a backlog of proofreading.  But, that was after I moved to larger quarters at 761 Sixth Avenue.

All of this time, I was in and out of Jimmy’s loft at 821 Sixth Avenue.  Life in those days was pretty well concentrated in that neighborhood north of Greenwich Village that is sometimes referred to as Chelsea.  Readers familiar with the Jazz Loft Project know that it was Manhattan’s wholesale flower district.  Later on I was to play occasionally at the Blues Project Loft on 28th Street between Sixth Avenue and Broadway and at George Moshou’s loft on 26th Street.  One could play every day without leaving that neighborhood.

Before I leave the episode of Jimmy and me coming to New York, I would like to relate the story behind the night that I had to awaken Jimmy and Sandy after I lost the keys to 761 Sixth Avenue.  I was with trumpeter Tony Fruscella and a number of other amphetamine heads (the term “speed freak” was used much later.)  We were in the hotel room of a wealthy Mexican girl named Maria who was visiting the United States specifically to get high on heroin.  Our “connection” had already left with a rather large amount of Maria’s money and we were awaiting his return. Very few amphetamine heads would absolutely turn down free heroin if it was offered.  In the meantime, Maria devoted her time to me and soon enough I was convinced that I was in love.  The upshot is as brutal as it is simple.  The connection returned and Maria overdosed.  I nearly overdosed and was almost unconscious while others worked on reviving Maria.  The good news is that she recovered; the bad news is that she was raped while she was unconscious.  I was horrified and separated myself from that group of amphetamine heads as soon as I was able.  Unfortunately, I had left my sport coat in the hotel room and my keys were in the pocket.  I was in no condition to spend the night on the streets, so I aroused Jimmy and Sandy by yelling at their window from the roof of a building that shared the space behind 821 until an elderly tenant tried to bash my brains in with the bar from his police lock.  Jimmy was awake by then and let me in the downstairs door which had been locked.  I awoke the next morning still stoned but feeling better than I had ever felt in my life.  Naturally, we began playing as soon as possible.

Tom Wayburn

Houston, Texas

February 22, 2010

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A Stranger Here

This is just a quick note to say Ramblin’ Jack Elliott won a Grammy Award this month for his new blues album on the Anti- label, “A Stranger Here,” which features an early W. Eugene Smith image on the cover.  This is one of Smith’s wry photos, which he’s not known for but which are evident throughout his career.  Ramblin’ Jack’s album was produced by the visionary Joe Henry.  This makes us happy for Ramblin’ Jack, Joe, and Smith.


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A Milestone Week for the Jazz Loft Project

Last week the Jazz Loft Project exhibition opened at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in New York.  CDS exhibitions director Courtney Reid-Eaton installed the show beautifully, working with LPA chief curator Barbara Cohen-Stratyner and LPA’s audio-visual services manager Michael Diekmann.  Jazz Loft colleagues Dan Partridge and Lauren Hart contributed heavily to the show going back months and years, and CDS photographer Harlan Campbell made the excellent blow-ups and banners.  It was a milestone moment for a project that dates back to the 1990s.

More than 600 people attended the opening reception on February 16, a splendid night after a day-long wet snow in the city.  (Check back soon for photos and video from the event, either here or on our exhibition page).

In the show we are projecting 16mm film footage of Gene Smith working in the loft.  It was shot by David X. Young in 1970 – a few years after the jazz scene had died down.  Last week on opening night, frame maker David Rothman watched the footage attentively.  He had moved into the loft shortly after the footage was shot, not long after Gene Smith had been evicted.  He watched the complete film loop and came up to me:  “I saw the old gas space heater that I inherited from Gene.  The gas was piped in from outside.  It was metered behind the building.  Some of the guys who lived in the loft before me had built exterior walls around the meters to hide them in the alley.  So when the meter readers came by they didn’t find any meters to read.”

Rothman’s roots in the loft ran deep.  His father, collage artist and frame maker Henry Rothman had employed Dave Young in his shop around the corner on 28th St. and he tipped off Young on the availability of that space in 1954.  Young David Rothman, an aspiring clarinetist, had wandered into the loft as a teen in the late 1950s to listen to Jimmy Giuffre.  Rothman gave up the clarinet and followed his father in frame making.  Today some consider him the best frame maker in the city.

After the reception we went to the outstanding, old-school restaurant on West 60th St., Gabriel’s, and broke bread with about 20 Loft Project principals, including our integral leaders of CDS, Tom Rankin, Greg Britz, and Lynn McKnight, along with Smith’s son, Kevin Eugene Smith, and Dan and Gloria Logan of the Reva and David Logan Foundation, whose support allowed the project to unfold over the past decade.  Also notable for their presence were my wife and parents, longtime Jazz Loft colleague Dan Partridge and his mother, and our aforementioned colleagues Harland and Courtney.  Special mention should be made of attendee Carol Buuck of Tucson, AZ, an old friend of my wife Laurie Cochenour, who once lived and worked in Tucson.  In traveling 2500 miles to visit Smith’s archive at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona more than twenty times, I’ve never once paid for lodging, thanks to Carol (plus our friends Linda, Dane, and Jimmy Armijo in Tucson, too).  Also present was the creator of the exquisite JLP radio series, Sara Fishko and her husband, legendary graphic artist Bob Gill, who visited the loft to see his friend, photographer Harold Feinstein in the 1950s.  This precise group will probably never dine together again.

The next night, February 17, the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund rented out the exhibition gallery and had a private reception for 37 people.  Friends on the Fund board – Aaron Schindler, David Friend, and Bill Hunt, among others – welcomed us there.  John G. Morris, a longtime friend of Smith and a founder of Magnum Photos as well as the Smith Fund itself, long ago introduced me to these generous folks who keep Smith’s flame alive by giving out a prestigious annual award.  Also joining the event were Courtney and Dan Partridge, Kevin Smith and Dan and Gloria Logan.  I gave a talk and Kevin and Courtney chimed in.  Friendships were rekindled and kindled.

The following night Dan Partridge and I attended the meeting of the New York Chapter of the Association of Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC).  We were invited and gracefully hosted by Dave Nolan.  The meeting was held on White St. in Tribeca, at the home of the Archive of Contemporary Music (ACM) which is run by Bob George.  I spoke, along with our old friend Chris Lacinak of AV Preserve.  Chris was the original engineer who masterfully preserved the first half of the Smith loft audio collection.  Chris’s talk was inspiring and enlightening.  I never fail to learn something from these pros in the fields of valuing old things and saving them.  There’s something metaphysical and haunting about what they do.

One interesting thing we learned that night is that behind ACM’s Tribeca brownstone is the two-story apartment of Leo DiCaprio.  We peered out across the alley, Rear Window-style, and leered at Leo’s hip, downtown crib.  We didn’t see him anywhere.  He was probably at the gym, or he was a block away at Tribeca Grand bar having a martini.  You could tell Leo’s place oozed hipness, with a soft copper glow.  He’s got an outdoor pool crammed into the alley in between his place and ACM.  The pool was covered by a stretched sheet or awning of semi-translucent outdoor fabric which is lit from beneath.  The scene looked minimalist Japanese.  Meanwhile, ACM was your typical clubhouse of audio fanatics.  It had ancient, dusty planks, dingy walls that hadn’t been painted since the Watergate years, and fluorescent lighting hanging from wires.  They had green plastic resin chairs set up in rows, and they had two-liter bottles of soda served in paper cups.  It was perfect.  The only thing that matters to these guys is sound, good sound.  They had wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling vinyl records including a Robert Johnson record of a vintage that is apparently only one of ten known to survive.  It made me think of Marybeth Hamilton’s comment that the Delta blues were born in a YMCA in Brooklyn.* If Gene Smith were alive he’d be living in something like this place, not Leo’s pad.  Although he’d probably coax Leo into loaning him some money.

Finally, on Friday, February 19, I spoke to about 40 jazz students at Juilliard in a class hosted by the brilliant pianist Frank Kimbrough.  It was meaningful to be there, the former employer of Hall Overton, speaking to kids who 50 years ago might have been at 821 Sixth Avenue instead of Juilliard.  We had to shut down the class meeting mid-stream at the 2-hour mark.  The kids dug into the story, engaged Smith’s photos and tapes.  They asked great questions and made insightful comments that I learned from.

All in all, it was a wonderful week in this history of this project.  When you are closer to the end of a project than the beginning and a week like this happens, you can only feel thankful and grateful and deeply fortunate.

-Sam Stephenson

*See her provocative book, In Search of the Blues.

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“1961 in the Loft” by Virginia Wald

A few weeks after her 17th birthday in the spring of 1961, Virginia McEwan moved to New York City with saxophonist Lin Halliday.  She and Lin and pianist Sonny Clark spent much of that summer dwelling at the 821 Sixth Avenue loft. She maintained a P.O.Box at Penn Station in order to finish high school correspondence classes. She left New York for good that fall after becoming pregnant with Lin’s child.  In late September 1961 she, Lin, and Sonny were recorded by W. Eugene Smith’s tapes in a harrowing hallway scene that is featured in the Jazz Loft Project book.  Today Virginia lives on a peninsula off the Strait of Juan de Fuca near Port Townsend, Washington with her husband, bassist Ted Wald, whom she first met at the loft.  Her willingness to share her memories with the Jazz Loft Project has become an invaluable part of our documentation, providing poignant glimpses of underground life in New York City.  The following is Virginia’s story, excerpted from past letters to Sam Stephenson, with her editorial approval:

I was born in Wilmington, Delaware on March 8, 1944; International Woman’s Day.  I lived with my maternal grandparents until I was thirteen when I went to Chicago to rejoin my mother.  She lived in Hyde Park, a University of Chicago neighborhood, and she worked as the personal secretary to Carl Rogers, a well-known psychologist.  She was only nineteen when I was born and thirty-two when I went to live with her.  It was there that I was exposed to the Bohemian culture, the beatniks of the late fifties.  I can say in retrospect, when trying to figure out what it was that motivated me to live in the situation I did in New York, that this was were I derived my point of view.  Existentialism.

I met Lin Halliday in Cincinnati, Ohio.  I’d been living with a man named Rusty Allen for about a year. I met Rusty in Chicago about the time I liberated myself from my mother’s house.  She’d just married a man named Dean Mack, who was a “hipster,” and I wasn’t happy living with them.  I simply moved out and my mother did not stop me.  I had just turned sixteen a week or two before moving out, and had already dropped out of high school.  Rusty was a student at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, the neighborhood I lived in.  After dropping out of school, he moved back to his hometown, Cincinnati, and I went with him.  He was twenty-one and played trumpet.  I was already sexually active and had a few lovers during that time.  While I was living with Rusty, I also was having an affair with his neighbor, Chase Shaffer, a Harvard graduate in his thirties who owned his own airplane.  It was Chase who drove both Lin and me to New York, and he also picked me up at the loft when I left for good.

I met Lin one night when Rusty took us to hear a jazz trio—Dee Felice on drums, a bass player whose name I have forgotten, and Lin on tenor sax.  Of course, I was attracted to a jazz musician.  That was the ideal in a hipster culture where jazz was revered.  I had listened to and knew jazz players in Chicago, including Ira Sullivan who was a friend of my parents.  I was also very attracted to Lin because he was tall and in those days I myself was just a tad short of 5’10″.  Lin was 6’4′ and he made me feel very feminine. You’d have to understand how much verbal abuse I’d received always being the tallest one in my class throughout elementary school.  At 5’10″ I was an inch taller than the average height for a man.  Lin could actually pick me up.  And Lin was a stunning player.  Musicians who knew him still talk about his playing today. Although Rusty and Chase had been very good to me – both of them teamed up to pay for my high school correspondence course – I immediately moved in with Lin.  In fact, during those first days that we were together I actually stayed up for two whole days, something I’ve never done before or since.  I was totally in love. We found a little apartment in Cincinnati and set up house. I remember making spaghetti for us, one of my first tries at cooking.  We only stayed in Cincinnati for a few weeks and that was when I had a dream.  Something evil was in the house and I could see the red eyes looking out of the wall.  For the rest of our relationship Lin would remind me of “red eyes”.  It was during that time that I began to fathom that Lin was a heroin user, although little was available in his life at that time.  My first memory of Lin using was shortly after we met and were living in Cincinnati.  He got some heroin somewhere, of course, not really telling me, and went into the bathtub and presumably shot up.  He nodded off and I found him the next day still sitting in the cold water with a razor blade clutched between his two fingers, which he’d apparently used to cut the stuff.  But I was in love, so a rationalized it and made it okay. Sometime during those first weeks, we decided to move to New York. Chase, who had friends in New York, drove us.  I remember being on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and asking to stop in Wilmington where my grandparents lives.  We sat outside the house I’d grown up in for a few moments but we didn’t go in.  Our real goal was to go to Elkton, Maryland where Lin and I could be married. Unfortunately it was already evening and everything was closed so we didn’t do it. We arrived outside of the loft (821 Sixth Avenue) that night at two in the morning, and Lin went upstairs and asked if we could stay there.  My trunk of clothes remained there from that night when we arrived in May until I left in October.  It was a very different world in 1961, before the Beatles, the Viet Nam War, hippies and the new sixties music.  Nineteen sixty-one was still more or less an extension of the fifties.  Jazz musicians were still keeping up a dress code that the times dictated: white shirts, slacks, shined shoes.  In fact, often any money I was able to get my hands on during that summer in New York was spent at laundries where we had Lin’s shirts done.

Since the time Lin and I had arrived in New York, we had the loft as our safe place even though there were other places that we slept—(trumpeter) Manny Duran’s, the apartment of someone whose name I have forgotten on St. Mark’s Place, two places that (drummer) Tommy Wayburn had, one a sub-let from (pianist) Carla Bley and, later that summer, Tommy’s own loft in the same building as Sonny Carr on Twenty-Third Street. Shortly after we arrived in New York, Sonny Clark attached himself to us.  I don’t think he even had a place he called his own.  I couldn’t get into Birdland, one of the few places in New York that even asked for age identification.  I always had to hang out for a few hours if Lin and Sonny were in Birdland.

On the very first day that we arrived in New York, Lin went out to cop heroin from a dealer named Stringbean. Stringbean’s became a regular stop in our life until a few weeks later he stole Lin’s Selmer (saxophone) and pawned it.  That was another common occurrence, either having your instrument stolen and pawned or pawning it yourself for that next fix.  Over the summer, after Lin got his horn back, he pawned it himself several times.  I knew I was in trouble as Lin’s addiction began to be the thing that our life revolved around.

When I first met Lin, I was only vaguely aware of the heroin culture.  I’d first seen it in the movie “Man with the Golden Arm” based on Nelson Algren’s novel.  I was about ten at the time and just had the fuzziest concept of what was going on.  I vividly remember the “cold turkey” scene however, when Kim Novak locks Frank Sinatra into a room so he can kick.  And of course, I had read the Beat poetry which was very prevalent at the end of the fifties.  But personally, I knew little although jazz musicians were idolized by the Beat’s.

I don’t remember the first time I saw anyone shoot up but I do remember the paraphernalia – spoon, spike, eyedropper, cotton, matches and something to tie off the arm.  You put the stuff in the spoon with a little water, heat it with the match, draw it through the cotton into the syringe through the needle, tie off your arm and then you shoot it into a vein.  And then you nod out, sometimes for hours.  If you have any left, you do it again.

Later on that first morning in New York, we went to Times Square.  We met another junkie there.  I don’t remember who, a young white male, most likely a musician. It was there that I began to learn of the things junkies do to get the money they need every day to score.  He told me about playing “Murphy,” apparently because I could have been the perfect decoy to make it work.  What it amounts to is that a junkie poses as a pimp and approaches one of the many men from all over the world who come to Times Square to find a hooker.  The pimp lets the man know that the girl is available, and the girl, posing as the hooker, tells him to meet up with them at some obscure location and then robs the man.  That is how you play “Murphy”.  I never did this, just learned about it.

Stringbean had a woman who worked Times Square.  She was older, maybe in her forties, very dark, skinny legged and not too attractive, but still playing the trade.  I think she may have been the type of prostitute who would go into a back alley and lift up her skirt.  She was most likely a user too. Scoring was a full time job for those who were strung out.  And I heard many stories of how someone thought they could dabble and not get caught up into addiction.  Most of the stories were the same, they woke up one day and they were full time junkies.  Even though I never, to this very day, ever used, being in this culture makes you feel like a criminal.  And just about everyone we knew was involved in some sort of criminal behavior one way or the other.  Women turned tricks for their own habits or their boyfriends’ habits.  People shoplifted, played Murphy, stole from family and friends, and begged money.  Lin sold milk sugar in heroin packets at the Union.

The paraphernalia—needle, syringe, etc. were called “works”.  Works were a problem.  You needed them to get off, but you couldn’t carry them with you.  If you were caught with works you could get busted and sent to Rikers Island.  I met many an alumnus from Rikers during my stay in New York.  Sometimes, because I looked so innocent and young, I carried the works for Lin, but usually they were stashed somewhere for future use.  The most common place was in a public bathroom maybe under the plumbing, or behind the toilet tank.  To this day, I sometimes check out the hiding places I came to know in public toilets.  Of course, today the needles are very dangerous as one can get AIDS from them, but back then needle sharing was common, sometimes with everyone getting off using the same needle. Today, my husband Ted tells me a story, during his junkie days, of how he was in a toilet somewhere and the only water available to put in the spoon was the toilet water and that is what they used.  Getting high overrode all common sense.

Of course, heroin was not always available.  This was often because one could not afford the “nickel bag” which was what it cost back then—five dollars for a small bag of white powder.  In that case there were other things to substitute such as paregoric (used on the gums of teething babies), vaso-inhalers, where you pulled out the cotton stuffing from the nasal inhaler and shot up the liquid from inside, Cosenol cough syrup or Turpenhydrate, another cough syrup which you drank, both contained codeine.

One of the saddest things I witnessed that summer involved children.  On Fifty-Second Street there was a junkie couple who lived off the alley across from the Musician’s Union.  They had a small baby in a carriage and they used to keep their works stashed with the baby.  They figured that they wouldn’t get hassled if there was a baby involved. The public was still pretty naive back then about things like addiction.   Another couple, whom I met at the loft, seemed like a typical young couple except that their baby was born strung-out.  I remember how they recounted the story to us.  I was shocked.

You might imagine what it’s like after a junkie scores and he or she can retreat to some corner to shoot up.  I was purely an observer.  To me, the twilight zone for junkies—sitting in some filth and squalor somewhere in a “shooting gallery”—was very boring.  Not being high made it seem like the most monotonous experience for me. But for the participants, it was the pinnacle of their lives, what they lived for and spent all their efforts setting up. It seems like we spent many days in dingy apartments with filthy plumbing and stopped-up sinks, all the shades pulled down, sometimes with a soundless TV on, and everyone sitting around and nobody saying anything. Sometimes junkies would hole up together for days with someone occasionally going out on a food run or to score more smack.

For me, it was okay as it meant we had shelter.  No doubt, I did plenty of high school correspondence work in places like that. Through it all, that entire summer I kept up my school work. I was able to rent a mail box at the old Penn Station and I’d walk there from the Loft in the morning to mail in my school work or check it for mail. I actually graduated six months earlier than I would have if I had stayed in school and hadn’t been on the streets of New York.

I came to learn a lot about prostitution that summer.  It seemed like all the male junkies who had “old ladies” had partners who did not shy away from “turning tricks.”  Of course, they were supplying their own habits too.  I was the partner of a junkie, but I didn’t have a habit.  Maybe that is what saved me.  Although it was always tempting, especially when one’s survival was involved, and I did have a few misadventure that only reinforced that this was not what I wanted to do, I could never wrap my head around having sex with someone I didn’t care for.

One of my strongest memories is of a pimp’s attempt to recruit me. I had made friends with some of his girls while sitting at the Ham ‘N Egger during the many nights I spent waiting for Lin and Sonny Clark, who were playing at Birdland across the street. Once, I remember one of the girls attempting to mount the fire hydrant outside the window of the cafe.  She hiked up her skirt and got on and rode, entertaining all the late-night customers at the counter. I remember having a conversation with another prostitute as I was reading Othello for my school lessons.  I read to her the line, “Kill me tomorrow, let me live tonight!” which is what Desdemona says to Othello when he is about to kill her.  The hooker really appreciated that line.

The girls told their pimp about me and word came that he wanted to see me.  I was escorted up to some hotel room in the building behind Broadway and Fifty-Second Street.  All the girls were there and he told me what they had to offer, the girls all agreeing.  They were asking me to be part of their family and stressing how they all loved each other and how good their pimp was.  I told them that I was “married,” alluding to Lin and that I loved him. They knew he was a junkie and they told me that I could take care of him even better if I joined them.  I declined.  But maybe if I’d been a young girl, all alone and starving for affection, survival at stake, I might have taken the bait.

Over the summer Lin and I hung out with a few other couples who were also junkies.  They were better able to survive and live on the street. They were white and probably from middle class homes before getting hooked. They were better at keeping up the pretense of being “normal,” but both types of women engaged in prostitution to keep things going. Just being a teenage girl attracted a few who propositioned me or sought to use me sexually, but I also brought Lin and Sonny luck because with me, they were more likely to find shelter and more people wanted to help us—some for their own reasons and some out of kindness because I was with them.  Gary Hawkins and Ron Free (both drummers and residents of 821 Sixth Avenue) were very tolerant of us and as a result the loft was our safe haven all that summer.

Some time in July, I believe, there was story of a stewardess being arrested on an airplane from Europe.  She was busted with an enormous heroin stash.  Within days, heroin was not filtering down to the street.  Junkies were standing out on corners, noses running, sick as dogs and unable to score.  You could drive down the street, as we did in Harlem, and pick them out if you knew what you were looking for. In those days, the general populace did not, but junkies were desperate all over the city.

I remember being in Harlem in someone’s car in the middle of the night as Lin and Sonny went off to see if anyone had anything to sell.  It was about three in the morning and I was in the back seat of a car in Harlem with no place to hide.  I lay down on the seat and tried to not attract attention.  Of course, there was no dope.

This went on for a few days.  During that time we were told we could spend the night in some musician friend’s home, a brownstone on the East Side.  It was his parents’ home, but they were away.   Undoubtedly they did not know their son was a dabbler.  We got there in the early evening and hung out for awhile and then we went to bed.  It was a living room so we had no privacy. Sometime during the night, the panic broke and once more people could get heroin on the streets.

Later that night, while we were still sleeping our host let in some Italian boys from the Village.  They were still kids, maybe nineteen or so and they had just scored and then came here to shoot up.  I remember when they walked in, I think there were two, and one of them woke me up and asked me if I wanted to turn a trick.  I said “No,” and went back to sleep.

Around dawn we were awakened to a bad scene.  The heroin had been too strong; it hadn’t been re-cut as it trickled down to the lower-echelon dealers in the streets.  One of the kids had ODed and they had him sitting up in a chair blowing air into his lungs.  I remember the sound the air made when it came back out, not a pretty sound, maybe a death rattle. They’d already shot him up with salt to revive him, but it was too late.  He was gone.  Our host told us that he was going to call the Death Squad and we should leave.  We grabbed all of our stuff and ran out onto the street and to the subway where we took the “A” train to Harlem so Lin could cop. To this very day, whenever I have a dream of riding the subway with the stations barreling past and the light reflecting on the windows, I know it is a death dream.  It has personal meaning to me.

Once, Lin jacked somebody up on Twenty Second Street to get money for food for me. By that time I was pregnant.  That was a line he’d never crossed before.  I was horrified.  I could never be comfortable with anything like this.  That may have been the final act that made me want to leave although I don’t remember for sure.

I don’t remember exactly when I called Chase, but he did drive to New York to get me.

How often can one go back and revisit a moment, especially such a critical moment, in one’s life?  I am sure to do this, as emotionally charged as it is, it is really a healing thing.  I still maintain that, no matter what my life has been, I still would not change one moment of it.  It’s all about learning.  We are here to evolve.  I have had sorrows but out of that comes compassion and caring for others.

-Virginia Wald

Below is a photograph of Virginia and saxophonist Lin Halliday made by their daughter Laura MacMahon in the hospital in Chicago in 1993.  It was the second time Virginia had seen Laura and the first time Lin met her.


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“Lofty Thoughts” by Ron Free

Ron Free, aka Ronnie Free in the loft days, is the most ubiquitous presence on Gene Smith’s loft tapes, showing up on more than one hundred reels, approximately three hundred hours.  He lived in the loft for roughly two years 1958-1960.  Here he reports in again with us from Hot Springs, VA where he plays drums at the Homestead Resort.

Other than sharing the same birthday, one might ask what two white jazz drummers (Gene Krupa and moi) of different eras could possibly have in common with a black civil rights leader who came to prominence in the sixties?

Quite a bit actually.

When Martin Luther KIng so eloquently articulated his famous I Have a Dream speech, it resonated viscerally with everything in me, because from a very early age I’d had a similar dream. Maybe that’s why, in retrospect, I have come to regard jazz musicians as early civil rights workers. After all, blacks and whites were “sitting in” together long before sit-ins became a movement.

As a child growing up in the deep (shallow?) south I gave very little thought to seeing restrooms and water fountains designated as white or colored.  Nor did I pay much attention to restaurants and lunch counters that were open to whites only.  Likewise with schools and other segregated institutions.  It was simply the way things were.  Who was I to question the order?

But questions did arise early on. A few key events come to mind, like the time my father beat the crap out of me for playing baseball with “a bunch of niggers.”  When it comes to bigotry my father made Archie Bunker look like a bleeding heart liberal.  Yet it was okay for me to sit in with “colored” bands and musicians around town.  In fact, he encouraged it. Say what?

My mother was such a softie I thought she would be different. I could usually talk her into just about anything. But that bubble burst on one occasion when I had the good fortune to meet and play with a superb “colored” alto player named Lonnie Hamilton.  We played together in a club where my mother was tending bar.  For Lonnie and me it was instant friendship. We were both young and enthusiastic.  Music magic was in the air.  I got so excited I invited Lonnie to my house so we could talk music and listen to records.

I guess I should have checked with Mom first.  She adamantly refused to allow it.  I pitched a hissy fit, which usually worked like a charm – my fits usually persuaded her – but regardless of how much I demanded, begged, whined or cajoled she would have none of Lonnie visiting our house.  I was stunned and humiliated. Lonnie, as I recall, was most gracious and understanding, wise beyond his years; wise beyond my years, at least.

Another time I remember listening to Rufus Jones playing an incredible drum solo over WPAL, Charleston’s black radio station. I was lying in bed thinking in wonder that such a great young drummer lived in the same home town as me, yet we’d never met.  How could that be?  It made me tear up.  We didn’t meet until years later when I was able to catch Rufus “Speedy” Jones dazzling the world with the famous Count Basie Orchestra.

Included in Gene Smith’s tape collection are excerpts of MLK speaking on the radio and TV in the Civil Rights era. Gene made these tapes in his loft near where I crashed on his recliner for a couple of years.  Ironically, the loft was a place where King’s dream was being manifest ahead of the curve so to speak, because in the loft no one, as far as I could tell, was judged by the color of their skin, but rather the content of their character. The unspoken rule was: if you can play, you can stay. And it takes strength of character to play a musical instrument with any degree of mastery.

As a jazz drummer I have often joked about sometimes feeling like a black man trapped in a white man’s body. I wonder if Gene Krupa had any such feelings when he faced the horrors of racism. He, along with many others of various colors, genders and nationalities, had to contend with that hideous monster long before I, or MLK for that matter, hit the scene. But perhaps Capricorns, aptly symbolized by the mountain goat, are destined to share such lofty thoughts.

And dreams.

-Ron Free

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Another Poignant Scrap of Paper

Last weekend we were fortunate to have three wonderful Jazz Loft Project book events in the San Francisco area.  The first was an internal, lunchtime event at Pixar Studios with 50 people filling couches in a state-of-the-art multi-media theater.  The host was film editor Robert Grahamjones who first contacted me in 1999 after my original article on Jazz Loft was published in DoubleTake magazine.

The second event was at the War Memorial Green Room hosted by the vital organization, SF Jazz, directed by Randall Kline.  270-300 people attended.  The space and audience were unique and sophisticated, with drinks served on an outdoor terrace facing City Hall before and after my talk.

The third event was at an extraordinary bookstore, Bird & Beckett, in the Glen Park neighborhood, run by Eric Whittington and his wife Felicia and son Nicholas.  The store’s name is beautifully audacious and it measures up.  Book for book I’m not sure I’ve seen a better hand-picked inventory – the latest poetry volumes, first rate fiction and drama, the best literary journals and music magazines, and all the great non-fiction and reference books of today, and the surprises which mark a great bookstore.  They also have a superb selection of use vinyl jazz records.  How can you beat that?

At Bird & Beckett I was joined on stage by two loft veterans who live in the Bay Area, 73 year-old pianist Si Perkoff and 68 year-old saxophonist Pete Yellin (one of the youngest loft participants).  I originally interviewed Pete in 2000 when he was living in Brooklyn.  In 2003 I had a remarkable interview with Si in his home in Mill Valley, CA in 2003.  Si was a student of Hall Overton in 821 Sixth Avenue and he told me a riveting story about being sent to the Riker’s Island for drug possession in the late 1950s.  While imprisoned, with a piano and band mates available, his music elevated to higher and higher levels.  Some day soon we’ll put the transcript from this interview on our website.  At Bird & Beckett, Si focused on Overton, eloquently describing the latter’s teaching techniques.

Pete kindly and gently didn’t remember me.  My interview with him ten years ago in Brooklyn had slipped his mind.  This isn’t unusual and I’m certainly not offended at all.  An unknown writer coming to your house ten years ago and asking you about things that happened four decades before that…it’s something that can be forgotten, perhaps should be forgotten, especially for a musician still committed to creating new music in the future.  I’m thankful Pete forgot because if he had remembered he might not have come to Bird & Beckett with the following piece of paper in hand.  He’d jotted down names of musicians he foremost remembered in 821 Sixth Avenue.  It is similar to the scrap of paper that is the first image in the Jazz Loft Project book which saxophonist Lou Orensteen gave me in his West 55th Street NYC apartment in 2000.

yellin scrap paper 2 The Brecker brothers, Joe Lovano, and Steve Grossman seem too young to have made this loft scene, so I’m thinking Pete conflated 821 Sixth Avenue with another, later loft, which is fairly common.  It’s why we’ve required more than one oral history confirmation of somebody’s presence.  It wasn’t until Freddie Redd said he remembered Bird being in the loft that we validated Paul Bley’s memory of Bird being in the loft, for example.  It could have been a different place, such as Kenny Karpe’s loft which was nearby.

There are also a few names on Pete Yellin’s list that we haven’t heard before:

W. Dockery, Sam Dockery, Sonny Donaldson, and Walter Bolden.  We need to follow up with Pete and do more research on those names.

Otherwise Pete’s list jibes real well with the rest of our research and some of the names are duplicated on Lou Orensteen’s piece of scrap paper.  Pete had not seen my book, so he hadn’t seen Orensteen’s list.  On the back of Pete’s slip he added a final name, “albino Dudley Watson,” who is recorded on a number of Smith’s tapes.

This kind of detective work is the most intoxicating part of this project.

-Sam Stephenson

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Watch The Jazz Loft Project Exhibition Trailer

The Jazz Loft Project Exhibition opens February 17 at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts.

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Late Night Radio

In the month of February WNYC is treating us with The Jazz Loft Anthology, rebroadcasts of Sara Fishko’s amazing 10-part series.  Her assembled segments are running every Monday night in February at 10pm.  We love this nocturnal schedule.  I’d estimate that 80% of Smith’s tape work was done after dark, maybe more.  Virtually all of the jazz sessions were at night – or deep morning.  Even when he was recording things off radio and TV, or when he was recording phone calls or random loft sounds, most of the time it was at night.  Maybe that’s when he was drinking the most scotch and pounding amphetamine pills?  Maybe it was simpler than that; maybe the most unique sounds are at night.  The daytime is normal; amateur hour.  Who knows?

This appeals to me.  I spend a lot of time listening to WFAN sports radio out of New York City late at night.  For twenty years we’ve been able to pick it up down here in North Carolina after dark.  Other than the summer of 1988 I’ve never lived in New York but I’ve felt at home there since I was fourteen.  I’ve made ninety-three trips to the city as part of this project.  Back home, almost every night I listen to at least a few minutes of WFAN.  It connects me to the city.  Sometimes it’s right before I go to bed.  Other times it’s 3am when I’m suddenly awake and trying to fall back to sleep.  WFAN’s nighttime hosts Steve Somers and Tony Paige are sublime.  Somers is a brilliant comedian.  Sometimes Paige will have legendary, 83 year-old saxophonist Lou Donaldson call into his show in the wee hours after Lou is done with a gig at the Village Vanguard.  Lou will talk about the gig but more often they talk about baseball or boxing or whatever.  Lou was a highly regarded third baseman in a semi-pro Negro league in his hometown of Badin, North Carolina.  Hearing them makes you glad to be alive and awake.  I hope their conversations are being recorded and preserved.

Sara Fishko and I once had a conversation about WFAN.  It’s one of the places where vernacular is alive and well.  24 hour sports radio was considered preposterous before WFAN began circa 1988.  Now every city has at least one all-sports station.  Here in Raleigh-Durham we have two excellent ones with top notch local sports talk.

Sara told me she had the idea one time of a 24-hour arts talk radio station.  There’d be some planned programming, concerts, etc., the same way sports talk stations have live games.  But the arts station would be mostly interview and live call-in shows.  I got excited about this.  Can you imagine some fanatic in Queens or the Bronx calling into the station at 3am to argue over whether some unknown viola player in Argentina was better than the terrific Lesley Robertson of the St. Lawrence String Quartet?  It would be fantastic.

-Sam Stephenson

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