Yesterday I drove 530 miles from north Florida back home to North Carolina. The 7-day trip ended with two inspiring interviews. On Saturday I visited Gene Smith’s first cousin Ernest “Ernie” Caplinger. On Sunday I spent the afternoon with Tamas Janda, who lived in the loft 1958-1960 when he was known as Tommy Johns.
At age eighty-eight and a veteran of WWII combat in northern Africa and Italy, Ernie looked younger than Smith looked before he died at age 59 in 1978. He told a few moving stories about growing up four years younger than Gene and looking up to him, wanting to be around him; mesmerized by Gene’s charisma and dedication to photography even when he was a young boy. Around age ten Ernie was Gene’s first photographic assistant, carrying equipment around Wichita for the fourteen year old budding master.
We’ve been trying to find Tommy Johns for a decade. Many years ago he began going by his birth name, Tamas Janda, and he moved from Puerto Rico to St. Croix to the Dominican Republic, opening restaurants wherever he stopped. He showed me a 2001 article in Travel & Leisure magazine on his No Bones Café in St. Croix. He moved to Florida two weeks ago and he’s renting a trailer from a friend he met in the Caribbean. A natural nomad, Tamas told me, “Whenever I leave a place I don’t go back. When I leave it’s because I’m ready to go.” I was put in touch with him by Smith’s son, Pat, who reconnected with him on Facebook.
Tommy Johns grew up in Croton-on-Hudson, where Smith lived with his family, and he had a crush on Smith’s daughter Marissa. Tommy’s parents were alcoholics and he ran away from home at age eighteen in 1958, telling his parents he was going to the corner store to pick up cigarettes and then hitch-hiking into Manhattan, where he bumped into Gene Smith outside 821 Sixth Avenue. Smith said, “Why, Tommy, what are you doing here?” Tommy said, “I ran away from home.” Smith said, “Well, I’ve done sort of the same thing myself.”
Smith was standing on the curb beside a tractor trailer packed full of his things. He had taken the loft space in 1957 and this final shipment a year later meant he wasn’t going back home to Croton. Tommy helped Smith unload the truck and he stuck around for a couple of years, doing chores for Smith – building shelves, organizing books and supplies, running errands, and getting experience you can’t buy. He slept on a recliner in the loft (not unlike drummer Ronnie Free). During my interview with him, Tamas was moved emotionally several times, his reverence and respect and gratitude toward Smith running strong a half century later. Tamas cooked a delicious meal of spicy chicken, vegetables and rice. After two portions I hit the road to St. Augustine for the night.
Driving home yesterday I made one last pit stop off I-95 near Dunn, N.C., about an hour and a half from my home. As I wheeled the car around, I saw a road sign for Newton Grove and I snapped this picture (below) through the front windshield with my iPhone. Monk’s Crossroads and the old plantation of Archibald Monk are in Newton Grove about 8 miles from this sign. Thelonious Monk’s grandparents Hinton and Sarah Monk were born into slavery there and his father, Thelonious, Sr. was born there, too. I’ve visited and researched Monk’s family there many times. Monk’s cousin Dr. Edith Monk Pue has recently moved back there from New Haven, Connecticut.
This snapshot seemed like a good bookend with the images of Flannery O’Connor’s grave that I made at the beginning of this trip.
Click here for “The Other Side of Silence, Pt. 1″
I’m writing today from Dunedin, FL. I’m down here with some friends to catch spring training baseball. Tomorrow I’m interviewing Gene Smith’s octogenarian first cousin in Bradenton and then Sunday a loft veteran that we’ve been trying to find for a decade who turned out to be living in the Dominican Republic and moved to Orange City two weeks ago.
I left North Carolina in my car on Tuesday, a cooler packed with Diet Dr. Pepper’s, and 14 cd’s of Wagner’s Der Ring cycle conducted by von Karajan. I’ve never listened to those operas in a concentrated sequence and I figured this 900-mile trek down to the Gulf Coast was a good opportunity. What made me resist Der Ring all these years? It may have been Wagner’s reported anti-Semitic views. Or it was the daunting, Smith-like volume of Wagner’s material and drama. Or both. I also threw in some Wayne Shorter, John Hicks, My Morning Jacket, Patty Griffin, Rene Marie, the new Brad Mehldau, Mastodon, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Maria Schneider, Frank Kimbrough, and a killer set of old music compiled by the wonderful Old Hat label, Good for What Ails You. My wife was supposed to make this trip but she missed a lot of work last fall and winter. She stayed home and wished me a good journey.
I stopped in Milledgeville, GA on Tuesday for a long overdue Flannery O’Connor pilgrimage. Her old family farm house and grounds, Andalusia, are neatly preserved and it was moving to see her bedroom and workroom on the first floor just inside the front door. She had lupus, of course, and hiking the high stairs – the house has 12-foot ceilings – wasn’t possible. A living room became hers.
At 7am on Wednesday I visited O’Connor’s grave in a beautiful cemetery in downtown Milledgeville. Today’s graveyards are typically clear of trees and shrubs so riding mowers can race through freely. This one, aptly named Memory Hill Cemetery, is a horticultural marvel, with hints of both a wild and nurtured garden.
I made the following two photos of O’Connor’s gave with my iPhone. In the first, her grave is on the right and her mother’s on the left (her mother lived ninety-nine years until 1995, Flannery died at age 39 in 1964). The second photo is a close-up of O’Connor’s grave and you can see coins on it. There was about $2 in loose change on top of her grave. I go to a lot of graveyards – random graveyards plus special ones where my heroes are buried – and I’ve never seen change on top of a grave. Have you? Pouring whiskey on Faulkner’s grave makes some sense. Why put coins on O’Connor’s grave? I’m down here in Florida with a couple of O’Connor aficionados and nobody can come up with anything from her stories or biography or Georgia tradition that would make people inclined to put change on her grave. Maybe it’s a fluke, a one-time thing.
This morning in Dunedin I woke up to find a Powell’s Books Review of the Day in my email in-box featuring a new book on the great writer W.G. Sebald. Here is the link. The last two paragraphs of this review made me think of O’Connor and the Jazz Loft Project. I’ll try to make sense of the connection I felt: Two weeks ago in New York a top editor made an offhand comment to me that the major high brow periodicals in America today – he named the New Yorker, Harper’s, and the Atlantic – no longer do history. Everything is about now, or the future. His nonchalant comment was chilling. If these upstanding periodicals aren’t doing history, who in the media is? The capitalist, history-vaporizing machine of our culture has, at last, conquered everything. What’s left?
I’m not sure the Academy is a good answer because, God knows, Flannery O’Connor sent many comic daggers through the heart of any and every sort of hifalutin, prideful intellectual enterprises (check out her stories, “Good Country People,” and “The Displaced Person.”). Hitler Germany taught us there is nothing about education and erudition and human talent that prevents a culture from turning into an evil, murderous beast. Ignorance and ambivalence can be conditioned into even the most intelligent and trained folks.
George Eliot’s line quoted by this reviewer says everything: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” O’Connor achieved this as well as any writer I know.
In the prologue to the Jazz Loft book I quoted James Baldwin: “History is not a procession of illustrious people. It’s about what happens to a people. Millions of anonymous people is what history is about.” Eliot is saying the same thing about the “roar” of “ordinary human life.” History and documentary work merge in these two quotes. In her way O’Connor was a first rate historian, too.
Click here for “The Other Side of Silence, Pt. 2″
p.s. The Duke Jazz Talks mentioned in this flier refers to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, not Duke University. DDCF is a funder of NYPL for the Performing Arts and this event fits into their ongoing series. The association with this event is perfect since Doris Duke visited the loft regularly to take piano lessons from Hall Overton. We’re told by loft residents and musicians that her driver would sit outside in her Bentley with the motor running while she was inside.
Read Ethan Iverson on “Six Degrees of Hall Overton.”
- Sam Stephenson
Gene Smith rolled tape for about eight hours one early morning in late September 1961. I wrote about this night at length in the Jazz Loft Project book. In the wee hours Smith captured a dramatic, harrowing scene with pianist Sonny Clark, saxophonist Lin Halliday, and Lin’s girlfriend Virginia McEwan in the hallway and stairwell of the building. But earlier, around midnight, before Sonny and Lin showed up, Smith’s tape captured an unknown voice from the sidewalk yelling up to the open 5th floor windows, “Where’s Ronnie Cuber? Where’s Ronnie Cuber?” Drummer Frank Amoss, a loft resident at the time, stuck his head out of the window and yelled back, “He’s not here!” This brief exchange illustrates how things at the loft worked – people dropping by randomly to see who was there, what was going on.
Ronnie, a baritone saxophonist born in New York in 1941, was one of the youngest of the musicians who played in this loft. I interviewed him in 2000 before his gig with the Mingus Big Band at the Fez Under Time Cafe on Lafayette Street. I quoted him in the book this way: “There was more than one loft. There were several in the area. But this was a main one, where Jimmy Stevenson lived. Guys like Joe Farrell and Chick Corea used to go jam there. Henry Grimes, Gil Coggins, and Lin Halliday, and Walter Davis, Jr. and Vinnie Ruggiero and Nico Bunink. Guys coming in from everywhere. Joe Henderson. He came in from Detroit. Guys like Blue Mitchell, you know. Elmo Hope. I remember Danny Richmond being up there.”
Today, Ronnie is playing as well or better than ever. His latest CD, “Ronnie,” is a beauty. He’s put together a wonderful band with Helen Sung on piano, Johnathan Blake on drums, and Boris Kozlov on bass. Ronnie’s baritone sax expresses a vital, poetic mix of heavy and light sounds through an interesting sequence of standards including “Daahoud” by Clifford Brown, “Ah Leu Cha by Charlie Parker, and “Gloria’s Step” by Scott Lafaro, the three of whom died a half century ago at ages 25, 34, and 25 respectively. Ronnie’s band mates Sung and Blake are in their 30′s now, two of the top young musicians on the New York scene. This record feels like the craft of jazz being preserved and extended. It makes me reach for my copy of one of the great baritone quartet albums, “Blue Serge,” by Serge Chaloff from 1956 with the magnificent Sonny Clark on piano, Philly Joe Jones on drums, and Leroy Vinnegar on bass. “Ronnie” could be heard as an update on that classic. According to Ronnie’s manager Roberta Arnold (herself a veteran of the 821 Sixth Avenue loft scene), “Ronnie” has been on the top of the jazz radio charts this winter and early spring. It’s heartening news to hear.
In yesterday’s/Sunday’s hard copy of the New York Times, and in the Thursday March 11 edition of the digital New York Times, there was an interesting article by Nate Chinen on pianist Brad Mehldau’s new record, “Highway Rider,” which is a collaboration with rock producer Jon Brion. Among other things Chinen revealed that Mehldau’s best selling album, 2003′s “Largo,” another collaboration with Brion, has only sold 34,000 copies.
This number startled me. Evidence suggests that Mehldau, at age 39, is among the most famous and acclaimed jazz musicians under age 50. Yet, his best selling record has only sold 34,000 copies in 7 years? It makes me wonder how low the figures are for Mehldau’s acoustic trio recordings, which are state-of-the-art but probably not as exciting for consumers who bought “Largo” because of Brion’s rock production.
What analogs in literature would there be for Mehldau? Hip, young innovators who are near the top of the field and have sustained it for more than a decade? Jonathan Lethem? Michael Chabon? Zadie Smith? I’m pretty sure those writers sell more than 34,000 copies of their best known works. Chabon probably sells four or six or ten times more than that, even at twice the price of a compact disc or download. This makes me feel better about the state of literature at the moment.
Of course, Mehldau’s trio also plays 50-75 theater shows a year at (an educated guess) $15K to $20K per show. But those shows – at least domestically – are heavily subsidized. Mehldau’s trio could certainly sell out Duke University’s 700 seat Reynolds Theater (I saw him sell out a similar theater at N.C. State a few years ago). But at $30 per ticket for adults, $5 per ticket for students, a good number of complementary tickets to friends and VIP’s, plus publicity and printed matter, staff and security, catering and piano tuning, and many more incidentals, Duke would lose significant money on the show. That’s for a sell-out. That’s for the top end jazz in America today. Mehldau’s the only one who makes any money at those theater shows but he’s got to pay two brilliant, world class musicians (Jeff Ballard, Larry Grenadier), travel expenses, plus probably at least one road manager, a personal manager, and an agent, and probably a publicist. The net profits aren’t that great, especially when you consider the tireless effort and dedication these musicians put into it.
When Mehldau plays the Vanguard for a week or two with his trio, they don’t make all that much money, even though it’s one of the most highly anticipated gigs on the New York scene. You can do the math on the Vanguard’s capacity (123), accounting for comps, and $35 ticket prices including a $10 minimum, 12-14 sets per week at most. Without knowing the Vanguard’s balance sheet and income statement but only imagining that it isn’t cheap to run a club in New York, you realize that one of the prized gigs in jazz is basically a chance for Mehldau’s trio to woodshed together nightly and make the same money as one subsidized theater concert at Duke University. If that much.
I don’t know the numbers, but I imagine the Mehldau Trio makes most of their money for the year in Europe, given higher fees and the value of the Euro. But how much toil is taken by spending so much time in planes and trains and hotels. If you are over six feet tall it is rough, I know that.
I’m fascinated by this topic. Once I heard novelist Annie Proulx say that when she’s conceiving a story she starts with geography and economics and the stories grow from there. The stories are about how we adapt and survive. Love and art and entertainment and religious faith are intertwined and sometimes inextricable from basic levels of survival. I’d like to write about the economics of jazz and compare yesterday (the years of the Sixth Avenue loft, for example) to today. I’m not sure it was much better back then. I remember asking Roy Haynes what it was like to play the clubs in the vintage post-War New York jazz heyday. Roy, who I imagine saw the doe eyes of a young writer and went for the kill, told me it was miserable. He said he wouldn’t want to do it again. You worked 6 sets a night from 9pm to 3am five or six nights a week. Roy collected fine clothes and luxury automobiles, so he did well. But he was at the very top of the pyramid, and he still had to maintain a brutal schedule to make it big.
I’m also intrigued by the economics and culture of the secondary jazz markets of the jazz heyday, like cruise ships and dining clubs and resorts and motel bars and beer-and-pizza joints. In Richard Yates’ classic 1961 novel, “Revolutionary Road,” set in a NYC commuter suburb in western Connecticut in 1955, protagonists Frank and April Wheeler take their friends Shep and Milly Campbell to hear the Steve Kovick Quartet at Vito’s Log Cabin out on Route 12 near their home.
When Frank first suggested the two couples go to the Log Cabin, April protested, “Oh, no, darling. They’d hate it. It’s terrible.” Frank replied, “No, I don’t think they’d hate it. I bet they’d like it. It takes a special kind of taste, is all. I mean, the thing about the Log Cabin, you see, is that it’s so awful it’s kind of nice.”
Sounds like a lot of metal and alt-rock dives of today.
Yates describes the drummer Kovick as “artistically awakened and nourished by the early recordings and movies of Gene Krupa.” Kovick’s career went nowhere and here he was many years later playing Vito’s Log Cabin. Yates’s gift was rendering ordinary human mediocrity – often painfully – and he never did it better than describing Kovick : “There was a negligent grandeur in the way he took the stand, the way he frowned over the arrangement of sticks and brushes and hi-hat cymbals and then peered out, beetle-browed, to ask if the spotlight could be adjusted a fraction of an inch before he settled down; and there was elaborate condescension in the way he whisked and thumped through preliminary fox trots or handled the gourds for Latin-American interludes; anyone could tell he was only marking time, waiting for the moment when he could tell the boys to cut loose on one of the old-time Benny Goodman jump numbers. Only then, once or twice an hour, did he give himself wholly to his work.”
Adjusted for inflation, Steve Kovick probably made nearly as much at Vito’s Log Cabin as Mehldau makes at the Vanguard today.
Check out Savoy, the new playlist on the Sounds section of our website. These tracks feature words from Mary Lou Williams, W. Eugene Smith, Weegee, and Hall Overton; some nice bass and cello solos; and three tune fragments that Smith recorded on the ends of their respective tape reels (hence the abrupt endings). -Dan Partridge
The Jazz Loft Project exhibition opened at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center three weeks ago. Estimates are that 500 to 700 people attending the opening.
CDS Exhibitions Director Courtney Reid-Eaton traveled to New York (her home town) more than two weeks before the opening to install the show. She worked with LPA’s staff, led by Curator of Exhibitions Barbara Cohen-Stratyner and including Rene Ronda, Herbert Ruiz, Mike Diekmann, Laura Clifford, and Caitlin Mack.
Courtney documented the installation process on video, which she has edited into the following 8-minute sequence. It provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the painstaking world required to mount a show. The dimensions of every object are accounted for in regard to every inch of the space. There is selflessness to hanging exhibitions; the curators disappear and the artwork takes over. Courtney achieved this beautifully. She makes Jazz Loft Project staff (Dan Partridge, Lauren Hart, and me) and CDS look good. Gene Smith would be proud, too.
- Sam Stephenson
There is a wonderful new interview with Robin D.G. Kelley on allaboutjazz.com. Robin, of course, is the author of the new biography, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. I can’t imagine a biography of a 20th century figure more difficult than Monk. Robin had to not only unravel myths, but myths upon myths. The level of research he conducted over fifteen years is staggering. He reveals figures who influenced Monk that aren’t a part of the jazz annals, as far as I know. Herman Chittison? Alberta Simmons? He’s done a service to the Monk legacy, for these forgotten figures, and for all of us. But his book is no dry academic enterprise, and the emotion that comes through in this interview is moving. There has been talk about Robin and me doing some public events together in the future and I hope we can pull that off.
Monk is my favorite American musician and along with Zoot Sims, Sonny Clark, and Hall Overton he’s one of the Jazz Loft Project musicians I’ll write more about one day. (In 2007 in the Oxford American I wrote this piece on Monk’s return to North Carolina in 1970). Joseph Mitchell is another of my heroes and I’m working on a piece about Monk and Mitchell together, trying to figure out if those two mid-century New York City icons from the same rural soil of North Carolina’s coastal plains ever met each other, or if their families ever cross paths, then or now (both Monk and Mitchell have relatives still living where they came from). Monk and Mitchell have more in common than you might think, but certainly many differences, too. Can two people come along from rural North Carolina with no college degrees and leave such a profound, original legacy on the world today?
p.s. Here is a piece I wrote on Mitchell for Oxford American a couple of years ago.
The Jazz Loft Project met musician Joe Henry a decade ago when the Splinter Group (creators of this website) introduced us. The Splinter guys had worked with Joe during their time with the seminal label Mammoth Records. I had been impressed with Joe’s album, Scar, which features some of my favorite musicians – Brad Mehldau, Ornette Coleman, Meshell Ndegeocello, among others. Around that time Joe saw our exhibition, Dream Street, concerning Smith’s Pittsburgh work, at the International Center of Photography.
Scar is held together by a cinematic vision, a sweep of sound and lyrical imagery that Gene Smith – the “master of the photographic essay” – would admire. Joe’s subsequent records, all different, have a feel of movies, maybe something like Fellini’s Roma, drawing on a deep sense of history while always being modern. There is a beautiful variety built into Joe’s music – a myriad of perspectives woven together – that reminds me of a comment by the great film editor Walter Murch, who said that Beethoven was “the father of cinema” (or something like that), meaning that the sudden shifts and fades and cuts and dissolves in the composers music were a model for film making to come much later. This idea is relevant to Gene Smith’s photo layouts, too.
Joe has also won awards producing albums by Solomon Burke, Mary Gauthier, Bettye LaVette, and most recently a remarkable sequence – Mose Allison, Allen Toussaint, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Joe is to producing what Hall Overton was to teaching, drawing out the best of somebody’s music rather than imprinting a signature style everywhere. I’d love to see him produce some more jazz albums. I’d like to see him produce a collaboration between Branford Marsalis and Derek Trucks. There is potential for something unusual and epic, palette cleansing, with those two guys who have shared stages before with the Allman Brothers and with Derek’s band, and Joe could find it and nurture it out of them.
Anyway, you should check out Joe’s latest album, Blood from Stars, which features Smith’s industrial images from the 1950s on the cover (below) and inside liner notes and another Jazz Loft friend Jason Moran is featured on a solo piano prelude. Joe’s son Levon, a first-year student in the New School’s jazz program in New York, plays saxophone on the album. It’s Joe’s best album, in my view, which is saying a lot. He’s on a new tour and this Monday at the Blue Note in New York, and in other cities after that, Levon joins the band. A few years ago, when Levon was in his mid-teens, I heard him woodshed for a few hours on tunes by Wayne Shorter and Hank Mobley. He also was curious about research I’ve been doing on the late pianist Sonny Clark’s childhood and family background, which impressed me. Last fall we had a couple of Jazz Loft events in New York and we employed Levon and his band, most memorably with loft alum Ron Free, who said the experience was highly enjoyable. After the latter event I was walking down Broadway with a couple of musicians and a former loft resident said, “My God. Who was that on saxophone? He must be twenty years old.” I said, “Younger than that.”