Archive for April, 2010

Jazz Lofts As They Used To Be

Make sure to check out this thoughtful blog entry by Howard Mandel, sparked by Jazz Loft Project and spurred by Hall Overton: Out of the Shadows at NYPL two weeks ago.

Speaking of the Overton event, we’re close to securing permission to streaming a video of the event on our website.  It should happen next week.  Stay tuned.

- Sam Stephenson

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Remembering Loft Veteran Phil Dante

We were delighted when Rich O’Connell, a family member of loft veteran Phil Dante, contacted us a few days ago.  Rich wrote, “Smith was the best man at my in-laws wedding in Brooklyn in September 1960. A funny story that has been past down in our family is that Smith did not own shoes so he wore a pair of galoshes for the ceremony.”  He also told us, “My wife, Michele, born in 1961, remembers going to visit Smith as a little girl. She says one thing she remembers is waterbugs.”

Phil Dante was born to Puerto Rican immigrants in New York City in 1934.  Phil was a musician and a photographer who spent time in the loft working as Gene Smith’s assistant. He was a founding member of the photography collective En Foco. In a 2004 Jazz Loft Project interview with Sam Stephenson and Dan Partridge, Phil describes visiting the loft and meeting Smith:

Well, my best friend was still in music; he  was a drummer who played with some very big names, and he would let me know when there were jam sessions.  And such a jam session occurred in this loft on 6th Avenue and 28th Street.  And the little corner of the first landing belonged to Hall Overton, pianist and composer.  And there was a session that particular night with Zoot Sims and others, and my friend.  And during a break in the music, Hall came to me and spoke to me, and I told him my interest was photography.  And he said, “Well, right next door to me lives a former Life photographer by the name of Gene Smith.  You ought to look him up.”  And this is, I was–  In whatever field of music, field of interest I’ve ever had, I’ve tried to reach people at the top. When it was the music, as a bass player, I was hanging out with people that played at Birdland.  I always reached for the top, to learn, to learn.  And in photography I was willing to learn from anyone, and for him to tell me that, I would be willing to do anything.

And so a week later I knocked on his door.  In 1959, just before Pittsburgh broke.  I knocked on his door, and the door opened, here’s this quiet man in an overused t-shirt.  And he said, “Yes?  Can I help you?”

I told him my name.  Well, he didn’t ask me in yet, I’m standing outside.  I said, “I’m a friend of Hall’s.”

“Oh, come on in.”

And we talked. “Mr. Smith, I want to learn photography.  I’m willing to do anything—sweep, clean, whatever, whatever, anything in order to be near you and learn from you.”

And I really didn’t know who he was.  I didn’t know his reputation.  I didn’t know who I was talking to, just that Hall had mentioned him. And he said, “Well, I can’t afford an assistant at this time.”

He was interested in the fact that I had played at one time, that I was a musician.  He asked me questions about that.  And we spent about ten minutes talking, and he said, “Well, why don’t you call me in a week or so?”

That’s all he said.  I was living in Staten Island at the time, with my grandmother.  I called him in two weeks, and, “Oh, yes, yes, yes.  You’re the fellow.  Why don’t you come on over?”

So, yeah, it meant taking a bus, a ferry, a train.  Finally I’m on 28th Street.  And then I’m walking up, as I come to the bottom of the stairs he says to me, “Can you use a hammer?”

And I said, “What do you want me to hit?”

And that’s how we started.  He was putting up a partition on the first floor landing, a plywood four-by-eight, four-by-six.  So I came up, he handed me a hammer, and we did no nailing.  For three hours we leaned on this piece of wood while I asked him questions, the most basic questions in photography.  I mean, I had so many questions to ask…About chemicals, about paper, about emotion.  All the questions that someone eager and new to photography is hungry to know.  And here you are, you’re standing with a professional master, and he has all the answers.  And was very patient answering.  And we just talked and talked and talked.  Finally, after about—I think it was about three hours of this talking back and forth, he said, “All right, enough of this.  Let’s put up this wall.  No more questions about developing and the hypo.”

And I think in five minutes we had the damn thing up, and I think it stood for, I don’t know, for years.  Eventually it got painted over by one of his kids.  Every time I walked up the stairs—there’s our work.  And then it was, that real first meeting, was really—it was wonderful.  Looking at the images, he sat in his recliner, and we talked and we talked and we talked.  I always had questions, and I’d look at something, and he’d say, “Well, that’s from an essay that failed.”  Or, “That’s from ‘Spanish Village. That’s from ‘Nurse  Midwife,’” so forth and so forth and so forth.

We learned from Rich that Phil passed away in December of 2004, just a month after Sam and Dan recorded this interview.

- Lauren Hart

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Eugene and Aileen Smith’s Minamata Work in Virginia, Part II

This weekend I attended the conference at William & Mary, Mercury: a Hazard without Borders, an impressive production crossing just about every discipline a university can offer, from environmental science, natural resources, and health care to the humanities and visual arts, even theater.

As I mentioned before, I was drawn to the conference by the appearance of W. Eugene Smith’s former wife, Aileen Mioko Smith, who was a keynote speaker.  Aileen and I have exchanged emails for years but we had never met.  A show of twenty-five vintage prints made by the Smiths from Minamata in the early 1970’s opened at the Muscarelle Museum of Art on Friday night after Aileen’s public presentation.  The show is curated by Professor Elizabeth Mead and titled Unbearable Beauty: Triumph of the Human Spirit. It includes ten vintage prints from other parts of Smith’s career such as Pittsburgh, Albert Schweitzer, Haiti, and Smith’s children.  The additional prints represent Smith’s ongoing fixation with human hands (which appears often in his Jazz Loft series, too).  In Minamata hands were often deformed from effects of the mercury pollution.

The most legendary photograph of Smith’s career, Tomoko Uemura in her Bath, is the centerpiece of the exhibition.  I’ve seen the same print in Smith’s archive at the Center for Creative Photography many times, but this was the first time I’ve seen it framed and lit in a museum and the size of it – twenty-five by forty inches – stunned me.  The details in the dark colors of the print, presented like this, made it clearer to me that Tomoko and her mother were in a very small room.  How close Smith must have been standing to them in this devastating and tender scene; how much trust Tomoko’s mother must have felt toward Smith.  It’s worth traveling to Williamsburg before the show ends on June 20 to see this rare museum presentation of this print.

By the time I began researching Smith in 1997, Aileen, who owns this print and the copyright for all of the Minamata materials, had pulled the image from circulation because of increasing pain felt by Tomoko’s family from the ongoing exposure of this photograph.  When I authored the W. Eugene Smith book in the Phaidon 55 series in 2001, for example, I wasn’t allowed to include that image.  Aileen didn’t say this to me, but perhaps the context of this conference, with its practical goals and concerns as opposed to an exhibition of fine art for fine art’s sake, or the making of subject into object, made this presentation okay.

In her talk Aileen described how she and Gene both were “yearning for a homecoming” when they traveled to Japan in 1971.  Aileen’s mother was Japanese and she was raised there for several years as a kid, so it was literally home for her and she lives in Kyoto today.  She said that Japan and the Pacific were spiritual homes for Gene and he felt that in a former life he was born and raised there.  Looking over the spectrum of Smith’s life and work, this comment makes sense in many ways.

The exhibition also includes several pages of the final layouts of the Minamata book.  Aileen pointed out that she’d printed every image to the precise size which you can see in the book today.  This precision of “analog” printing in the publishing process is long gone in the age of high res scanning.

Aileen said when she met Gene in August 1970 he had about fifty sets of filthy bed sheets stuffed in corners, closets, and drawers all around the loft at 821 Sixth Avenue.  When sheets were dirty he bought new ones.  She said while they were living in Minamata for three years, they spent seventy percent of their money on Scotch for Gene, film, darkroom chemicals, and printing paper.  Only thirty percent was for food, clothes, transportation, or anything else.  “If I had been maybe ten years older when I met him (I was twenty, he was fifty-one) or if I’d come from a different family background” she said, “I’d have told him, ‘thanks, but no thanks,’ and never become involved.”

Aileen left Gene after four and a half years, leaving behind one immortal body of work they created together and indelible memories.  She expresses no regrets.  The tenderness she feels for him remains evident in the way she talks about him, the way she talks about his family and friends, and the way she talks about his work.  But she knows she got out at the right time.  She remarried and had a daughter who is twenty-five today.  I plan to visit them later this year during a trip to Minamata and other Pacific sites important to Smith.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing Aileen told me was that she is not an artist.  She made more than one-fourth of the photographs in their Minamata book and she became a masterful darkroom printer, learning under Gene’s painstaking tutelage.   She also wrote much of the text in the Minamata book, even some parts attributed to Gene.  But she never had any goals or desires to be an artist; not before Gene, nor after him.  For the past thirty years she has worked in environmental policy and pollution awareness.  For a short time Aileen was Gene’s partner,  “his manager,” she said, dealing with practical daily routines and Minamata project deadlines.   This is undoubtedly why the Minamata project was successful.  This is also probably why she was able to get out of the relationship cleanly.  When art holds sway, things get blurry, and letting go is hard.

Here is a really bad iPhone photograph I made of Aileen (middle left) and Elizabeth Mead (middle right) at the exhibition opening on Friday night.  They are flanked by two of Elizabeth’s students.

aileen smith in williamsburg

- Sam Stephenson

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Gene Lees, 1928-2010

In 1998 when I learned about W. Eugene Smith’s tapes at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, I spent a few days picking through all 1740 reels.  I noted 138 names of musicians chicken-scratched by Smith on the labels.  CCP had the right policy that we couldn’t play the tapes until they were properly preserved, which didn’t happen until we were fortunate with some large grants in 2002.  So all I had in the beginning were the 138 names (and Smith’s photographs).  I was a subscriber to the JazzLetter, a self-published periodical by the great jazz chronicler, Gene Lees, and I was on his email list, too.  One day Gene accidentally sent an email to his entire list exposing every email address on the list (it was the early days of email).  I peaked at his list and saw the names of Bill Crow and Dave Frishberg, who were also on my list of 138.  I emailed Gene and asked him if I could email Bill and Dave, not being sure if it were appropriate since Gene hadn’t intended to expose those addresses.  Gene, who had no reason to know me at all, replied, “If my accident helps your research, then by all means, do it.”  He also gave me Art Farmer’s mailing address in Vienna and I was able to correspond with Art before he died a year later.

I never met Gene Lees and I bet he forgot about his early influence my research.  I reminded and thanked him a time or two later.  I always thought I’d meet him in person one day soon but it never happened.  I regret it bitterly.  His long JazzLetter piece on Bill Evans (“Re: Person I Knew”) made a big impact on me when I was just starting to learn about jazz, plus another piece on Dizzy Gillespie, “Waiting for Dizzy.”  I recommend this obituary by the similarly outstanding chronicler Doug Ramsey.  Make sure to read all the responses to Doug’s post, too.

HERE is the New York Times obituary.

-Sam Stephenson

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Potter’s Field on Hart Island

Check out this article in today’s New York Times about Melinda Hunt’s indefatigable, honorable efforts to document the anonymous burials in the potter’s field on Hart Island, NYC.  More than 850,000 unclaimed bodies are buried there.  I contacted Melinda a year ago in an effort to find information on pianist and loft veteran Sonny Clark, who we know dug graves on Hart Island while incarcerated on drug charges.  Clark is an ongoing fixation of mine.  He grew up in rural coal mining territory near where my wife Laurie grew up east of Pittsburgh.  He died of a heroine overdose at age 32 in 1963.  His two sisters have been helping me put a human face on the stereotypical story of the jazz junkie.  More on that later.

HERE is Melinda’s website.  Last year she pointed me toward the photograph below made by Ian Ference, rendering Hart Island’s abandoned archival office in 2008.  I kept thinking about this photograph, talking about it, made it the wallpaper on my laptop.  So Laurie contacted Ian and purchased a print of it for my birthday.  We chose a metal frame for it and it hangs prominently in our living room.

prison records hart island 2008

-Sam Stephenson

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One Degree Away from Anything

Some time around 2005, when we began to get a handle on the volume of W. Eugene Smith’s tape recordings (his 1740 reels yielded 5089 cd’s) and the surprising variety of his recorded material, we started using an offhand phrase to describe our research; we’d say, we’re one degree away from anything.

Today that phrase came to mind when I noticed that consecutive Books of the Times columns in the New York Times, by Janet Maslin and Dwight Garner, were relevant to our research.  Yesterday Maslin reviewed Alan Brinkley’s new biography of Time Inc.’s founder and “autocrat,” Henry Luce.  That connection is easy to explain.  Gene Smith created his legend within Luce’s empire at LIFE magazine before resigning his lucrative staff position and retreating to the derelict loft building and struggling.  My feeling has always been that when television began to threaten Luce’s power, his editors tightened reigns, and Smith’s quixotic struggles, never easy for either side, became incompatible.  LIFE had no more rope to give him at just the moment his ambitions were peaking.  I look forward to Brinkley’s book and learning if it that’s what happened from Luce’s point of view (I doubt he mentions Smith in the book specifically).

Today, Garner’s review connects on a more far flung level.  He reviewed a new book about a scientific project called SETI which stands for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.  SETI’s first conference was held in 1961 which was the height of the Cold War and Space Race and alien paranoia.  Stories of UFO sightings and alien abductions were a recurring theme of Long John Nebel’s  late night radio talk shows broadcast live in New York City on WOR.  Smith enjoyed and recorded many hours of Nebel’s shows.  Below is one of the first images reproduced in the JLP book.  It is the cover of a vinyl record we found on ebay:

long john nebel ufo

1961 was also a prime year inside 821 Sixth Avenue, as well.  Virginia Wald’s poignant memoir, “1961 in the Loft,” written for this blog a couple of months ago, described living in the loft with saxophonist Lin Halliday that year.  You can also check out the “timeline” section of our main site and see what else was coincidental to SETI’s first conference.

-Sam Stephenson

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Eugene and Aileen Smith’s Minamata Work Featured in Virginia

This coming weekend at William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA, Aileen Mioko Smith will speak about the work she and her then-husband W. Eugene Smith completed in Minamata, Japan in the 1970s, documenting the tragic effects of mercury pollution in that fishing village.  Her appearance is part of a conference called Mercury: A Hazard without Borders organized by the Mercury Sustainable Inquiry Group.  The conference features a unique and intriguing blend of environmental science and visual arts, including an exhibition of Smith’s images from Minamata which promises to be extraordinary.

As we know Gene Smith had an increasingly hard time finishing anything in a manner that satisfied him.  I’m sure Ms. Smith’s decision-making abilities allowed their legendary book, Minamata, to become a reality.  If Smith had had her partnership for Pittsburgh and Jazz Loft he might have completed those projects, too (and I would have been looking for work for the past thirteen years).  Ms. Smith lives in Kyoto, Japan so this is a rare opportunity to hear her speak, and seeing the Minamata photographs in person should be something to behold.

-Sam Stephenson

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“The Rest is Noise” Touring Overton Country, Literally

If you live near San Francisco, Ann Arbor, or Kalamazoo you should go out of your way to attend this event with writer Alex Ross and and musician Ethan Iverson.  It will be poignant for these events to be held in Michigan since Hall Overton was born and raised in apple-farming country near Bangor, MI.  Hall’s surviving brother Harvey taught humanities at Western Michigan in Kalamazoo for several decades.  He now lives in Chicago.  I’ve met Harvey several times and he described a wide-open intellectual scene in the humanities at Western Michigan in which anybody and everything were fair game.  It sounded like a university version of the loft.

Speaking of Overton, the event at NYPL last week, Hall Overton: Out of the Shadows, was wonderful.  Ethan, Carman Moore, Steve Reich, and Joel Sachs were all terrific and Moore and Reich displayed their love and respect for Overton as their mentor.  Former loft resident Sandy Krell (formerly Sandy Stevenson, Jimmy’s wife during the loft years) attended with her husband Tom Krell, and loft veterans Ira Jackson, Janet Lawson, and Lenny Green were there, too.  The event was recorded on video and when we receive a copy we’ll post it on our site.

-Sam Stephenson

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Jazz Journalist Association Book of the Year Nominations

We are proud JLP is one of five nominees for book of the year by the Jazz Journalist Association.  Their list provides estimable company.  It is meaningful to be nominated along with longtime JLP friend Robin D.G. Kelley as well.

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Brooklyn Jazz Loft Project Book Event – Tuesday, April 20

On Tuesday night April 20 at 7pm at the great independent bookstore in Brooklyn, BookCourt, there will be a Jazz Loft Project book event co-sponsored by the inspiring literary journal based in Brooklyn, A Public Space.

Brigid Hughes’s quarterly, APS, is one of a handful of relatively new or revamped magazines that are inspiring hope in the world of periodical publishing today.  Her latest, the tenth issue is her best, yet.  She’s finding fresh voices.  Sometimes it’s the latest work from a familiar writer – a original piece that isn’t merely an excerpt from a finished book – and other times it’s work by somebody you’ve never heard of.  Three years ago I was an example of the latter, to some degree.  Brigid and her at-large editor Lucy Raven drew a piece out of me for APS, Gene Smith’s Sink, which became the basis for the Jazz Loft Project book’s epilogue.

As for BookCourt, I’ve written in this space here and here about the significance of independent bookstores in the lives of me and my wife Laurie Cochenour.  It’ll be fun and meaningful to have an event in this outstanding store.

-Sam Stephenson

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