Archive for May, 2010

A Call for a “Masterpiece Moratorium”

Terry Teachout had an interesting piece in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal decrying the over-representation of Miles Davis’ great album “Kind of Blue” when it comes to jazz in mainstream culture.  It’s not that “Kind of Blue” isn’t worthy, it’s that there’s a lot of wonderful music out there that is rarely mentioned including, in my view, jazz being created today, not just in the so-called golden age.  Teachout’s theme is one we’ve tried to evoke in the Jazz Loft Project repeatedly – in the book, this website, the exhibition – without really stating it.  I signaled the theme with a James Baldwin quote in the book’s prologue:  “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.”  Teachout’s and Baldwin’s points are not exactly the same, but both resonate with Gene Smith’s achievement and their points extend to the array of things that Smith taped off TV and radio, not just the live jazz in the loft.  As I’ve often said in public, we’re fortunate that the home of JLP was the Center for Documentary Studies, where this kind of iconoclastic, unpopular focus is the norm.

-Sam Stephenson

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Edgar Bateman, RIP


We were sad to hear that talented jazz drummer Edgar Bateman, Jr. passed away last week at the age of 81. We were fortunate enough to meet him and record a brief interview with Edgar in November at the home of his gracious son, Edgar Bateman, III. In the short time we spent with him, Edgar recounted how he first became interested in playing the drums:

My sister started drumming before I did. In fact, my mother belonged to an organization called the Elks. And they started a drum corps. And I was kind of sickly when I was young so I wasn’t allowed to participate in stuff like that. So my sister was going to drum practice, you know, and she came home one day and was showing me the stuff they were learning on the snare drum. And we got an oatmeal box. Well, that’s how it started.

Edgar Bateman, Jr. appears on W. Eugene Smith’s recordings made at 821 Sixth Avenue in the first three months of 1964. One of these recordings is now featured as track 7 on our Chaos Manor playlist. It features Bateman playing “Yesterdays” with Roland Kirk, various horns; Jay Cameron, baritone saxophone; Edgar Bateman, drums on January 4, 1964. Along with Kirk and Cameron, Bateman played in the loft with the likes of Paul Bley, Eddie Dehaas, Jimmy Stevenson, Roland Alexander, and Ira Jackson. These sessions came between 1963 recording dates with Eric Dolphy and Makanda Ken McIntyre and a March 1964 session with Walt Dickerson.

Read more at Ethan Iverson’s Do The Math

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Antonya Nelson on The Walk to Paradise Garden


Through a ragged, heart-shaped patch of life they step, a couple whose hands must be clasped.  Are they going in or coming out?  They are too young, certainly, and poorly prepared for night or cold.  They’ve dressed themselves inadequately; they carry no useful tool or weapon, no provision – no umbrella, no compass, no picnic basket.  Where are the adults?

They are the dreamed inhabitants of a bedtime story, conjured by a listening child, inspired by a tired parent telling a tireder tale:  the princess and the prince.  The difficult journey.  The thorns and wolves and witches and woe that wait in the woods, the many enemies of love and light and goodness.  Et cetera, yawning ad nauseam.  The narrating parent is distracted by her own intoxicating thoughts: television, red wine, a lingering argument with the spouse, the prickling temptation of infidelity, an incendiary glance, an extended hand.

Meanwhile, the child burrows into her cave made of imagination and linens, satin and fantasy, pink and pure, the prince and the princess stepping boldly into their adventure.  They are at the mercy, ill will, and time itself.  They are at the mercy of their bored teller, who is putting herself to sleep.  Their only defense is a pair of linked hands and the fertile busy mind of desire.  The lonesome child can see it all – happy flowers, ripe berries, birds bearing bright messages for the lucky couple.  They will be resourceful, courageous, brilliant, and triumphant.

They have come from darkness; they will return to it.  They have only each other, and that is enough – a vow taken on a wedding day, a wax ornament on a wedding cake, faith like a shared leap from one void into another.

In or out: it doesn’t matter.  If they are together, un-alone, it cannot matter.  In between darknesses, there is the blessed and blinding and forgetful light.

- Antonya Nelson

This piece by comes from a new book, “Art of our Time,” which accompanies an exhibition of selections from the permanent collection at the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University.  Toni shares Wichita roots with W. Eugene Smith and much of her fiction is set there, including “Living to Tell.”  Her mother Susan Nelson, a retired English professor, grew up four blocks from Smith and her older siblings were Smith’s age.  I included her description of the neighborhood in my previous blog entry on Wichita.

-Sam Stephenson

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Hall Overton: Out of the Shadows

On April 14, 2010, the Jazz Loft Project and the New York Public Library presented a program devoted to the monumental, behind-the-scenes influence of pianist, arranger, composer, teacher, and Jazz Loft veteran Hall Overton. The program featured Sam Stephenson, Jazz Loft Project Director; Steve Reich, composer; Joel Sachs, conductor and pianist; Carman Moore, composer, arranger, and conductor; and Ethan Iverson, composer and pianist.

The Jazz Loft Project presents “Hall Overton: Out of the Shadows” from Center for Documentary Studies on Vimeo.

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Hank Jones’ Final Refuge

Here is a brief, moving blog entry on the New York Times’ site about the great Hank Jones who died this week at age 91.  Hank was not a regular visitor to 821 Sixth Avenue but when he was at Duke in the fall of 2007 for the Following Monk series he said he knew of the place (his brothers Thad and Elvin were loft veterans) and he knew and respected Hall Overton.   At Duke, Hank played spirituals and hymns from the magnificent “Steal Away” album with bassist Charlie Haden.  Some of the often paradoxical themes of spirit, dedication, and isolation that emerge in this piece are akin to what we’ve experienced traveling the country interviewing people in the JLP.  Make sure to read the responses from readers who are critical of this portrayal of Jones (Charlie is one of them) and then read Kilgannon’s response to the responses.

-Sam Stephenson

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As I mentioned before, I was invited to give a talk last week at Wichita State University’s Ulrich Museum of Art, which is an impressive organization run by Patrcia McDonnell.   Among other things, they organized a luncheon with Smith’s first cousin Jim Caplinger, a photography instructor at WSU Dale Strattman, and Mickey Armstrong the widow of Smith’s close hometown friend Pete Armstrong.  Then after my talk there was a donors’ dinner at a private home and it was there I met a local lawyer and photographer Michael Roach.  More on that below.

While in town I roamed Smith’s neighborhood, trolled libraries, and interviewed a few people.  Smith was born there in 1918 and he left there in 1936 after graduating from high school.  His father committed suicide a month before his graduation.  Smith went to Notre Dame for a year and then dropped out to become a professional photographer in New York.  By age nineteen he was a staff photographer for Newsweek.

If you believe Freud, a human being is basically a finished psychological organism by age five.  If you don’t believe Freud then certainly you must agree, to some degree, that by age eighteen there’s no turning back.  So in my forthcoming biography of Smith I’m going deep on Wichita and Smith’s family.  His mother’s side of the family – the Caplinger side – is well covered.  Smith’s first cousin Bob Caplinger, who I visited in Kansas City at the end of the week, has written a book on the subject.  The frontier of my research concerns the parents of Smith’s father, William Henry Smith, about whom we know very little.  The other frontier is figuring out how a boy from Wichita 1918-1936 became such a feverish seer and relentless messenger.  I found local newspapers with his photographs when he was fourteen.  By age sixteen he was driving around town in a car with “Eugene Smith, Photographer” painted on the side.  The town of Wichita and its history are fascinating, too.  On the trip somebody told me that somewhere in between Kansas and Wichita the East becomes West.  In my drive between the two cities that struck me as true.

After dropping my bags at the hotel I drove over to the Riverside neighborhood where Smith grew up.  His spent his first eight years in one home (the first photograph below) and the next ten years in a second home basically across the street (the second photo).  Both of these homes face due east.  The second home is on the bank of the Arkansas River in just about the only spot along that river – because of the bends – where a house could face due east.  Smith spent eighteen years facing east in Wichita and then fourteen years facing east (and photographing eastward from the window) in 821 Sixth Avenue.  Those are the two locations where he spent the longest blocks of time in his life.

I began my talk at the Ulrich Museum by riffing on the parallels between Smith’s childhood homes in Wichita and 821 Sixth Avenue in New York City, admitting that I might be making too much of it, that the connection might be a reach.  Then I continued the rest of my talk.

At dinner after my talk attorney Michael Roach, a passionate photographer, approached me and said he was applying for a grant with a goal to rent Smith’s two childhood homes, take out all the furniture, and photograph through the windows from various vantages.  The point being that the windows were Smith’s first apertures.  This reminds me of John Berger’s great essay about J.M.W. Turner in which he relates Turner’s art to the boyhood scenes Turner saw in his father’s barber shop in London.  I told Roach that if he pulled this off to let me know and I’ll be there.  Roach also wants to do the same thing with Gordon Parks’ childhood home in Kansas, by the way.

Smith last visited Wichita in April of 1977 (he died in 1978) and he was photographed there by Dale Strattman.  In a future blog entry I’ll post a couple of Dale’s photographs.  Over the years Dale and his wife Kathy have collected just about everything ever published by Smith or about him.  I spent one afternoon at their house.  One thing that struck me while looking through their collection of LIFE magazines was that Loudon Wainwright (the musician’s father) was an editor at LIFE.  I had no idea.  I’m now making an effort to reach Loudon to see if he remembers any stories from his father.  His album “History” is a documentary work, in my view.

I also visited Susan Nelson, a retired English professor at WSU.  She grew up in the Riverside neighborhood four blocks from Smith and her older siblings were Smith’s age.  She described a neighborhood in which nobody locked doors and kids wandered in and out of everybody’s homes, borrowing books from neighbors’ shelves and returning them, no permission necessary.  This sounds like the loft.

I finished my stay in Wichita with Dale at the WSU special collections library watching a 70-minute interview with Smith by then-director of the Ulrich, Martin Bush, shot on Smith’s visit in 1977.  I was disappointed that Bush never asked him about his childhood, his return home, or his father’s suicide.  The other thing that struck me after watching this interview, and after reading all of Dale’s articles and interviews with Smith, is people rarely asked him about Pittsburgh and they never asked him about Jazz Loft, the two largest and longest projects his career (measured by materials and time).  I need to do some more thinking about that.

Below are the photos of the two homes.  The first house is for sale and empty.  It might be a good time for Michael Roach to get in there, and me to return.

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- Sam Stephenson

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The Final Week at New York Public Library

It is hard to believe, but the Jazz Loft Project exhibition is in the final week at NYPL’s Library of Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.  As you probably heard the city of New York has proposed unprecedented new cuts in budgets for the arts including NYPL.  So one way to register a complaint would be to go see the Jazz Loft Show before it comes down.  The last day is Saturday May 22.

This is kind of a sad week for us, to see the show go down in New York after all these years to get the project launched in the “home” town.  But we’re very happy to say the the show will open at the Chicago Cultural Center on July 17 and then travel to Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art and the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego and the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.  Several other venues, domestic and international, are possible.

Here is a photo from that snowy opening night in February in which 600-800 people attended.

nypl 4

- JLP Staff

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Two New Takes on JLP

From John Bailey of the American Society of Cinematographers.

And from Sean O’Hagan of the great paper from London, The Guardian.

- JLP Staff

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Visiting Smith’s Hometown of Wichita, KS

I got here last night and found the two homes where Smith lived from birth to high school graduation, 1918-1936.  I also found the old hospital where his father William Smith committed suicide in the parking lot in 1936.   Today I’m in the public library all day.  Tomorrow I’m giving a public talk at the Ulrich Museum of Art, which seems like a first class organization.  When I arrived in my hotel room last night I found a packet from the Ulrich staff with an updated itinerary for my trip, down to the exact minute, plus maps and other local literature.  You don’t see this kind of planning and attention to detail every day.

Novelist and short story writer Antonya Nelson, a native of Wichita, has written a brilliant brief imagination of Smith’s famous image, The Walk to Paradise Garden, for a catalog to go along with the current exhibition of selections from the Ulrich collection which is the occasion for my talk.  I’m not sure I can do much better than just to stand up there and read Nelson’s piece out loud.  She evokes a hint of something ominous in the image.  Where are the adults? she asks.  Most people – including Ford Motor Company and others who used the image for marketing decades ago – find it to be a feel-good piece.  I’ll seek permission to publish her piece here later in the week.

Playwright Neil LaBute found a color velvet knock-off painting of The Walk to Paradise Garden in a Los Angeles flea market and he said it had a “healthy balance of foreboding and hope.”  Of course, color and velvet bring something new to the image, but his words ring with Nelson’s.  It takes artists like Smith, Nelson, and LaBute to see that foreboding and hope are an inextricable mix.

-Sam Stephenson

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The Jazz Loft Project was invited to contribute to Nachleben, a three week exhibition which opens tonight at 6pm at the Goethe-Institute Wyoming Building in Manhattan. Organized by Fionn Meade and Lucy Raven, the extraordinarily promising exhibition runs through May 29 and includes tonight’s opening event plus six interesting and free events featuring several of the participating artists. We present three extended audio selections from W. Eugene Smith’s audio recordings as our contribution. Nachleben makes for an excellent experience before or after viewing the Jazz Loft Project exhibition at the New York Library for Performing Arts.

Meade and Raven organized this collection of art and events around the concept of Nachleben, meaning both “afterlife” and “survival,” two concepts which resonate with W. Eugene Smith’s work and the work of Jazz Loft Project at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. And for that matter, there is resonance with these concepts and the Speakers for the Dead May 9th event that Sam described in his recent post.

We picked substantive fragments of audio that will hopefully stand on their own, while reflecting on these ideas of afterlife and survival. And hopefully be in the spirit of Smith’s recordings as “fragments I have shored against my ruins.”  And in the bewildering realm of Nachleben, as Smith once wrote: “LIGAN!”

One recording features a loosely started improvisation from a jam session led by Roland Kirk. He’s counting the tune’s time out to fellow saxophonist Jay Cameron with Edgar Bateman and Eddie DeHaas on drums and bass. Somewhere during this recording, Paul Bley arrives and eventually joins them, on January 4, 1964.

There are excerpts from a Smith recording wherein he calls into the late night WBAI radio show hosted by Bob Fass, Radio Unnameable, and then joins the show in progress while he continues to tape it. This show features folksinger Peter La Farge. The premise for Smith’s visit was that he had an out of print Peter La Farge record that wasn’t at the radio station. Smith had met La Farge before, too; most likely when he photographed his parents Oliver and Consuelo in Sante Fe in 1946.  La Farge is perhaps most famous for writing “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” (made famous on Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears album) and other songs about Native American experiences and issues, including a song he wrote with Bob Dylan called “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow.” This recording as made in 1965. Peter La Farge is persuaded to sing live after some sort of self imposed hiatus from performing. It’s unclear from the recording if La Farge would have done so without Smith’s presence in the studio. This was also the year of La Farge’s tragically early death.

We also feature W. Eugene Smith with Carole Thomas talking to two unidentified interviewers about his views on art and photography, layout, and a moon over Pittsburgh. Here’s an excerpt from this illuminating artifact of a dialogue, but you’ll have to visit the Nachleben exhibit  and events to hear what they’re talking about, and more:

Smith: I’m saying it very badly. When I’m a visionary I’ll say it very well but nobody will understand it.

Thomas: People in the future will.

Smith: In your future or my future?

Thomas: In our future, if you think about it.

Welcome to our future, past and present.

-Dan Partridge

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