Archive for July, 2010

The New Face of Jazz

A friend owns a coffee and wine shop in Chapel Hill and recently he sold 140 tins of sardines after mentioning in his newsletter that Portuguese sardines are the best in the world and he’s now selling them in his shop.  People want to know what is good.  I noticed this when I worked in Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books in the mid-1990′s.  People want something other than the standard fare, and if you tip them off on writers like Margaret Laurence and Alistair MacLeod and Edward P. Jones and William Maxwell they eat it up and come back for more.

The same is true with jazz.  If more people were out there touting the contemporary scene there would be a bigger, more appreciative audience.  Jazz and the alt-rock audience is a match that needs to be made.  It’s already happening under the surface.  Mehldau plays Radiohead.  The Bad Plus plays Nirvana.  Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood tout Mingus and Alice Coltrane.  Joe Henry hires Mehldau and Brian Blade and Jason Moran and Don Byron for his albums.  Jeff Tweedy hires Nels Cline for Wilco.  Meshell Ndegeocello puts together a top notch jazz band and tours the European festivals.  Lucinda Williams sings about Coltrane.  Derek Trucks quotes Coltrane in his solos.  Branford Marsalis and Trucks ponder a joint project.

The next step is to get current jazz in front of younger audiences who are standing up drinking beers, not told to sit still and be quiet.  If you listen to Monk at the Five Spot or Bill Evans at the Vanguard you hear people talking and drinking.  More new steps would be if Merge Records produced jazz albums and if Pitchfork wrote more about jazz, as Patrick Jarenwattananon recently mentioned on his important new NPR blog.  It wouldn’t just be a service it would be a new market.  If Marcus Strickland or Jeremy Pelt played Carrboro’s Cat’s Cradle or Durham’s Pinhook they’d set the places on fire.  I know this goes against efforts to make jazz “America’s classical music,” and for young musicians who matriculate in the finest conservatories it seems like a step down to tour hipster dives.  But the move is essential to building new and younger audiences.  It could work.

Two weeks ago on Jarenwattananon’s blog I learned about a new effort by Cicily Janus to promote the vitality of current jazz in a book called The New Face of Jazz. Janus interviewed more than two hundred jazz musicians and the book is a compendium of excerpts from her interviews.  I bought it earlier this week.  There will probably be a rush to criticize Janus (it’s already starting to happen) and there are things about the book I’d do differently.  But more people should be doing work like this.  I wish I had done it.  Here are some notable quotes from the book:

Frank Kimbrough, piano player:  “I got started in music when I was very young, maybe three years old, living in a small town in North Carolina.  My mother and grandmother were both piano teachers who taught at home, so as far as I knew everybody played piano.  They’d take me to church on Sunday morning, and when we got home I’d pick out the hymns and songs and improvise on them.  At the age of seven I began piano lessons, but I always continued to improvise.”

Ingrid Jensen, trumpeter:  “My mother was a classically trained pianist.  She provided me with a highly creative environment, and music was the center of all we had.  To her, music was something anybody could go to at anytime of day.  The piano kept her sane while raising three kids on her own without much support and holding down a teaching job.  This was a very important lesson for me.  Despite her initial image I didn’t see any pictures of women playing jazz until I was in my teens.  But it wasn’t that big of a deal, thanks to the highly supportive artistic environment I grew up in.”

Steve Swallow, bassist and alum of 821 Sixth Avenue:  “Several years ago I attended a concert of a piece by Messiaen, the Quartet for the End of Time. I’d heard it on recordings many times, and I greatly admired the piece.  I went to the performance and objectively it wasn’t a great performance.  As I listened to it I was in my usual analytical mode and enjoying it while standing back from it at the same time.  I guess there’s always a part of me that’s extracting knowledge from any music I listen to.  Then the piece finished and we all got up to leave.  I was leaning against the building, waiting, and I was completely, unexpectedly blindsided by an overwhelming sadness.  I burst into a deep bout of crying and staggered out of the building and disappeared around the corner to sob uncontrollably.  I realized that despite the objective stuff going on, I was having a very deep experience that caught up with me when the piece was finished.  From then on, I had great respect for the mysterious ways music can affect people.”

Jeremy Pelt, trumpeter:  “Despite what critics say or who’s bowing to them, jazz is at its healthiest point right now.  There are some famous figures that get a lot of press, and more times than not they’re the ones who are stagnant and give this perception of the art being stagnant.  But jazz has always survived because of the undercurrent of talent.  This is the reason it’s still flowering today.”

-Sam Stephenson

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Gene Smith & Mexicana

By Anna Mazhirov


During my time as a Duke/CDS Work-Study student this past year, Sam asked me to look into a particular Broadway performance that obsessed W. Eugene Smith.  Thus began an intriguing research assignment for the Jazz Loft Project about a revue called Mexicana, which opened at the 46th Street Theater in NYC on April 21, 1939.  Smith attended sixty-three consecutive performances of the show.

I was interested initially because this was a flamenco-heavy show and I consider myself something of a flamenco aficionado.  As a dance and theater student, I studied it but most of my experience has been as an enraptured audience member at various flamenco shows in Spain and New York.  The rhythm is elusive, the movements strong, almost grotesque, and the sounds empathetic to personal pain.  It is a decisive dance, in which you rip out and pull into yourself what you desire and throw and stomp out what you despise.  The earthy, bitter beauty of flamenco is why I don’t get sick of it, unlike the unnatural sweetness, in my view, of a light ballet. Perhaps this is why Smith did not get sick of it either.

My curiosity about Mexicana grew as I learned of the impact it had on Smith’s life.  I wanted to know what made him return sixty-three times and fall in love with a stranger, a dancer in the show named Marissa Flores who spoke no English.  He ultimately married the Mexican-American woman, Carmen Martinez, who translated letters between himself and the dancer and they named their first child Marissa.  In Mexicana Marissa had danced to the “Intermezzo” from Goyescas by Enrique Granados and so Smith purchased a vinyl record of Goyescas and compulsively listened to it, often while working in the darkroom.

In 1939 Smith was about the same age as I am now.  Imagining myself so inspired, I started piecing the elements of this show together.  At Duke, I found some photos and reviews of Mexicana online in digital archives.  I graduated in May and moved back to my hometown of New York and continued my research.  I discovered the mother load of Mexicana material at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.  There are dozens of photographs of the performers, costumes, and scenery, folders of newspaper clippings, playbills, and microfilm of critical reviews.  Hooray for yellowed paper that I can’t pull up on my iPad.  The dusty stacks have purpose beyond the romantic.

The process of accessing these materials, however, requires Smith-like devotion.  I had to visit three different desks, check my bag, and wait for my number to be called while wearing white gloves in a designated area.  Library procedures prohibited me from viewing more than one item at a time, from even filling out forms for more than one item at a time.  I had to do this with dozens and dozens of items.  This procedure became gratifying when I held several glossy photographs.

I was struck by the beauty of the female performers.  One reviewer, Richard Watts, writing in The Herald-Tribute, confessed that the “swell-looking girls,” particularly Marissa Flores and Carmen Molina, were the most interesting aspect of the show.  “They seemed to me remarkably attractive and pleasantly talented,” he wrote.  I do not doubt that this kind physical attraction fueled Smith’s infatuation with Marissa.  According to Jim Hughes’ biography of Smith, Shadow and Substance: The Life and Work of an American photographer, Smith took her and her friend to dinner after every performance.  Although his amorous advances failed, he memorialized his love by naming his daughter Marissa.  After wondering about this woman for months, I was finally able to look on a photograph and see her brilliant eyes and coy smile.  (JLP hopes to be able to get permission to scan and post this photograph soon).

Most of the reviews focus on the “visual beauty and colorful effects,” as John Cambridge wrote of Mexicana.  Thomas Dash called the revue “a luscious banquet for the optic nerve.”  I realized that the scenic designs, costumes, and flashing beauty of the girls could easily translate as background, detail, and foreground.  This must have been appealing to a photographer.  The 27 scenes with over 140 dancers, singers, players, and actors in hand-embroidered costumes, performing before brightly painted scenery, must have provided for great visual material for a visual artist.  But I suspect that Smith saw in Mexicana a deeper quality that he later tried to capture in his own work, the rhythms of the flamenco music and the corresponding dancing – the music made visible.

This was the first Broadway show to be produced by a foreign government, offered officially by the Republic of Mexico.  Part of the World’s Fair, Mexicana was a living cross-section of Mexican culture from the ancient Aztec traditions to the modern.  Celestino Gorostiza, director of the Department of Fine Arts of Mexico, explained it best when he was quoted in Michel Mok’s New York Post review:  “The important thing is that the performers capture some of the inherent sweetness and simplicity of our people so that Americans may get acquainted with them.”  Is this not what Smith tried to capture in his photographs throughout his career, an affirmative spirit that made the foreign familiar?

Gene Smith and Mexicana, Part 2 coming soon.

Postscript – July 30, 2010:  Having read Jim Hughes’ biography of Smith, Shadow and Substance: The Life and Work of an American Photographer, from cover to cover, I was stunned to receive a phone call yesterday from the author himself. He graciously corrected me on the point of whose love letters Carmen translated. Marissa’s friend, a singer from the show, fell in love with Smith over the course of their group dinner dates. It was this friend, and not Marissa, who sent Smith love letters from Mexico that Carmen then helped translate. I apologize for the mistake. -A.M.

Anna Mazhirov emigrated with her family from the former Soviet Union to Brooklyn in 1992. She attended NYC’s Stuyvesant High School.  At Duke, she studied English and Environmental Science and Policy, fiction and documentary writing. She won Duke University’s Benenson Arts Award and the Center for Documentary Studies’ John Hope Franklin Student Documentary Award to complete a nonfiction writing project about America’s largest Russian-speaking community, Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. She will continue writing and exploring documentary work.

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Chicago Weekend Recap

It started Thursday night with a dinner at the Four Seasons in honor of the Reva and David Logan Foundation (whose critical contributions to JLP are described here) hosted by CDS Director Tom Rankin and Associate Director Greg Britz.  92 year old David Logan was the honoree, as were his sons Dan Logan and Jon Logan of Alexandria, VA and Berkeley, CA respectively.  Dan’s daughter Liz, an editor and culinary authority in Chicago, was also there.  Lanny Silverman and Greg Lunceford from there from the Chicago Cultural Center (CCC).

As Courtney indicated in her previous blog post, the exhibition at CCC is different from NYPL, but very effective.  Lanny and Greg deserve kudos for their efforts on JLP’s behalf at CCC from the first day they expressed interest in this project.  I miss many aspects of Courtney’s NYPL installation -  for one, the more prominent tape box banners with period color and design and Smith’s manic handwriting – that left you more worn out and awed by Smith’s achievement.  But photography purists might enjoy the extra breathing room given to Smith’s original prints more at CCC.  Also, CCC’s creative use of audio is what we’ve longed to do and didn’t fully achieve in the space at NYPL (Lunceford deserves a lot of credit at CCC), and the room itself it a wonderful spectacle at CCC.  In both shows optimal use was made of the space and resources.  If you saw the show in NYC, it’s a terrific, new experience here.  When the show comes to our home town of Durham, N.C. (Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art) next spring it’ll be another new experience.

At the opening reception in Chicago Dan Logan introduced me to Bill Michel, the inaugural director of the Reva and David Logan Center for the Creative and Peforming Arts at the University of Chicago, which broke ground in May with a $35 million contribution from the Logans.  They plan to open the center for the ’12-’13 school year and we had an initial brainstorm session about how JLP might be a presence there.

Of special notice, Hall Overton’s niece Joyce Overton and her husband Randy Madonna attended the opening.  Joyce works in development at North Park University in Chicago and Randy is a former minister and longtime social worker at Cook County Hospital.  I’ve known Joyce’s father Harvey Overton for years.  He is a poet and retired humanities professor who lives in Chicago but was unable to make it downtown for the reception.  By all indications the Overton family shares the exceptional, warm, generous traits exemplified by Hall.  Later this week we will post a video of Harvey reading the poem he wrote about his late brother.

Finally, on Friday I learned from Indianapolis photographer Mark Sheldon that the free brochures available at the JLP show at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts from February to May are now being sold for $12 on Ebay.  That leaves me at a loss for words.

-Sam Stephenson

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Jazz Loft Project exhibition in Chicago; venue two, it’s all new

Written by guest blogger Courtney Reid-Eaton, Exhibitions Director at the Center for Documentary Studies

wide Photo by Courtney Reid-Eaton

Exhibitions are about many things: art, objects, stories, and SPACE.

We sometimes bring shows to CDS that were organized elsewhere, and I get a great deal of satisfaction out of making them work in our galleries. Presenting work in our space adds our voice to the story the work is telling.

Sequence tells a story. Placement of objects adds emphasis, magnifies, or softens.

Dense text, no text, didactic, descriptive, narrative, lyric…sound.

The idea is to move the viewer through your interpretation of the story, without them noticing how (or that) they are being led. The installation, while an integral part of the viewing experience, shouldn’t draw attention away from the subject at hand; the work, the story.

I was fortunate to spend two weeks in New York, working with Barbara Cohen-Stratyner and wonderful staff at the NYPL for the Performing Arts, on the debut of the Jazz Loft project exhibition. It was fantastic; I was folded in as part of the crew. I helped uncrate the works, laid out the sequence, moved and cleaned display cases, set the ephemera, put up captions, helped solve problems. I was invited to have my hands in the installation as if I were working in my own space.

Last week I arrived at the Chicago Cultural Center to find the works all laid out and the crew from NFA SPACE (Contemporary Art + Exhibit Services, Inc., drilling, leveling, and hanging the show. I got to weigh in on a few things, but Greg Lunceford, CCC exhibitions designer, had everything moving forward without me.

The room here seems huge, not as intimate as NY, and the ceilings are high. In this interpretation, the banners (of the tape boxes) are not as important, but they look great filling the space above the walls, drawing your gaze up to the amazing ceiling. The walls are freestanding, so it’s not possible to have the very linear presentation that was so effective in NY; but there’s a separate room where folks can comfortably spend time with the audio tracks on computer monitors.

Greg invested in the show in a way that has made it his – well, the CCC’s. I felt at a loss with not as much input, but also excited at his interpretation of the materials. I miss the banners being right down in the space, but the CCC equipment and the location of the gallery, enables the use of ambient sound in a way we’d imagined (dreamed of, hoped for), but were not able to execute in the NY show.

So, an exhibition that travels is new in every space. If you loved the Jazz Loft project in New York, check it out in Chicago. If you didn’t love the Jazz Loft project in New York, see it differently in Chicago. It opened to the public on July 17 and there’s a public reception Friday evening, July 23. I’ll be there celebrating with Sam, Lauren, Dan, AND Greg; and then I’ll start thinking about what might be possible at the next venue, knowing that there are some things I can’t even imagine.

View photos from the installation in Chicago on our Facebook page.

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More Hall Overton Fingerprints

There are two new blog entries revealing a fascinating connection between Charlie Parker and Edgar Varèse plus 1957 jam sessions involving Varèse that could have taken place in Overton’s loft in 821 Sixth Avenue.  Alex Ross mentions it here after the ICE blog mentioned it here.  Musicians listed in these sessions include Teo Macero, Art Farmer, Hal McKusick, Frank Rehak, Ed Shaughnessy, Charles Mingus, and Overton.

Overton hosted sessions with some of these same musicians on a regular basis.  For example, his fellow 821 tenant Dick Cary kept a daily diary and on April 21, 1955 he jotted,  “Thelonious Monk and gang upstairs.”  Upstairs was Overton’s studio.  Two days later a concert at the 92nd St. Y included these musicians:  Overton, Charles Mingus, Art Farmer, Teo Macero, Eddie Bert, Kenny Clarke, and Monk.  It’s likely this was the “gang” Cary referred to.  It matches up with other information we have for this period.  The Varèse sessions in ’57 included four of the same musicians plus Hal McKusick and Ed Shaughnessy, both known to frequent Overton’s studio.

The man was everywhere, and nowhere, always preferring the background.  A major research project on him would be fruitful.

Unfortunately, a basement flood in the New Jersey home of Overton’s widow Nancy in the 1990s ruined most of the professional belongings he left behind.  A few tantalizing pieces survive:  scores, the datebook for the last year of his life, and a dozen reels of tape including the only complete performance of his Huckleberry Finn opera (conducted by Dennis Russell Davies at Juilliard in 1971) and some sessions with Teddy Charles, Ed Shaughnessy, and others.  His datebook for 1972 (he died in November that year) is meticulous, so we dearly miss what might have been found in the 1950s and 60s editions.

By the way, Gene Smith didn’t move into 821 Sixth Avenue until 1957 and his tape work didn’t become obsessive until 1959.  So it is unlikely that we’ll find the Varèse sessions if they did occur in Overton’s loft (we still have about 800 hours yet to hear).

-Sam Stephenson

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Things that Happen Every Day

Yesterday morning while driving from Santa Fe to the airport in Albuquerque I happened to catch a local public radio program on KANW in which New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof was the guest.  He was talking about his book Half the Sky, written with his wife Sheryl WuDunn.  It is about empowering women in cultures of oppression and peril, from teenage sex slave markets in Cambodia, to poverty-stricken areas in Cameroon with no modern birthing techniques, to the Congo which Kristof said is “the world capital of rape,” to dominant paternal cultures in China and the Middle East.  Improving the lives of women, said Kristof, modernizes a culture faster in general because women are more likely to use resources to educate their children.

Somewhere in the middle of this intriguing conversation Kristof offered a line that almost made me stop the car to jot it down (in New Mexico it is illegal to use hand held instruments while driving).  He said something close to this: “Journalism covers well things that happen one day, but journalism doesn’t cover well things that happen every day.”

I’d never heard sensationalism described quite that way.  It relates to the James Baldwin quote I used in the prologue of the Jazz Loft Project book:  “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.”

Who writes this kind of every day history?  Novelists, poets, playwrights, comedians, documentarians, Old Testament prophets, and good anthropologists.  Also, blues musicians (widely defined) and some opera and classical composers.

Rainer Maria Rilke was pondering this kind of history in 1910 when in The Notebooks of Malte Laurid’s Brigge he wrote:

I sit here in my little room. I, Brigge, who am twenty-eight years old and completely unknown. I sit here and am nothing. And yet this nothing begins to think and thinks, five flights up, on a gray Paris afternoon, these thoughts:

Is it possible, it thinks, that we have not seen, known, or said anything real and important? Is it possible that we have had thousands of years to look, meditate, and record, and that we have let these thousands of years slip away like a recess at school, when there is just enough time to eat your sandwich and an apple?

Yes, it is possible.

(Translation by Stephen Mitchell).

Underground jazz and NYC lofts and bipolar photographers and the other things I’ve been researching for thirteen years seem frivolous compared to Kristof’s work.  The world capital of rape?  Why is that not one of our top international concerns?  It made me ponder again a recent idea to start a new literary-documentary journal along the lines of Virginia Quarterly Review and A Public Space in order to encourage and support new work about every day life domestically and around the world.

Toward the end of the half hour show the host twice pressed Kristof to offer tangible advice for any listeners who might be inspired to get involved with international women’s issues.  He said you start by doing research, driven by your passions.  You begin with a single issue or a single region that means something to you.  Maybe you know someone who was raped, or someone who died during labor, or maybe your kid goes to school with someone from a Pakistani immigrant family so you focus on that country.  The spark can be anything.  Then you go extremely deep in that particular direction.  You research the people and organizations doing work in those places and on those topics.  You contact them.  You persist.  You can’t be deterred by inevitable feelings that things are hopeless.  And you can’t be deterred by possible feelings of guilt (sometimes saints help themselves as much as others).  You must also care enough to be willing to volunteer, to receive very few rewards or affirmations.  Along the way you’ll meet like-minded souls and that’s a reward in itself.

I may have put a few words in Kristof’s mouth (especially the part about saints).  That’s what my ears heard.  He was talking about international women’s issues but what he said pertains to anything, any pursuit.  It’s a simple, inspiring message that needs to be stated more often.  I felt fortunate to be hearing it on I-25 in the New Mexico desert.  Kudos to Kristof for taking the time to do a local radio show in New Mexico.

When I made it to the airport I emailed my wife to tell her about Kristof’s line about journalism.  Then I surveyed the typical hapless airport joints for something to eat, deciding on La Hacienda Express.  I stood in line next to bassist Melvin Gibbs and guitarist Vernon Reid who I’d seen perform the night before in Santa Fe.  I introduced myself and said I enjoyed their show.  It stunned me how young Reid looked close up.  I’ve been listening to him for twenty five years.  He’s 52 and could pass for 35.  But that seems to be the case with many of today’s musicians, whereas yesteryear’s musicians often burned themselves out.  Brooklyn born Gibbs quizzed me on living in Chapel Hill-Durham; I asked him about his new project with Vijay Iyer and a rapper.  Reid began complaining about the smoothie he’d just purchased.  I said, “Man, you musicians are always so picky.”  He said, “Picky?  This is horrible.  You try it.”

For the next ten hours I was either on a plane or in an airport.  I wrote up this blog entry and sat on it until now.

-Sam Stephenson

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Outpost, New Mexico

Saturday night we had a wonderful JLP event at Tom Guralnick’s superb Outpost venue in Albuquerque as part of the New Mexico Jazz Festival.  It may have been the best JLP event I’ve done in terms of curiosity and engagement from the audience, roughly fifty people.  After my 70 minute presentation the Q&A lasted more than an hour and it felt like it could have gone longer.

Then today we had standing room only at the Verve Gallery of Photography in Santa Fe, eighty people or so, also part of Tom’s festival.  Q&A lasted an hour again.  Making it more special, early during my talk the door opened and former Smith assistant Leslie Teicholz walked in with her husband Bob.  I didn’t know they had a place out here.  They spend most of their time in the Berkshires which is where I’ve interviewed Leslie in the past.  She originally met Smith at the Woodstock festival and she is also a good friend of Smith’s second wife Aileen Mioko Smith.  In the JLP exhibition there is 16mm film footage shot in the loft by David X. Young in which both Leslie and Aileen are seen working with Smith on the 1971 Jewish Museum exhibition.  It was a tremendous surprise to see her.

After the event Leslie and I had a long, thoughtful chat about my challenge with the Smith biography.  I don’t want it to be a sordid, depressing tale.  I want to tell an interesting story, to find some elements of redemption, without it being inaccurate.  It’s easy to make JLP entertaining because there are so many intriguing elements outside of Smith, which might be what makes it his greatest documentary achievement.  It’ll be harder focusing on the man for 150,000 words or so.

I left Verve Gallery and walked a few blocks over to Evangelo’s Bar, owned by Nikos Klonis, who is apparently the son of the WWII soldier, Angelo S. Klonis, pictured in one of Smith’s most famous combat photos from Saipan.  See below.  I made this photo in the bar with my iPhone.  According to Nikos there is some controversy related to this image that I want to explore in more depth.  I’ll write more about this in the future.  What interests me about this controversy is not that this man isn’t Nikos’ father – I think he is.  I just want to make sure these negatives are Smith’s.  Despite his fever, he wasn’t a meticulous cataloger of his work.  In jazz, there are mix-ups like this quite often, sometimes the mix-up is innocent, sometimes not.  Did Sonny Clark write that tune or did he hear Monk play a premature version in private at the Baroness’s apartment?  Did he “steal” it or did he and Monk play it together so often – morphing it back and forth – that Sonny came to believe it was his?


Back to Santa Fe, I finished the day by heading to the 1931 theater, The Lensic, and checking out Bitches Brew Revisited, an interesting ensemble led by Graham Haynes and featuring rock-jazz musicians Vernon Reid and Cindy Blackman and DJ Logic.  I thought two or three of the tunes they played really took off.

It’s been a great trip.  It’s clear that Tom Guralnick has had something special going on here for many years.  You can tell it from him, his staff, and from his large cadre of loyal and eager volunteers.  Everything they do speaks to how much they care about the content and their guests.  Absolutely first rate.  I wish I could attend the rest of the festival this week.  They’ve got A.B. Spellman, Toshiko Akiyoshi, and Miguel Zenon here.

-Sam Stephenson

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JLP exhibition opens in Chicago tomorrow

This is a meaningful eve.  The Chicago Cultural Center opens the show.  First of all, it’s Chicago, an historic jazz and arts town, a remarkable city in general.  But it’s also Chicago, home of the Reva and David Logan Foundation.  I’ve told this story often, but it is important to tell it again on the eve of the Chicago opening:

In fall of 1999 I published my first story on the Jazz Loft Project in DoubleTake magazine, formerly published at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke.  It was my second piece on W. Eugene Smith in DoubleTake and my third piece in the magazine overall.  Alex Harris and Robert Coles deserve much credit for supporting my early work on Smith.

The DoubleTake article drew some attention – Susan Stamberg did a piece on NPR’s Morning Edition, Randall Pinkston on CBS Sunday Morning, and Jeff Greenfield on CNN.  At his home a half block off of Lake Short Drive in Chicago, on the same block as the Drake Hotel, David Logan, then 82 years old (now 93), caught a couple of those pieces and he sought out the magazine.

One night soon thereafter, I was sitting in the Pittsboro, N.C. home that I share with my wife Laurie – at the same desk where I’m sitting now – wondering how (and if) I’d be able to continue this work.  At the time I was working on my first Smith book, Dream Street (2001), and curating the accompanying exhibition as a consultant for the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh (also 2001).  But I wasn’t making a living wage and I knew the Jazz Loft Project would be immensely expensive because Smith’s tapes needed preservation.

The phone rang and it was David Logan:  “Mr. Stephenson, I heard about your DoubleTake magazine piece on Gene Smith and the jazz loft and I found the magazine.  I run a family foundation in Chicago and I want to know if there’s anything we can do to help you.  I knew Gene Smith personally and my whole family are jazz and music fanatics.  Is there anything we can do to help you?”

One part of this anecdote I love is how David found me.  He had no idea who I was.  The first person he called was Vicky Goldberg, the brilliant, longtime photography critic of the New York Times.  That’s how achieving people like David Logan think:  wanting information, you go straight to the top.  Of course Vicky had no idea who I was, either.   But she knew that Smith’s archive was at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona so she figured they’d know how to find me out there.  And they did.

A few months later the Logan Foundation provided a seed grant of $65K to the Center for Documentary Studies, who generously supported me as a fiscal agent in the early years under leadership of Tom Rankin, Greg Britz, and Lynn McKnight.  The initial Logan grant bought time to write more grant proposals to NEH (the first two proposals to NEH failed), NHPRC, and Grammy Foundation, and we eventually raised about $1.2 million, with the Logan Foundation matching the other grants at roughly 200% and providing more than half of the total.

For the rest of my career I’ll acknowledge the Reva and David Logan Foundation with vigor.  Without them I’m not sure what I would have done.  To that stage in my life I’d worked in corporate banking for First Union in Charlotte, then I worked on Capital Hill in Washington, D.C. for three years – the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and Rep Jim Moody (D-WI).  Then I pursued graduate degrees in Economics and Religious Studies, all the while working at Raleigh’s indy book store, Quail Ridge Books (the best university) where I met my wife.  If David Logan hadn’t called me I’m pretty sure I would have ventured into different writing projects, ones that didn’t require hundreds of thousands of dollars like JLP.  Who knows?  Maybe I’d be a more famous writer by now.  But, I feel lucky.  Certainly, there’s no way I’d be so versed in this incredible post-War, pre-suburban NYC content that I can mine for the rest of my life.

Another poignant Chicago connection I should mention is that loft principle Hall Overton, who was from Bangor, Michigan, attended music school in Chicago, where he met sculptor and Chicago native Calvin Albert, Overton’s best friend in NYC.   Before Overton died in 1972, of cirrhosis, Albert made a sculpture bust of Overton’s head.  One day soon we’ll post images of that work of art.

The official opening reception in Chicago is next Friday, July 23, 6-8pm.  We are very grateful for the work of Lanny Silverman and Greg Lunceford to launch this installation at the Chicago Cultural Center.  Also, exhibitions director at the Center for Documentary Studies, Courtney Reid-Eaton, deserves enormous credit again, as she did for the New York opening in Febuary.  Of course, nothing would have happened without my Jazz Loft colleagues Dan Partridge and Lauren Hart, as well.  We’ll all be there next Friday.

Also, there will be some photos of the Chicago installation soon.

Tomorrow/Saturday, I head to Albuquerque and Santa Fe for two JLP events put together by the visionary Tom Guralnick.  Reports coming Sunday or Monday.

-Sam Stephenson

p.s. this year I’ve contributed an essay about Jim Karales for a book authored by Vicky Goldberg to be published soon.  It’s very meaningful to have these circles closed.

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JLP: “An Entirely Different Animal”


This piece by Bondo Wyszpolski in the new issue of Easy Reader, the alt-weekly of Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Redondo Beach, California, is one of the most thoughtful JLP write-ups we’ve seen.  Mention is made of some of the strange, non-jazz elements of JLP and we dig that.  We’ll have to make sure Bondo knows the JLP show will be in San Diego in 2012.

We also dig this whole publication.  Check out the July 4 “Ironman” contest, which includes drinking a 6-pack of beer, and the karaoke taxi cab video on the right hand side of the page.  Of course there’s also the surf report (poor conditions today) and the cartoon above.

I had high hopes for David Milch’s disappointing HBO show, John from Cincinnati, because southern California beach content is endlessly good.  Thomas Pynchon nailed it in his recent novel, Inherent Vice.  (Speaking of Pynchon I wrote about him here two weeks ago).

We love being in the Hermosa Beach news, too, because a lot of the loft regulars (Sonny Clark, Zoot Sims, many others) were once regulars at the Lighthouse club there.  I’ve always thought that club in the 1950s would make a great setting for a fictional TV series.  I once drafted a treatment for a one-hour pilot called The Lighthouse set there in 1955.  You’ve got vintage jazz, surfing and beach parties and Annette Funicello, hey wow real estate developers, Mob activity…pretty much everything.

Finally, Bondo’s article also makes mention of the new Getty Center exhibition which features work by Aileen Mioko Smith and W. Eugene Smith. I wrote about seeing some of that work recently in Williamsburg, VA.  I need to make it out there to see this interesting-looking show that also includes the work of CDS friends Lauren Greenfield and Mary Ellen Mark.

-Sam Stephenson

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Newport 1956, Pt. 2

The outstanding Times writer Nate Chinen responds in part here to my previous blog post regarding the 1956 Times write-up by John S. Wilson on George Wein’s Newport festival that year.

I’m sure Nate is right about how Wein would respond today to Wilson’s quotes of him fifty-four years ago.  Nate knows Wein better than anyone.  I’m wondering, though, if Wein had a point back then, not in terms of Armstrong or Gillespie, but in terms of issuing a challenge to the artists and audiences in general.  Wein had vested interests on both sides of the equation, interests he measured as well as anyone over a half century.  In 1956 rock-n-roll was starting to encroach upon the jazz market, especially the youth market.  Elvis Presley’s self-titled debut album by RCA Victor came out in March 1956 and spent ten weeks on top of the charts.  We all love good rock music now – or many of us do.  But maybe Wein’s comments were necessary jabs in the guts of both the jazz artists and audiences during this fluid period, just to make sure both were awake?

In 2006 I was working on a long story about Branford Marsalis that I never finished (for various reasons).  I followed him on the road to several cities and I attended all of his quartet’s sets one week at the Jazz Standard in NYC.  His extraordinary album Braggtown had just come out.  Opening the first set of the week, at 7:30pm on a Tuesday night, the quartet erupted into a blistering version of “Jack Baker,” the opening tune of Braggtown.  It was a raging, desperate, yet calculated performance, maybe based on the opening, title tune of Coltrane’s pinnacle 1965 recording, “Transition.”  The sweaty, fearless explosion was almost twenty minutes long.  It was merely the first tune in the first of twelve sets that week.

As most people reading this blog know, the Standard is a white cloth napkin, table cloth, candle light establishment featuring ribs, pork, slaw, baked beans and more from Danny Meyer’s upstairs restaurant, Blue Smoke.  The cover charge was $35 per person that night and the food and drinks were probably another $35 per person on average.  Braggtown contains a beautiful, supple seventeenth century British hymn by Henry Purcell that might have been perfect for this early evening set.  As far as I’ve heard in American music today only Branford can touch the plaintive and outrageous extremes so effectively.  Two weeks earlier, at a similar hour, I had seen him make an audience’s knees buckle in ballad emotion at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA.  But at this Tuesday happy hour in NYC he gave the Standard’s dining room the nastiest works he had to offer.  Nobody I saw in the crowd was digging it.  Nobody.  A good many seemed completely perturbed.  After the set I approached Branford, who knew I was working on the article, and I said, “Man, the patrons were barely sitting down for a fine meal and you chopped their heads off.”  Branford bellowed, “Eat this, motherf@$%&^s!”

I’m not sure this is exactly what Wein had in mind in 1956 but on some levels it overlaps.  The people paying to hear Branford that night wanted to hear what they wanted to hear.  They wanted the Marsalis name.  They wanted the amiable Tonight Show personality.  Branford went the other way.

What I keep thinking about is, what would you play if there was no audience at all?  As a writer, what would I write if audience had no bearing?

Smith’s loft tapes provide a glimpse of that kind of thing.  The truth is that some of the loft music Smith recorded is just plain awful, worse than mediocre.  But even then, it’s instructive, worthwhile to hear.  As one woman wrote to us regarding our audio playlists on the JLP website, “Even the silence is interesting.”

Live music is like cooking:  The next day the results are merely a memory, no matter how unforgettable.  What does Thomas Keller cook at home for himself, when he doesn’t have patrons paying $150 per person at French Laundry?

The greats strive for something unique regardless of the consumers.  That’s what puts Thelonious Monk and Zoot Sims at the top of the regulars we can hear on Smith’s loft tapes.  They always played well, always were themselves.

-Sam Stephenson

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