Archive for July, 2010

July 6 temperatures in 821 Sixth Ave, plus 1956 Newport

This week, Tuesday, July 6, the temperature hit 103 in Central Park, a record high for that day in NYC, according to the New York Times.  Because of the heat we canceled our CHAOS MANOR event scheduled for Fort Greene Park on Wednesday.

In the JLP book I researched the weather for many particular days documented on Smith’s tapes.  It was important because 821 Sixth Avenue had poor heating and no cooling.  In the summer months the windows were always wide open and there is more traffic noise from Sixth Avenue recorded on Smith’s tapes.

Here are the temperatures for the July 6 dates during the jazz years in the loft, according to the daily New York Times for July 7 each year:

1954: 96 (5th straight day over 90, making headlines)

1955: 96

1956: 72 and rain (local baseball games rained out)

1957: 80

1958: 82 and thunderstorms

1959: 77

1960: 75

1961: 80

1962: 81

1963: 84

1964: 88

1965: 84

While trolling these papers, a July 7, 1956 article on the Newport Jazz Festival by John S. Wilson caught my eye.  Wilson said that one band represented a “summary of jazz…in a sense.”  It was Coleman Hawkins on tenor, Buck Clayton on trumpet, J.J. Johnson on trombone, and Dick Katz on piano.  Wilson said Hawkins and Clayton represented an older style of jazz while Johnson and Katz represented more modern styles.  “The resultant fusion of styles,” Wilson wrote, “was basically swinging, middle-road jazz.”

Wilson then reported a panel discussion in front of an audience of 800.  It’s hard to imagine any jazz panel drawing 800 people today.  According to Wilson, Newport Festival founder George Wein told the audience that 85% of them (based on a show of hands) knew nothing about Louis Armstrong because they hadn’t heard Armstrong’s seminal Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings.  Wein then went on to criticize the current music Armstrong was playing.  Wilson quoted Wein this way:  “Why is Louis Armstrong successful today?  Because he is a great entertainer.  Not because he is a great jazz figure.  He is not playing now with one-tenth of the potential that he had when he made those Hot Five and Hot Seven records.”

Wilson goes on:

Mr. Wein said it was the fault of the public that such successful jazz musicians as Mr. Armstrong and Mr. (Dizzy) Gillespie tended to play at a level that was below their real capability.  It was also the fault of the public, he said, that new jazz groups looked for “a gimmick, a new sound, a new approach” instead of “great music.”  The public will only accept “gimmicks,” he said, not good music.  “You must go hear what the musician is trying to play,” he urged, “not what you want to hear.”

So, even 54 years ago there was an audience-artist disconnect in jazz.  Wein’s complaints could be cut and pasted into some articles about music today.  There are some people today, though, who believe that the artists don’t care enough about the audience; i.e. that jazz has become too much of an art music without enough entertainment value.

-Sam Stephenson

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JLP Event July 7 (tomorrow) in Brooklyn Postponed

CHAOS MANOR, the outdoor JLP event scheduled for tomorrow (July 7) in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn, has been postponed until September due to the record-breaking heat wave in NYC.  It was the right decision.

We’ll reconstitute the event in September, specific date to be named later.  CHAOS MANOR was shaping up to be unique.  Now we’ll have more time to hone it.  The innovative A Public Space founder and editor, Brigid Hughes, had come up with an idea to perform various pieces from the JLP book, with me reading my narrative segments and amateur actors reading the transcriptions from loft tapes and our oral history interviews.  The centerpiece of the drama would be the piece from my book on which this event was named, Chaos Manor, in which musicians Sonny Clark and Lin Halliday and Halliday’s girlfriend Gin McEwan were documented in the hallway of the loft overnight in September 1961.  Interspersed would be clips of Smith’s audio, such as Edna St. Vincent Millay reading her poetry and actress Julie Harris reading Emily Dickinson (which Smith taped from his Caedmon vinyl record collection), and CBS radio’s morning news of Fidel Castro protests in Central Park.  A live jazz quartet was set to perform a series of tunes throughout the program.

The closest we ever came to something like this was the Duke theater department’s 2007 performance, “Misterioso,” which was part of “Following Monk,” a series produced by Duke Performances’ Aaron Greenwald to commemorate Thelonious Monk’s 90th birthday.  “Misterioso” was an improvised student play, directed by Jay O’Berski, borrowing elements from Caryl Churchill’s play, “Hotel,” in which the audience had access to action in various rooms in the loft at once.

Recently a writer, David Keymer, compared the JLP book to Dylan Thomas’ radio play, Under Milk Wood, which concerns one day in the life of a Welsh coastal town, representing myriad voices of townspeople, dreams and ghosts.  I ordered the book when I saw Keymer’s review.  It turns out that in 1952 Caedmon Records recorded a live performance of Under Milk Wood which included Thomas (who died in 1953).  Eugene Smith owned most of the Caedmon collection, so he probably had Under Milk Wood. Was Thomas’ play an influence on his insane tape recording?  Maybe.

-Sam Stephenson

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America, Illustrated


Somewhere in the JLP book I wrote that Gene Smith was a cross between Norman Rockwell and Vincent van Gogh.  Here is an excerpt from that part of the book.  My goal was to come up with a familiar contrast for readers.  The comparison with Rockwell comes from Smith’s tendency to portray ordinary, unnamed individuals as pure and honorable, whether they be soldiers or civilians, a country doctor or a nurse midwife, or, as so often in his work, children.  Smith loved individuals.  But in a break from Rockwell he was suspicious, if not downright loathing of collectives, of any kind (except orchestras, jazz bands, theater and dance companies, and sports teams).

With his extended melancholy and quixotic Pittsburgh project from the 1950′s Smith went after the collective.  Individuals were trapped under abstract, impersonal ideals and standards they had little to do with creating.  Having just quit LIFE, that’s how Smith felt himself.  His DNA made him feel constant, overwhelming obstacles.  The feeling gained steam after his father’s suicide in 1936 and again during his years photographing combat in the Pacific in WWII.  Smith was sympathetic to the individual soldiers.  It wasn’t their fault.  But the collectives on all sides of war were preposterous bureaucracies incapable of seeing any perspectives other than their own Darwinian craving for more resources and survival.

Smith came back from the war looking for individuals he could believe in.  Among others he found “Country Doctor” (1948) and “Nurse Midwife” (1951), two obscure care givers.  The two essays are classics in the history of photo-journalism.  Both are Rockwellian in their expression of the basic goodness of humanity.  Of course some of Rockwell’s most memorable work featured family doctors.

But there are many elements of Smith that Rockwell did not share.  For example, the subject of Smith’s “Nurse Midwife” is, of course, an African-American woman.  Rockwell rarely rendered African-Americans and when he did it was in dispossessed roles.  Meanwhile, Smith had to fight LIFE and the government of South Carolina (legitimate obstacles in this case) in order to document Maude Callen and publish the essay.


There is a new exhibition of Norman Rockwell’s work at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington.  It comes from the collections of filmmakers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.  Deborah Solomon had a favorable piece on the show in the New York Times last week.  Regina Hackett takes down Solomon’s piece and Rockwell in general in her Artsjournal blog.  She calls Rockwell’s work “a siren call for the right.”  I need to go see the show in order to clarify the similarities and differences between Smith and Rockwell.  Both artists were creating regular work for huge mainstream serial audiences.  Maybe that’s the biggest similarity between them in the end.  Certainly Rockwell wouldn’t have made a painting of Albert Ayler, nor document overdosing junkies in the hallway of a dilapidated loft building.  But, then again, not many people knew Smith had done this, either.

Seeing Rockwell’s work through the prism of Lucas and Spielberg might be helpful, too.

In my view this line of thinking makes Smith all the more complicated and intriguing.

-Sam Stephenson

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Herminie No. 2

I’m visiting McKeesport, PA (Elizabeth Township), where my wife grew up, for a niece’s wedding.  The great pianist and loft veteran Sonny Clark (see here and here for previous JLP blog entries involving Clark) was born and grew up about 7 miles from here as a crow flies.  By car it’s about 13 miles because you have to navigate the Youghiogheny River and various streams and valleys.  This used to be hardcore coal country.  The mines fed the powerful mills and coke ovens of Clairton, McKeesport, Duquesne, Homestead, and of course Pittsburgh, which is only about about twenty-five miles up-river.  It goes from urban to rural in just a few miles around here.  It’s part of what makes Western Pennsylvania unique.  In the heyday of the steel mills it was one of the most dense urban-industrial complexes in human history.  But this is also the northern end of the Appalachians and you never had to go far to find traditional rural cultures.

The jazz history books indicate that Clark was from Herminie, PA, a town of about 1000 people at its peak.  But that’s not true.  He was from Herminie No. 2, which indicates the second mine shaft of the Berwind-White coal company where his father mined coal.  Both towns were oriented around the mines, but No. 2 was a classic coal “patch,” an enclave of maybe 300 people built around the mine shaft.  The first few times I tried to find Clark’s childhood home I looked in Herminie, trolling archives and physical locations, and I was left frustrated.  Nothing made sense.  It wasn’t until one of his surviving sisters told me they were from No. 2 that I got on the right path.  No. 2 is no longer on the map.

Below are two photographs I made yesterday with my iPhone.  The first is of the road where Clark was born in 1931.  These were coal company-owned duplexes.  The numbers have changed so it isn’t conclusive exactly which home was the Clark’s, but it is one of these homes or the vacant lot beside this tree.  I need to do a little more research, perhaps having one of Clark’s sisters accompany me to this site, to make sure I have the right house.  In any case, the 1930 census (the year before Sonny was born) shows the Clark’s living on this road alongside people born in Italy, Poland, Russia, Austria, and African-Americans from Georgia and Tennessee (both of Sonny’s parents came from Georgia, having grown up across the road from each other).  This is an extraordinary mix of people thrust into intimate proximity not unlike the coal village portrayed in the John Sayles movie, “Matewan.”

The second picture is of the vacant lot which was once the home of the Redwood Inn, a hotel and nightspot owned by an African-American man John Redwood.  Sonny Clark’s father Emory Clark died of pulmonary disease (almost certainly black lung) in 1931 soon after Sonny was born.  His mother Ruth Shepherd Clark was forced to move out of the coal company home since a miner was no longer in the family.  She moved the family into the Redwood Inn.  I’m told that African-Americans from a fifty mile radius came to the Redwood on weekends to dance to jazz bands.  It was here Sonny learned to play piano.  Sonny’s mother died of cancer in 1953 and Sonny moved to Los Angeles.  The Redwood burned in the mid-1950s and it was never rebuilt.

In the distance behind the vacant lot in the second picture you can see more company homes.

Wendell Road, Sewickly Township

Wendell Road, Sewickly Township

Site of the old Redwood Inn, Herminie No. 2

Site of the old Redwood Inn, Herminie No. 2

More to come on this topic, which forever draws me in.  Coming soon, Sonny Clark’s second grade class picture, made in Herminie, No. 2.

-Sam Stephenson

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