Archive for November, 2010

A JLP theater event in Brooklyn, May 2011

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We are pleased to announce a partnership with theater producer and director Christopher McElroen, founder of the Classical Theater of Harlem (CTH), to produce a one or two night theater event based on the Jazz Loft Project book in Brooklyn in May 2011.  Longtime followers of this website will remember Chaos Manor, the JLP event planned for Fort Greene Park last July that was canceled due to 104 degree temperatures.  Chaos Manor was a “staged reading” of the book, the brainchild of Brigid Hughes, founder and editor the Brooklyn journal, A Public Space (APS).  It was co-sponsored by APS and the Center for Documentary Studies and it was part of NYC’s summer Park Lit program.

This new event will retain the same partners with the addition of McElroen, who produced and directed approximately forty plays in eleven years at CTH including the remarkable Waiting for Godot set in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans post-Katrina.  Among other things McElroen currently is working on a collaboration with the Ralph Ellison estate for a first-ever stage production of Ellison’s novel, The Invisible Man.

McElroen will create a treatment of the JLP book for this workshop-style event using actors and musicians.  We’ll keep you posted on the precise time and location when those details are official.

-Sam Stephenson

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A few weeks ago I wrote about Elif Batuman’s piece on MFA (Masters in Fine Art) writing programs in the London Review of Books. I drew some parallels between her critique of writing programs and what might be said about analogous jazz programs that have grown dramatically in numbers over the last thirty years.  Hall Overton did his jazz work in the derelict 821 Sixth Avenue because it wasn’t allowed in the hallowed halls of Juilliard where he taught the popular classical composition and theory course, Literature and Materials. Jazz wasn’t considered worthy of Juilliard in those days.  Now, almost all aspiring jazz musicians go to a university, MFA program, and/or conservatory like Juilliard.  What’s been gained and lost?

Now there’s a new piece on MFA writing programs by Chad Harbach in the literary journal n+1.  A long excerpt from his piece is posted on Slate under the title “MFA vs. NYC”.  Harbach draws a distinction between the MFA community and the community of agents and editors in New York City.  I find his arguments to be intriguing and convincing.  The creation of an industry that provides jobs for writers who can no longer support themselves purely from writing is analogous to jazz today where very few musicians can survive without a teaching job.  Musicians need places to teach, jazz programs need teachers.  Darwinian growth takes place.  But what happens to the creativity?  Some pros, some cons.

One of the most remarkable aspects to Batuman’s piece, two months later, is the relative lack of attention it received.  She’s a new star (rightly so).  Her book The Possessed was just listed by Dwight Garner of the Times as one of his top 10 books of 2010. It was listed as one of the Times’ 100 Notable Books of the Year.  Yet in only two days since Harbach’s Slate excerpt was published, on Thanksgiving weekend, it’s already apparent that his piece on writing programs will get more attention than Batuman’s.  The Slate excerpt alone is enough to ensure that will be the case.  ArtsJournal also gave it a prominent link.

Batuman’s arguments about the roles of race and shame in writing programs are extremely sensitive and touchy to ponder in public (I’m currently seeking an outlet to do this, she’s agreed to participate with me on it).  I believe there are analogs in jazz.  Go to any jazz show in NYC these days and the audience will be nearly 100% white.  Most of the students in the jazz programs seem to be white (as they are in MFA writing programs).  I don’t know the numbers.  There are bound to be implications.

The big, melancholy question for jazz is, does anybody really care what happens?  Despite laments from writers and publishers over declining markets, creative writing occupies a hundred- or thousand-fold larger place in our culture today than jazz.  Two weeks ago, former Jazz Loft Project archivist Mike Fitzgerald passed through town and we had lunch.  Mike is now an archivist doing great things at the University of the District of Columbia.  He and I agree that jazz history is just beginning to be written.  The icons have been studied often (even though they should be studied more, there should be as many books on Monk as there are on Faulkner).  But the icons are just a tiny bit of the history and iconography distorts how the jazz story really went down, as I argued recently on this blog.  Jazz wasn’t created in seclusion behind a desk.  Almost all of jazz was made with others in front of others, unrecorded.  In October I visited Louise Sims, Zoot’s widow, in West Nyack, NY.  Nearly three decades after Zoot’s death she’s got a house chocked full of materials from his quintessential career.  She’s nearing 80 years old.  What happens to all that material?  Will Zoot’s biography and music ever be taught in schools?

-Sam Stephenson

p.s. You can read Mike Fitzgerald’s MA thesis (UNC-Chapel Hill, School of Information and Library Science) on the state of jazz archives in America by clicking here.

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Thanksgiving in 821 Sixth Avenue

Last year at this time JLP Research Associate Dan Partridge did a quick sort through our database of Smith’s tapes looking for Thanksgiving related material.  I wrote a blog entry about it. Yesterday Dan did the same thing and found some new material (we estimate 700-900 hours of Smith’s tapes remain that Dan hasn’t heard, yet, out of roughly 4000 hours – he’s still listening every day).

Among the items Dan found this year were lots of radio and TV coverage of JFK’s assassination on November 22, 1963 and the funeral on November 25.  LBJ gave what appears to be his first speech as President on November 27 and Smith taped it.

Thanksgiving was on November 28 that year.  There was a high of 55 degrees in Central Park that day.  What a somber holiday it must have been.

There’s also some material that Smith recorded earlier in November 1963 that is haunting to hear today.  You know what is looming, but nobody on the tapes does.  On November 7 there were some feel-good pre-Thanksgiving cultural stories Smith taped from the radio.  There were typically elated, jingly advertisements for things like the new 1964 line of Ford automobiles.  There’s an unspectacular jam session with musicians we still haven’t identified other than a “Jimmy” and a “Ronnie” (probably Jimmy Stevenson, not Ronnie Free).

Navy’s Roger Staubach won the Heisman Trophy the week after JFK’s funeral and there’s radio coverage of the award on Smith’s tapes.

There are additional things recorded from the Thanksgiving periods of other years.  On November 13, 1960 Smith’s fifteen year-old daughter Juanita showed up at the loft (from the family home in Croton-on-Hudson) with her boyfriend “Johnny” and they talked about eloping after she turned sixteen three weeks later, with Smith’s tape machine rolling.

On November 28, 1961 Smith had a conversation in the loft with Eleanor Bach about astrology.  We wonder if she knew she was being taped.

Sixth Avenue, NYC.  October 2010.  Photograph by Dan Partridge.

Sixth Avenue, NYC. Fall 2010. Photograph by Dan Partridge.

All in all, it’s a pretty melancholy selection of clips.  To lighten this blog post I inserted the photograph above that Dan made from his iPhone in NYC recently.  He was standing near the front of 821 Sixth Avenue looking over at Superior Florist.  These pumpkins are huge.  It’s a good thing Superior delivers.

Superior, and this same sign, can be seen clearly in many of Smith’s window photographs from 1957-1965. Sam Rosenberg still owns Superior and runs it with his son Steve.  They’ve been extremely nice to us over the years, telling us stories about the seedy side of the Flower District back in the day, letting us up on their roof to make pictures, etc.  One day five or six years ago I was in Superior and there was a bouquet of flowers larger than any I’d ever seen, the size of a two-person love seat or bigger.  I walked over in awe.  I noticed an envelope clipped to a dowell inside it.  Jotted on the front was the word “Streisand.”

-Sam Stephenson

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Needle Park & Mad Men

For some reason we’ve had a number of new blog readers this month, a few of whom inquired about Mad Men overlaps.  So we thought we’d link to this recent post about the topic which includes a link to another relevant JLP blog post about the summer of 1961 by Gin Wald.

-JLP Staff

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My Name is Albert Ayler


A note to NYC metro locals:  Tomorrow night at Rutgers there is a screening of the documentary film “My Name is Albert Ayler” by the Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin at Rutgers.  The 6pm screening is sponsored by the departments of English and American Literature.

Kasper is an old friend of the Jazz Loft Project (Ayler is pictured by Smith in the JLP book) and I was able to finally meet him in person yesterday in NYC.  This year Kasper’s wife is at Columbia where he said she will finish her PhD on water and politics in Niger.  What an interesting, achieving couple.

I admire the way Kasper used Ayler’s father and brother in the film.  It would be easy to turn Albert Ayler into some kind of cosmic marvel but Kasper’s film makes him human.  Kasper said Ayler’s family was pleased with the film, too.

-Sam Stephenson

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Where is Gene Smith in this photo?


Is there enough information in this photo to identify the Pacific location with some certainty?

Any thoughts would be much appreciated.

-Sam Stephenson

p.s. While Smith was in this spot Hall Overton was carrying stretchers in France and Belgium.  Gene probably didn’t share this photo widely.  He preferred to share the one where he was almost killed by a bomb in Okinawa.

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David Means on Gene Smith

This morning a writer friend tipped me off on a New Yorker web interview with short story writer David Means who commented on Gene Smith’s Pittsburgh photographs in a long line of other influences from the worlds of art and literature.  The whole interview is intriguing.

My friend also tipped me on Means’ short story, “Tree Line, Kansas, 1934,” from the October 25, 2010 issue of the New Yorker.  I was sent digging through my piles of periodicals to find that issue.  Gene Smith would have been fifteen and living with his family in Wichita in 1934, on weekends driving out to his grandparents’ farm in Severy, KS.  In his Minamata book Smith mentioned that the best bacon he ever had was on that farm, the next best was in Minamata.

I’m heading to Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill this morning to pick up Means’ latest collection.

(Thanks, Rebecca).


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“Gold in that Old Desk”

Two weeks ago I drove down to Winterville, NC for a JLP event at the Coffee Shack.  There I met writer Mark Rutledge who works for the local newspaper in adjacent Greenville, the Daily Reflector, part of the Cox family of news and media outlets.  Mark wrote a good news story on the event.  Then on November 6 he published this thoughtful column about the vast collection of materials left behind by his late father.  He downplays the historical significance of this collection.  But it sounds eminent to me.

-Sam Stephenson

P.S. We scanned the old school clipping (thanks, Mom!) because Cox has a paywall for web access.  If one of their outlets without a paywall syndicates Mark’s column we’ll link it here.  Update:  HERE is the Sarasota (FL) Herald-Tribute link.

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Jazz Loft Project Wins 2010 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award

pic_DeemTaylorThis morning the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers issued a press release announcing their 42nd Annual ASCAP Deems Taylor Awards.  Here’s part of it:

The ASCAP Deems Taylor Multimedia Award honors three inter-related undertakings: a book, The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965,Written by Sam Stephenson, Published by Alfred A. Knopf; a radio program, The Jazz Loft Project Radio Series: Produced at WNYC Radio (in association with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University) by Sara Fishko with Dean Cappello, Julie Burstein and Edward Haber; and a website,, produced at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University by Sam Stephenson, Lauren Hart and Dan Partridge.

The numbers of invaluable people and institutions who made JLP possible can’t be listed here.  Some of them are listed above.  Three key institutions that aren’t mentioned are Smith’s archive at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona; the Splinter Group of Carrboro, NC who created our website; and the New York Public Library for Performing Arts at Lincoln Center that opened the JLP exhibition last February.

This project seemed impossible at times; quite a few times, actually.  But we had a home that welcomed every aspect of it – the unique Center for Documentary Studies at Duke (warm thanks to Tom Rankin, Greg Britz, and Lynn McKnight) – and we had funding from the Reva and David Logan Foundation of Chicago.  The gutsy Logan funding (nobody had ever heard these tapes and our first grant proposals failed for that reason) allowed us to travel to twenty-one states and interview more than 400 participants from the scene at 821 Sixth Avenue.  The Logan funding also bought us time to achieve grants from NEH, National Archives, and Grammy Foundation to preserve and catalog Smith’s 4000 hours of tapes, a daunting (and ongoing) project by itself.  Without a home and without support, you can’t do work like this.  In today’s economic climate this work may well have been impossible.

Also winning an award this year is longtime JLP friend Robin D.G. Kelley for his remarkable biography of Monk.  That pleases us.

Special gratitude to Sara Fishko for submitting the entry to ASCAP for us, not to mention the beautiful, moving series she created.

Finally, indelible gratitude goes to the Smith family and estate.

- Sam Stephenson

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Sounds from Rikers Island

elmo hope rikers island002

Here is a link to a recent AP story on Melinda Hunt’s inspiring work to identify the unnamed dead buried on Hart Island.  Her research overlaps with some of our JLP research.  A number of veterans of 821 Sixth Avenue dug graves on Hart Island while incarcerated on Rikers Island.  Among them were the pianists Sonny Clark and Elmo Hope.

On August 19, 1963 a group of musicians now called the Elmo Hope Ensemble cut an album entitled “Sounds from Rikers Island.”  It features Hope on piano, Lawrence Jackson on trumpet, Freddie Douglas on saxophones, John Gilmore on tenor, Ronnie Boykins on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums.  Earl Coleman and Marcelle Daniels also contribute vocals on a couple of tracks.  The premise of the band is that they are all veterans of the prison on Rikers; a few of their careers were stunted by doing time.  It’s an excellent recording reissued a couple of years ago by Fresh Sound Records of Spain.

The liner notes by Nat Hentoff are remarkable.  On this blog I’ve raved about Whitney Balliett’s jazz annals.  The only thing separating Balliett and Hentoff is volume; Balliett documented jazz farther and wider, Hentoff’s career moved on to politics and other topics.  But one thing Hentoff did better than his friend Balliett is cover the drug scene.  He did it with a similar style, using direct quotations to powerful effect.

In these liner notes Hentoff describes how Elmo Hope was clean from heroin for seven years until 1961 when he started using again.  The he quotes Hope at length:

“All that time I was off (drugs) I worked hard.  Everybody can tell you I worked hard.  But jobs were hard to get and harder to keep.  Some of the guys I worked for even seemed disappointed that I didn’t goof.  Yet I stayed straight.  But there were so many disappointments and so much scuffling and personal problems besides.  So I got my problem again.  I’m going to try to kick again.  It might be too late.  I might have to pay more dues.  But I know I can’t get back to where I ought to be if I don’t stop entirely.  Some guys wear the stuff well.  At least, they can function while they’re on.  Me, the minute I take the first taste, my troubles start.  And with all the other tensions going on, I know I’m going to fall apart if I don’t get off.  Music is the most important thing in life to me.  And yet I’ve been goofing that life away for nothing.

“These days I’m out on the street with no crib.  And there’s a new breed using now.  I sit in one of those basement apartments and I see guys around me who don’t even have a dream, man.  They’re real bitter people.  I don’t want to get like that.  But where do I go?  I need some analysis.  I need something to help me straighten out.  But with what money?  And if I stay with the habit, sooner or later I’ll get busted.  And then, I could get put away for a long time.  Now what sense does that make?  Putting a man away when, if you tried to help him, he could still create.  He could still be a credit to himself and everyone else.  The only crime I commit, man, is reaching for the bag.  And when I want to stop that, where do I turn?  And you can see, even with all this pressure, I’ve got something going.  I’ve got my own thing musically.”

Elmo Hope died less than four years later at the age of forty-three, his life and career and series of starts and one final stop too early.

One day I hope all of Nat Hentoff’s jazz writings from all the myriad sources – magazines, newspapers, books, liner notes – can be assembled in one volume, or a set of two volumes.

-Sam Stephenson

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