Archive for February, 2011

Tokyo Day 8

The past four days have looked like this:

Thursday 11am, Shinjuku:  Interview with Kazuhiko Motomura, the 78 year-old former public sector employee from Saga, a rural area near Nagasaki, who doubles as an extraordinary collector of photography books and prints, and a selective publisher of five sublime, limited edition photo books, including three by Robert Frank and one by Jun Morinaga.  Frank, Morinaga, and Gene Smith are interwoven into Motomura’s intriguing story, which I can’t go into in this post, but I will share a detail about our meet-up:

By telephone Motomura told my interpreter Momoko Gill that we should meet him on the sidewalk outside a bookstore in Shinjuku.  We did that.  Then he led us down into the nearby subway station where we walked for maybe two tenths of a mile, taking a number of ninety degree turns, before emerging above ground in front of the entrance to a department store several blocks away.  We went inside the store and took a nondescript elevator up about eight floors where we found an almost empty coffee shop that was perfect for an oral history interview.  Normally, I do everything I can do to conduct these interviews in the subject’s home, for a multitude of reasons.  But this was better.  Motomura’s submerged, exacting route to the coffee shop might be a metaphor for the unique focus and quality of the rest of his achievements.

Thursday 2pm, Shinjuku:  We interviewed the 60 year-old photographer, Takeshi Ishikawa, who lived and worked with Gene and Aileen Mioko Smith in Minamata for three years 1971-74.  He’ll spend three days with me and Momoko in Minamata next week, so I’ll write more about him later, perhaps for Paris Review (which will be linked here, of course).

Friday 11:30am, Minato-ku: We stopped by Photo Gallery International (PGI) so I could pick up a copy of Jun Morinaga’s legendary book, River, Shadow of Shadows, with a rare contributing essay by Gene Smith, published by Motomura’s Yugensha Press and dropped off by him at PGI.  Morinaga was Smith’s assistant and close friend on the Hitachi project in 1961-62 and it was through Morinaga, via Smith, that Motomura originally met Robert Frank.  I’m holding out hope that we can meet Morinaga tomorrow, the last day in Tokyo, but circumstances may not be in our favor.  If not, that’s a reason to come back.  I want to write more about him in the future.

Friday 1pm, Minato-ku: We met 84 year-old Taeko Matsuda, the founder of Cosmo Public Relations.  Her’s is a story like Motomura’s that deserves more space than this.  She founded Cosmo in 1959, gained the powerful Hitachi as a client, and hired Smith to photograph the company in 1961.  Previously, she had gone to college in Los Angeles at USC – one of the first Japanese students to do so, and perhaps the first Japanese woman – and she spent six years working for NBC in Los Angeles, where she became a follower of Smith’s LIFE magazine work.  Smith’s efforts on Hitachi lasted four times longer (of course) than Matsuda and Hitachi expected but the results – an extended spread in LIFE – redeemed everything, said Matsuda.  She also said that when Hitachi would complain about Smith’s belabored operation, she would say to them, “He can’t help it; it’s what he does; just wait.”  The degree of warmth she expressed toward Smith and her generosity toward my work were moving, as were that of her daughters, Lina Kumamaru and Kumi Sato.

Friday 3pm, Minato-ku: We went to the offices of Cosmo, a vital ongoing company now run by Kumi Sato, and I gave a talk about Smith and the Jazz Loft Project to their staff, which includes Account Director Ryu Kondoh, who is an authority on W. Eugene Smith and a historian of Cosmo and Smith’s Hitachi project, and who had his own copy of the JLP book, the first one I’ve seen on this trip.  I was impressed by the welcoming engagement of the whole Cosmo staff.

Friday 10pm, Yokohama:  We spent a couple of nights here at the home of Momoko’s family and on this night Yokohama resident, Masato Nishiyama, stopped by to drop off some Smith materials.  Nishiyama is the 76 year-old photographer, Smith’s close friend and assistant during the Hitachi project.  He had prints made by Smith and given to him as a gift; he had prints he made of Smith; and he had a painting by Smith.

Saturday 1pm, Roppongi: We met Masato Nishiyama back in the Tokyo neighborhood where Smith lived and had a darkroom for the Hitachi project, where Momoko and I wandered around on Monday.  Nishiyama told us that Smith’s apartment and darkoom buildings no longer exist.  He showed us where they once stood.  He took us to the same Chinese restaurant, Kohien, frequented by him and Smith a half-century ago.  He ordered the same dish that Smith often ordered, a noodle soup.  He told us a story I’ve heard numerous times, about Smith eating a lot of soup because his mouth and teeth were beaten up from shrapnel wounds in Okinawa 1945.  Nishiyama showed us around Roppongi and described the neighborhood as it was in 1961-62.  He said the tallest buildings were 6-8 floor walk-ups made of wood planks and bricks.  His description sounded a lot like the Flower District neighborhood around 821 Sixth Avenue during the Jazz Loft years.  Today almost nothing from that period survives; there are skyscrapers everywhere, evidence of the 80s and 90s real estate bubble here.  Nishiyama also let me keep a number of the prints he had dropped off in Yokohama the night before; prints he made of Smith working in Hitachi City, plus ones of Smith in 821 Sixth Avenue on a visit he made to NYC after Smith returned.  One of the prints he gave me shows Smith leaning in the doorway of 821, looking out onto Sixth Avenue.  Nishiyama’s vantage point for the picture was a flight up the stairwell, looking down.  I’ll try to scan it and reproduce here soon.  It’ll go in my book-in-progress, which has a new working title of Gene Smith’s Sink.

Sunday, back at the hotel in Kojimachi: A day of rest and wandering around Tokyo on foot by myself.  I washed clothes at a coin laundry this morning and then walked from my hotel to Shinjuku, about six miles round trip, I figured.  Tomorrow Momoko and I rejoin and have dinner with Keibo Oiwa, an ecologist and scholar who has written on Minamata.  Tuesday we fly to Minamata for four days.  Takeshi Ishikawa will be our guide.  I feel privileged.  In 1971 Ishikawa was a 20 year-old photography student in Tokyo when he met Smith and agreed to move to Minamata with him and Aileen.  He was with them day and night for three years, from shooting in the field to printing in the darkroom and everything in between.  Forty years later his loyalty to Smith hasn’t wavered.


Looking for Gene Smith in Roppongi. Momoko Gill (l) and Masato Nishiyama (r). February 26, 2011. Photo by me.

- Sam Stephenson

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Tokyo Day 4

Today I spoke to a crowd of about a hundred photographers at the Japan Professional Photographers Society.  I followed photographer Everett Kennedy Brown, a Goldsboro, N.C. native who has lived in Tokyo for 30+ years.  Everett and I hadn’t met until 30 minutes before the program today.  Afterward, my traveling colleague Momoko Gill asked him what he missed about the States and he replied, “Sam’s accent.”

Highlights of the event were the presences of two former Smith assistants, Masato Nishiyama, who worked with Smith on the Hitachi project 1961-62, and Takeshi Ishikawa, who worked with Smith and his wife Aileen in Minamata 1971-74.  Ishikawa actually lived in the house with Smith and Aileen for those three years.  We’re meeting him again privately tomorrow and then he’s going to Minamata with us next week.  We’ll see Nishiyama again on Saturday in Yokohama.

The warm treatment of us made it clear that Gene Smith still looms large here.  After the main event we retired to a conference room where about twenty photographers with a special interest in Smith questioned me, with Momoko translating, for about an hour.  I learned much more from the questioners than they learned from me, although I must say that the Jazz Loft Project still hasn’t made it’s way to this natural audience here.  Most people were hearing the story for the first time, and they were quite intrigued.  The conversation, though, kept coming back to Minamata; not the War, not Hitachi, not LIFE magazine, not Jazz Loft or anything else.

One note on Minamata:  On the flight here from RDU on Saturday I carried with me the (then) latest issue of the New Yorker, the February 14 and 21 double issue.  On P. 69 there is a full-page advertisement by Siemens lauding their work to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.  If the picture they are using for this ad isn’t a knock-off of one of Smith’s classic Minamata images, I’ll eat my Durham Bulls hat.  I’ll try to scan that page at a copy store here and post a side-by-side comparison soon.  Meanwhile, if somebody reads this and feels like sending us a jpg, that’d be very cool.


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Superchunk in Tokyo


O-West. Shibuya, Tokyo. February 21, 2011.

I didn’t expect my first blog post from this month-long journey in Japan and Pacific WWII islands to be about an indie rock band from home.  But Chapel Hill-Durham’s Superchunk was playing at the O-West club in Shibuya last night and I couldn’t resist.

I first saw Superchunk sometime in 1993 after moving back to Raleigh from Washington, D.C.  They were taking the place by storm.  The show that sticks in my mind is one at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, N.C. on a cold January night in 1995.  I was struggling in graduate school at the time, about to abort efforts to get an MA in Religious Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, after aborting efforts to get an MA in Economics the year before (the rigors of those programs aborted me more than anything).  My Cultural Studies professor Larry Grossberg was talking about Superchunk in a graduate seminar the day of the show (he had tickets), putting them in sentences with names like Stuart Hall and Delueze and Guattari.  I figured that Larry might be the only professor in America talking about Superchunk in a graduate seminar and I admired him for it.  Later that night the band came out with a controlled post-punk abandon and I’m not sure I’ve even seen the Cradle more electrified, and that’s saying a lot.

I was twenty-eight years old at the time and working full-time at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books (QRB) and struggling to figure out a trajectory for a so-called career.  I wanted to be a writer but wasn’t really sure how to pull it off.  Limbo City.  I had a couple of serendipitous inspirations from, among others, Doris Betts, who was reading at QRB one night when I was working, and Jim Lewis, a local preacher who read Shakespeare and Freud and Zora Neale Hurston.  Things started happening.  I was led to the Center for Documentary Studies and the doomed, asteroid-like DoubleTake magazine which was founded there.  I married a woman from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania later that year.  Then, in January 1997 I stumbled upon a reference to W. Eugene Smith’s unfinished Pittsburgh project in a camera store in Raleigh.

This is a long story and I can’t keep writing like this or else I’ll be sitting here in my room on Kojimachi for the next three days, peering out the window in between stints at my laptop and trips to the convenience store for fresh and inexpensive seafood salads.  My editor at FSG recently gave me the green light to open up my Smith biography and tell a story only I can tell concerning my 14-plus years interweaving this guy’s life and work into mine. There will be new and intense, conventional biographical elements about Smith in this book, and I plan to go very deep on his techniques, but this book may become more of a non-fiction novel, with Jazz Loft characters at the center and many elements of Smith’s interest in Japan.

Whatever I do after my Smith work is done (which isn’t too far in the future) I would like for it to be as bold and ambitious as the work Superchunk continues to do.  You could always see that this band might age dynamically, their post-punk qualities growing depth rather than freezing.  Last night they were called out for at least three encores in the sold out club, playing mostly tunes from their newest record.  The Japanese audience seemed ten to twenty years younger than the band (who are in their early 40′s, like many of us) and they hung on every note, recognizing most tunes within the first two chords.  Superchunk’s associated record label, the independent Merge Records, run by two band members Mac MacCaughan and Laura Ballance, continues to support new and obscure bands.   One of their bands, Arcade Fire, won a Grammy last week for overall Album of the Year.  A focus group or business school seminar would have determined twenty years ago, or especially five or ten years ago, that Merge Records in Durham, North Carolina had no chance in the current climate for recorded music.  They would have been wrong.  (To see another side of the brilliance of the members of this band, check out the immortal clip “Music Scholar” from WFMU radio – Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster is the caller on this show).

On a Smith note, yesterday, working with my traveling assistant and interpreter, Momoko Gill (a young jazz drummer), we looked for the house where Smith lived next to the Haiyuza Theater in Roppongi in 1961-62.  Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” is one of the shows playing at the theater currently.  We have no address for the Smith residence (nobody remembers it precisely) so we’ll need some firsthand verification from photographs to confirm which place was his.  I stood there and imagined him sauntering down the street for Suntory liquor a half century ago.

Later in the day we had a long, vigorous coffee shop meeting with the Japanese-American writer Roland Kelts.  Then Superchunk.

It was a good start.  I’m excited to see where it goes from here.

-Sam Stephenson

p.s. Many thanks to Lane and Jon.  Here’s a (brutal) photo from my iPhone last night.

Superchunk on stage. O-West.  Shibuya, Tokyo.  February 21, 2011.

Superchunk on stage. O-West. Shibuya, Tokyo. February 21, 2011.

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NPR Music on a Weekend in Durham

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The Thousand Autumns of Gene Smith

Tomorrow morning I depart Raleigh-Durham for Newark, NJ and then 30 days with these stops along the way:

Tokyo, Hitachi City, Yokohama, Nagasaki, Minamata, Okinawa, Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Iwo Jima, and Honolulu.

Smith made tapes in Tokyo in 1961-62, a lot of tapes.  No jazz jam sessions, but many intriguing conversations and things off Japanese radio and TV.  Yesterday JLP Research Associate Dan Partridge pointed me toward some notable recordings and I spent a few hours listening.  It was something to hear Smith working with photographer Jun Morinaga in the darkroom, with Morinaga speaking almost no English and Smith no Japanese, yet they seemed to get along perfectly.  The movements and sounds of the darkroom are universal.  Lots of laughter.  A few years later Smith wrote the introduction to Morinaga’s legendary, impossible-to-find book, River: Its Shadow of Shadows. When I was working in Smith’s archive in Arizona three weeks ago I found several warm letters from Morinaga to Eugene-san.  He’s still active in Tokyo and I hope to see him next week.

Close readers of the JLP book will recall that it was the night before Smith left for Tokyo in late September 1961 that Sonny Clark and Lin Halliday were shooting heroin in the hallway while Smith was playing vinyl records of Edna St. Vincent Millay reading her poetry and actress Julie Harris reading Emily Dickinson.  You may remember that drummer and loft resident Frank Amoss was out and about that night.  On the tapes you can hear Frank offering to give Gene a ride to Idlewild Airport.  Knowing of my looming trip this week, Frank emailed me from southern California and asked, “You need a ride to the airport?”

I’ll blog as possible from the road.  Dan Partridge will offer a series of posts about what he’s hearing on the tapes.

-Sam Stephenson

p.s. The great Durham band Superchunk is playing in Tokyo on Monday night.  I first saw them at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, NC in 1994.  What a small world.

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Where is Gene Smith in this picture?

In the fall I posted this picture and asked this question and I didn’t hear anything definitive.  Maybe there’s not enough information.  But I’m trying again.  I’d be grateful for any suggestions anybody has.  Next Saturday I’m heading to the Pacific for 4+ weeks walking in Smith’s footsteps.

- Sam Stephenson.


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Scenes from Branford Marsalis Event

A nice crowd turned out for the 90-minute event, filling the pews in the lower part of the Hayti Heritage Center sancutary, with the last 45 minutes being Q&A.  Many of the questions were about what can be done to make jazz hip.  Branford said he wasn’t worried about it – that his only concern is playing the best music he can play.  But there was agreement that the deadened “shhhhh” culture of the jazz clubs and the exclusive jazz club at large don’t help.  I played a clip from Monk’s 1958 Five Spot recording of “Misterioso” in which you can hear loud conversations from the audience during his solo.  Branford pointed out that Le Poussin Rouge in NYC is a positive new atmosphere for music.  There was also a lot of talk about the proliferating jazz programs in schools, much of which jibes with recent posts here about MFA writing programs.  Branford doesn’t blame the schools – the schools aren’t stopping anybody from playing great music – but there is a certain kind of individualism that is promoted, whereas in the era of the scene at 821 Sixth Avenue the music came from more of a shared tradition and repertoire.  I played clips of two tracks from his “Braggtown” album, named for a Durham neighborhood, which was recorded, as all of his albums in recent years, in the Hayti sanctuary.  Perhaps playing to his adopted home town crowd, Branford gave a number of plugs to North Carolina and the South in general, mentioning food and names like Faulkner and Welty and Tennessee Williams.  Current musicians he praised were Derek Trucks, Aaron Goldberg, Wynton and the J@LC band, Stephen Riley, Ben Wolfe, John Ellis, Prince, and the guys in Dave Matthews’ band.  Below are some photographs by Frank Hunter.  (There is no audio recording, we’re sorry to say).



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The Amazing Randi

This morning I stumbled upon this article in the LA Times online.  It concerns the magician James Randi, aka The Amazing Randi, who had a radio show on WOR in the mid-1960s that Eugene Smith was known to record on his tapes.  Smith and Randi became friends and it was the magician who built a security system in 821 Sixth Avenue to protect against intruders and thieves.


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Jazz and Race Reader

Here’s a very thoughtful post from Ethan Iverson in response to my post a couple of days ago.  The more I think about it, Ethan should edit the Jazz and Race Reader with another musician of his vintage, say Orrin Evans (his name comes to mind because, if I remember correctly, he and Ethan once played duo piano gigs together and he’s been outspoken recently about race in jazz, too, and I like his and Tarbaby’s music as I like Ethan’s and TBP’s).  A thorough book like Ethan suggests could become an instant classic, with new editions that people reach for forty years later.  They could tour a show behind it, blending music and talk.  Sparks could fly, in a productive way.  It would help immensely for a visionary patron to step forward and help buy the time to get this done, and there’d need to be a publisher with enough patience and passion to work through the onslaughts of permissions required to assemble this kind of compendium.

*Update:  I spent a couple of hours today reading some of the links on this debate provided by A Blog Supreme.  It’s important for me to stress that I still haven’t read Sandke’s book.  But after catching up a little bit on this furor, I have a couple more thoughts:  1) I believe Sandke’s main point has validity.  2)  I also believe that Southern black church music is underserved in the jazz annals; in other words, white liberal critics and historians who might have bent over backwards to emphasize the black background of jazz actually didn’t go far enough in a key sense.  3) (I’m just throwing this in for kicks):  The Piedmont Blues as a basis for jazz is underserved in the annals, and this influence includes a lot of black musicians, of course (Thelonious Monk’s father played harp in the rail yards of Rocky Mount, NC), but it also includes some white hillbilly types who swung their asses off on some strings.

This is complicated stuff.


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A Conversation between Branford Marsalis and Sam Stephenson

JAZZ THEN AND NOW / A Conversation Between Branford Marsalis and Sam Stephenson, Director of the Jazz Loft Project

Thursday, February 10, 7 p.m. / Hayti Heritage Center, 804 Old Fayetteville Street, Durham, North Carolina

Presented in conjunction with The Jazz Loft Project: W. Eugene Smith in New York City, 1957-1965, an exhibition at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, February 3-July 10, 2011

For a decade Sam Stephenson and his colleagues at the Center for Documentary Studies have been studying a dilapidated loft building in New York City that was a legendary after-hours jazz haunt from 1954 to 1965. Photographer W. Eugene Smith documented the scene in thousands of hours of tapes and thousands of photographs, providing a poignant look at the off-stage lives of iconic and ordinary musicians alike.

In this wide-ranging conversation, Stephenson and world-renowned saxophonist Branford Marsalis will talk about how jazz has changed since the days of this underground loft scene. Marsalis and Stephenson will discuss what has been gained and lost now that jazz is accepted in the most hallowed halls and conservatories in the world, after being considered “gutbucket” outlaw music since its inception. The conversation will also extend to a variety of topics, including Marsalis’s decision to move to Durham, his reasons for recording all his albums today in the Hayti Heritage Center’s sanctuary hall, and more.

Jazz fans will also enjoy attending related events in Durham occurring this weekend:

Thursday, February 10. The Pinhook presents Brian Blade, February 10, 9 p.m.

Friday, February 11. Duke Performances presents the Wayne Shorter Quartet featuring Shorter, Danilo Perez, John Pattituci, and Brian Blade. Page Auditorium, Duke University, 8 p.m. Tickets

The Jazz Loft Project exhibition open all weekend at the Nasher Museum of Art.

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