Archive for April, 2012

A Photo and Note from Jim Hughes

Gene Smith's Olympus-W 001

Gene Smith's Olympus Pen-W. Photo by Jim Hughes.

I’ve noted on this blog in the past the role of Jim Hughes’ 1989 biography of Smith in my ongoing saga following Smith’s footsteps.  Jim has been supportive of me in person over the years, as well.  I like to say that I’m standing on his shoulders; the big, strong body an essential base.

In response to my post earlier this week, “Flurb,” Jim chimed in with this excellent note from the home he shares with his wife Evelyn in Maine:

I am old enough to remember New York’s old naming system for telephone exchanges. The LA 4-6935 shown in Sonia’s photograph of Gene’s “b&w” phone stands for LAckawanna-4 (I have no way of knowing if that was actually his number at the loft, even though I did call him there; the phone pictured may have been brought in from elsewhere, with an old number still attached). At any rate, years earlier, there was only LA-2 for that exchange, but then NY Tel had to add numbers and expand many exchanges to accommodate a growing population. When I first moved to Brooklyn, for example, our number was MAin 5-1521. Ours was a comparatively small neighborhood, and I seem to remember only having to dial 5-1521 for a few years for calls within the exchange until the telephone company changed to all numbers, making us 625. Then it was 212-625. Later it became 718.  Plus 622 and 624. Other exchanges were added by the time we moved to Maine, where we are now back to one area code for the entire state and two exchanges for the town.

There may be poetry in your quoted definition of Flerb as it may or may not apply to Gene, but I don’t think he would have misspelled it, given his penchant for word play and punning. Rather, I think he was using “FLURB” and “FRILB” (I see a B onscreen, but it could be a D or even a P) as mnemonics, pointing to the letters on the rotary dial to indicate numbers. I think it was probably easier for Gene to remember FLURB than 35872 (or CHelsea 3-5872) or FRILB rather than CHelsea 3-7452 or GRamercy 3-7452 — since the exchange referenced could also have been GRamercy 3, an adjacent neighborhood. Perhaps these were numbers for local food places that delivered. Or any of hundreds of other possibilities. At this point, there’s little way of knowing.

(I should note that for many years I carried all my my friends’ telephone numbers, many photographers included, in my head, and could retrieve them at will. They are all gone now. If my theory is correct, then Gene had a better system!)

Evelyn follows your blog (computer screens give me a headache and a stiff neck!), and alerts me to stuff she thinks I might want to see. Such as Gene’s phone. I also remember your showing a new-looking Olympus half-frame at one point. Attached is a photograph of the Olympus-W (for Wide) that Gene preferred. Note the bleach-and-hypo-stained fingerprints. Gene gave the camera to one of his hardworking assistants for the Jewish Museum show, Leonard Gordon, who eventually sent it to me, since it was jammed beyond repair. I keep it on a shelf, along with Gene’s 8×10 Burke & James with red bellows. On the wooden focusing bed of this behemoth, under the lensboard, was the following note, written in Gene’s distinctive block-letter hand with a felt-tip pen, that I think was intended for Carole to discover:

‘If you really love someone, you wish to say “I’m Yours” in that you strive for unselfishness. This in mutual love works out to a great and beautifully respectful equality — with passion — SMILE, I LOVE YOU!’
Jim Hughes

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Bull City Party

We would be remiss if we didn’t mention some of the excellent work that’s happening right here in the Jazz Loft Project’s administrative home town: Durham, The Bull City. This April, in particular, offers a lot of wonderful documentary work, much of it in kindred spirit to the JLP.

As part of the Bull City Soul Revival, an exhibition called “Soul Souvenirs: Durham’s Musical Memories from the 1960′s and 1970′s” opens tonight, April 19, at the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham, NC. Follow those links to read more about tonight’s opening event, featuring several veterans of Durham’s soul scene and next Friday’s concert with a similarly powerful lineup (April 27).

Simultaneously, at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, there’s another remarkable exhibition opening: “Full Color Depression: First Kodachrome’s From America’s Heartland.” It’s curated by Bruce Jackson and he’ll be in house to give a talk and sign his new book In This Timeless Time: Living and Dying on Death Row in America (co-authored by Diane Christian and published by the University of North Carolina Press and CDS Books of the Center for Documentary Studies).

(And those are only the events with two miles of each other pertaining to tonight at 7pm. Looking forwards and backwards through this month, there’s more. A reminder for this similarly nearby exhibition opening showed up while I cobbled this entry. Fortunately, it starts at 4pm. )

The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival happened here in Durham last weekend. The Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award went to an extraordinary film called Special Flight. This documentary focuses on a Swiss detention center in Frambois, where a group of immigrants live in purgatory after they’ve been denied requests for asylum while they await a (forcible) “Special Flight” away from a country that had become their true home. It shows another sort of “timeless time” or placeless place.

Full Frame also featured a new documentary with a direct tangent to the Jazz Loft Project. Radio Unnameable covered the career of late night NYC DJ Bob Fass, whose shows W. Eugene Smith often recorded. I talked with Fass on the telephone about a year ago and he alluded to a friendship with Smith. It’s not surprise that Smith would gravitate to a kindred-spirited night owl. On Smith’s tapes, there’s one night when Smith was listening to Fass’s radio show, Radio Unnameable. Smith left the recorder running and made his way to the station, onto the airwaves, and back onto his own tape that was being recorded in his loft. Smith went to the radio station for a number of reasons that night. He wanted to bring Fass a Peter LaFarge record that couldn’t be found at WBAI. The record was one of thousands in Smith’s collection and he wanted to support  folk singer Peter LaFarge, who was Fass’s guest that night. And it’s clear on the tape that LaFarge is struggling with whether or not he will sing again,k among other things. Smith had met LaFarge during the singer’s childhood while visiting New Mexico on another project. Fass interviews Smith, who facilitates a live performance by LaFarge, and they all wind up on Smith’s reel-to-reel tape in the Jazz Loft Project collection. I touched on it here.

Where can you find a similar collection of visual arts, spoken word, and musicians these days? Next week, in Durham: The Center for Documentary Studies and The Hinge will launch Professor Diablo’s True Review at the Casbah club on Tuesday, April 24. Then you’ll be able to check out the Bull City Soul Revival on Friday the 27th. This week you’ll have to choose between some great events. Next week you can go to both. There’s a lot more happening in Durham this month. If you can’t attend the events, there is plenty to take in by exploring the website links above. To quote Smith, “I’m saying it very badly.” But the word is out.  So many worthy projects may seem like a rambling list in this blog entry. These events, exhibitions, and books can’t be contained summarily in a blog’s box. They need to be experienced in depth, in real time where they might truly live and breathe.

-Dan Partridge

(At last weekend’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, there was also a documentary about letterpress printing called Kiss the Paper. Head down to Durham’s own letterpress studio,  Horse & Buggy Press for Maji Moto: Dispatches from a Drought to see their shop, new book, beautifully pressed broadsides, and exhibit).

Bull City Party!

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W. Eugene Smith's loft telephone, circa early 1960s.  Photo by Sonia Katchian.

W. Eugene Smith's loft telephone, circa early 1960s. Photo by Sonia Katchian.

The photograph above, by Sonia Katchian, was published in the JLP book.  Long a mystery was the word “FLURB” on the bottom right of the phone, and “FRILD” (if that’s what it is) on bottom left.  For some reason I never thought to Google those words.  I did that today, after a Facebook exchange about the phone with Smith’s daughter, Shana Rasmus.  According to the Urban Dictionary the definition of “flurb” is this:

Noun. n. (Flerb) Any person, male or female, living or dead, that is either immensely disillusioned, or is so enamored with the concept of role play, that they will dress and make accessible to themselves all of the following; A) Clothing in excess of five pieces of garb, weighing more than a legal twenty five lbs., B) Stage make-up that completely hides their face and identity, C) Backgrounds and stories, preferably histories, about how their chosen alter-ego came into being, D) Weapons that have no practical application on any battlefield, anywhere, and E) Names that include any of the following: An animal, a color, a plant, a mineral, a creature of world mythology, names from cultures that never existed, names from cultures that existed a long time ago, or names from cultures yet to exist, example: Sir Archduke Grand General, Priest of the Lemonade Stand of Gruesome Demise, Mr. Artimestriastidonicles Storm-death-doom-wolf-shark-black-white-red-dragon-sword-thorn-silver-hallibut, the Fifth, Esquire.

That is just about perfect.

Still working on “frild” (or whatever).

-Sam Stephenson

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The Connection


JLP radio series producer Sara Fishko alerted me to a new 35mm restoration of Shirley Clarke’s film “The Connection” that will premier at the IFC Theater on 6th Avenue on May 4.  There are many overlaps of “The Connection” and the goings on at 821 Sixth Avenue.  Here’s what I wrote in the JLP book:

Jazz musicians spend a lot of time waiting.  Waiting to get called for gigs, then waiting for the gigs; waiting for a pianist or drummer to show up; waiting for a turn to solo; waiting to get paid by a club or label owner.  Bassist Bill Crow said, “There was a lot of idle time in the afternoons.  We learned which museums and galleries were free and we’d go look at art in the afternoons, when we weren’t practicing.”

The drug users also spent time waiting for a fix.  In 1959 Jack Gelber’s play, The Connection, dramatized this particular brand of waiting at the Living Theater on Sixth Avenue and 14th Street, just fourteen blocks from 821 Sixth Avenue.  The loft could have served as the play’s stage set and Gelber sought to achieve a realism that broke down the boundaries between the stage and an audience.  The “connection” was a dealer named Cowboy and jazz musicians – Freddie Redd and Jackie McLean, among others – were languishing in the theater space, playing tunes to pass time and escape boredom.  Gelber attempted to break down boundaries between the stage and the audience in a manner not unlike Smith’s fly-on-the-wall loft recordings.  Loft musicians Ronnie Free and Frank Hewitt were stand-ins for The Connection and Redd remembers the opening night party for the play’s cast and crew being held at 821.

In December 1959, Smith recorded Symphony Sid’s radio show on WEVD and he caught this mention of The Connection:

Ladies and gentlemen, have you seen The Connection? This is a play written by Jack Gelber. And a play with jazz featuring the Freddie Redd Quartet with Jackie McLean on alto. It’s called ‘a play with jazz,’ the Village Voice explains because there’s a quartet onstage which provides lots of good jazz and lots of good acting. Of course, there are fourteen other people in the play. And this is the first production of any sort, not just theater, in which modern jazz is used dynamically to enhance dramatic action rather than merely decorate or sabotage it, with music written by Freddie Redd.  The Villager says, ‘It’s jazz of an exceptionally superior sort, almost alone worth the price of admission.’ And all the musicians are making their acting debuts. The Connection is now playing at The Living Theatre, 14th Street and Sixth Avenue. And you can call for a ticket reservation at Chelsea 3, 4569. Weekdays, The Connection starts at 8:30. Saturday shows are at 7 and 10:30. And there’s a Sunday show at 8:30 PM. The New York Post said, “Fascinating, a real gone slice of life that you won’t find unless you know the right path.”

The Living Theater revived The Connection in 2009.

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Coming Soon: JLP e-Book

News just in from Knopf.  Details soon.


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Time and the Archive

Last week I was in NYC working on Gene Smith’s Sink and Chaos Manor. My editor of Sink gave me a copy of a new book she edited, Exorcism: A Play in One Act (2012) by Eugene O’Neill, based on the writer’s attempted suicide in 1912.  Exorcism had a two-week life on stage in 1920 before O’Neill destroyed the script.  Elements of the play emerged in O’Neill’s masterpieces, The Iceman Cometh (1940) and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956), but the original text was thought to be gone.  Nearly ninety years after Exorcism was written, the script was discovered in the papers of the late Philip Yordan, a screenwriter who had apparently received his copy from O’Neill’s second wife in the 1940s.  Yale University Press published the script this year, with a forward by Edward Albee and an introduction by Louise Bernard, former Curator of Prose and Drama at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.

Bernard’s introduction, “Time and the Archive,” an essay on the metaphysical values of saving things – objects and memories, in this case the “lost” play of a Nobel prize winner, stunned me.  It’s one of the best pieces I’ve read concerning the enigma of archival research, with many ramifications for JLP and my work on Gene Smith’s Sink.  Here are Bernard’s first two paragraphs:

There is much to be said for the relationship between Time and the Archive, each term capitalized here as befitting its symbolic function.  Time – that ineffable thing which signifies the broad sweep of history – is at once deep and long and granular, an (in)finite string of fleeting moments that constitute something like duration.  Although human endeavor appears to follow a teleological thrust, chronology is equally tied to happenstance and hence to the host of disjointed patterns that refuse easy coherence.  Even as we break down time into digestible parts (days, years, centuries, or broad, expansive eras), such arbitrary units necessarily rub up against their opposite: the intangible stream of human consciousness as a fluid movement of thought, or elusive recollection.  Thus, when we speak of time, we also speak, inevitably, of memory, of piecing together the import of events large and small, which brings us, by association, to the figure of the archive itself.

The archive, as the careful assemblage and ordering of documents into discrete bodies of information that capture and record the various workings of the public sphere, provides much fodder for the ever-subjective production of history.  Yet, while the archive’s origins are bureaucratic in nature, the idea of the archive as it related to creativity acquires added resonance when we consider not only the aesthetic lure of the archive as a mode of artistic practice (the playful use of archival accoutrements – filing cabinet, typewriter, index card – in the work, for instance, of the Surrealists) but the way in which the paper trail itself presents an object lesson in the machinations of biography – the interplay of presence and absence that undergirds the telling of an individual’s life story.

- From Louise Bernard’s introduction to Exorcism: A Play in One Act, by Eugene O’Neill.  Yale University Press.  2012.

-Sam Stephenson

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