Archive for from the tapes

DeLillo Digging through LIFE

In coming up with the format for the JLP book,  Don DeLillo’s Underworld was an inspiration for the non-chronological sequencing.  To some degree I paid homage to DeLillo by getting baseball into the book.  The prologue to Underworld is a stunning work based around the 1951 Bobby Thomson “Shot Heard Round the World” game between the Giants and Dodgers, and the broadcast of the game is featured.  Smith taped the broadcast of Game 1 of the 1960 World Series between the Pirates and Dodgers and I thought of DeLillo when I chose to include a piece of transcript from that tape.

Now there is another connection, still fleeting.  According to Dr. J. Todd Moye on the Baby Got Books site, the DeLillo archives at the University of Texas contain notebooks of notes jotted by DeLillo after leafing through issues of LIFE magazine from 1951, which was one of Smith’s prime years at LIFE.  It may have been his pinnacle, publishing four major essays including “Spanish Village” and “Nurse Midwife.”  I’d like to see any notes DeLillo made about those essays.

-Sam Stephenson

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A Moon Over Pittsburgh

By Dan Partridge

Although the Jazz Loft Project book, radio series, and exhibition are all out there for viewing and listening, we continue to catalog W. Eugene Smith’s audio archive. If you are able to check out the Chicago Cultural Center version of our exhibition, you can hear the handiwork of Greg Lunceford (associate curator at Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs) who integrated several fascinating selections of loft recordings into the current show. Some of these selections are being heard for the first time, as they were pulled from new material we’ve recently discovered. In the following months, we plan to regularly present some installments on this blog that survey other interesting tapes and recent finds from Smith’s recordings. The following pieces represent selections I selected for a presentation as a kind of swan song to some of the more lyrical types of content that resonated with each other and Smith’s comments about a moon over Pittsburgh, with a nod to New Orleans.

Back in May, at the Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) 44th annual conference in New Orleans, I was lucky to give a presentation on the Jazz Loft Project along  with Christopher Lacinak, the founder and president of AudioVisual Preservation Solutions (AVPS). Along with Kevin O’Neill and Matt Thompson (when they all worked for Vidipax), Christopher and this team consulted with us and engineered the digitization of the first 300 reels of audio tape from W. Eugene Smith’s archive, in partnership with the Jazz Loft Project at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona. It was an honor to represent the Jazz Loft Project at this conference, especially along with Christopher, whose ongoing involvement as a friend of and adviser to the project is invaluable. Treat yourself to a look at the AVPS blog and twitter feed, if you get the chance.

In his part of the presentation, Christopher Lacinak showcased an image of a plank from the floor of 821 Sixth Avenue. Footsteps on these boards are often audible on the tapes Smith made in the loft building. Smith would sometimes drill holes in the floor to make way for microphone housing and cables. Lacinak explained the way that Smith would experiment with different speeds and techniques of recording, often on the same reel of tape. Since Christopher was generous enough to frame the project and explain much of the technical procedure, our work, and how that interfaced with engineering the audio; I was able to present a  of rhapsody  of recordings from the Jazz Loft Project audio archive.  As we were at  the ARSC convention, and celebrating this work, the selections I chose were mainly musical.

New Orleans born Danny Barker, who shows up at the loft at a New Year’s Eve party to usher in 1960 with a banjo melody that lulls, then accelerates in stages, to quadruple time. This song includes one of the few moments from this party when the revelers quiet down to listen to the music.

Roland Kirk playing a solo on multiple horns where he utilizes circular breathing to maintain one long note. On this recording, Paul Bley shows up and joins in on a song that started off with Kirk counting out the rhythm to fellow saxophonist Jay Cameron. You can hear a Roland Kirk tune on our Chaos Manor playlist but this was the first time this one had been heard in public.

Similarly, I excerpted a piece that extends beyond track 9 on playlist Chaos Manor that features Sonny Rollins and Hall Overton in conversation at the New School for Social Research, in New York on June 29, 1963. On tenor sax, Rollins demonstrates a harmonic series of eleven double tones, framing them in an imitation of American Indian chants. In addition to this demonstration, he discusses his use of different extended techniques with Overton. You can hear the beginning of this on the playlist.

A fragment of a wild tenor sax solo from multi-instrumentalist Eddie Listengart. Smith made what may be the only record of Listengart’s musical genius since he was likely never recorded anywhere besides the loft. It was probably not long, within a year or two after this recording was made, that Listengart was institutionalized and he never returned to the jazz world.

Sonny Clark, playing My Funny Valentine from the ashes of a group jam session, at the end of a tape. This session was most likely late summer, 1961. Clark overdosed and was revived in the loft by means of amateur CPR. If he hadn’t survived this overdose, he wouldn’t have made the sessions that he played on over the next year and a half before his untimely death in January of 1963, including the November ’61 session for his last album, Leapin’ and Lopin’. What emerges is an example of how  theses late night jam sessions could produce moments of unexpected beauty that rewarded Smith for his obsessive recording and the depth of understanding he brought to the process.

And on that note, we feature Smith’s explanation of one page from his photographic and textual essay on Pittsburgh in the 1959 Photography Annual. Smith references a photograph of a dancing couple holding hands that he placed, stamp-like, in the upper right hand corner of this page titled “Of cathedrals, inclines and a sight of the moon.” Beneath it, he placed the photograph of a majestic nighttime Pittsburgh cityscape skyline featuring a full moon in the return address corner of the image. This photograph is juxtaposed with one of steelworker housing (presumably) with the shot-from-above picture offering no skyline. And steep stairs (“mighty climbs to workers homes are thoroughly characteristic”) that extend skyward, disappearing into the shadows of some trees, and likewise into that return address corner of the frame. Regarding this, here is my transcription of what Smith had to say to an as of yet unidentified interviewer:

Conflicts, contradictions, suggestions. On the next page the Love turned into a touch of a man in a woman at a dance, just holding hands. Which again, I just wanted, not as “a great photograph,” “a great statement..” I don’t care whether they saw the photograph or not up there in the corner. I just wanted them to kind of feel it. As we talk more about the city, and reportorially I wanted to say: Look the skies are clear, you can now see a moon occasionally in Pittsburgh without it being a depressing thing. And here, I think it’s where it’s kind of important a time to uh, to know enough about the background, say, to know that at one time: Can you imagine someone who has always been romantically involved with the moon? You know, and just loved it, rather on a farm or a city. Would they ever realize or take into their artistic consideration that a moon over Pittsburgh could have at one time meant real hardship, etcetera­, because a moon over Pittsburgh meant that work was not happening at the plants and therefore you saw the moon. You were immediately depressed because you knew it meant hunger, and hardship. And the whole, and the moon takes on a different connotation. But you’ve got to know that before you can utilize it in a layout, and before you can think about it. And so, the whole thing started developing from those first three pictures, you see. And so, Love kept developing, the other things kept developing in that way, and um, and so Thompson said the layout was a mishmash.

If you’re interested in seeing these W. Eugene Smith Pittsburgh photographs, check out the book Sam Stephenson edited Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project. In many ways, this work explains where Smith was coming from as he segued into his life in the loft at 821 Sixth Avenue.

-Dan Partridge

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Diane Arbus in Gene Smith’s Loft

Below is a photograph called “Diane Arbus in Gene Smith’s Loft” by Dave Heath circa 1960.  Several years ago I interviewed Dave in Toronto and he told me Smith taped the conversations that night.  Jazz Loft Project Research Associate and chief archivist Dan Partridge hasn’t heard that tape, yet.  But he’s still got about 900 to 1000 compact discs remaining to be heard.  This is one of the most interesting tape sessions of Smith’s that we’ve been told about but not found in the collection, yet.

diane arbus in gene smith loft jpg

The other exciting tapes we’ve heard about but not found, yet, are with Ornette Coleman playing piano.  We’re told he’d let himself into the loft in the mid-1960s and play the Baldwin baby grand that Gene and Carole Thomas inherited on the 5th floor when Jimmy and Sandy Stevenson moved out.  Carole said Gene recorded a lot of those solo piano sessions.  I asked Ornette about it last year and he replied, “If she said it happened then it probably did.  Let me know if you find those tapes.”  Gene wrote a letter of support for Ornette’s successful late 1960′s Guggenheim Fellowship application (Gene won three Guggenheim awards in his career).

-Sam Stephenson

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IN MY MIND – The Long Road to a New, Exciting JLP Outcome

On September 7, 2006 I drove to Guglhupf Bakery and Café in Durham for lunch with the new director of Duke Performances, Aaron Greenwald.  We had never met.  Little did we know how much the work of Duke Performances and the Jazz Loft Project and the Center for Documentary Studies would come to overlap.  This week, more than three and a half years later, the latest product of the collaboration, a beautiful film called IN MY MIND by CDS filmmakers Gary Hawkins and Emily LaDue, will be unveiled in Durham at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival (see poster by CDS designer Bonnie Campbell below).  It is an outcome of JLP that we never could have expected, or produced ourselves, and therefore it feels like a unique and meaningful milestone for everyone involved.  Here’s a look back at the meandering path:

As Aaron and I munched sandwiches at Guglhupf that day, he described his ambitions to present a series of concerts in the fall of 2007 to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Thelonious Monk’s birth in Rocky Mount, N.C. about ninety miles from Durham.  His vision was that Duke Performances could do more to connect with the fertile region from which Duke University’s vast endowment had grown, literally; the Duke family fortune originated in the tobacco fields.  Aaron knew that I had studied Monk as part of the JLP.  He didn’t know that I grew up in “little” Washington in North Carolina’s coastal plains and I felt a kinship with Monk, valid or not, based on our shared soil (not just the birth home but the Monk ancestral home in nearby Newton Grove) and Monk’s heavy southern accent which can be heard clearly on Smith’s tapes.  Over the following fourteen months my Jazz Loft colleagues Dan Partridge, Sarah Moye, and I worked with Aaron and his staff on a near daily basis.

In September and October of 2007 Duke Performances presented Following Monk, a stunning series of eighteen events including the likes of the Kronos Quartet, Jason Moran, Charles Tolliver, Charlie Haden and Hank Jones, Randy Weston, Kenny Barron, Andy Bey, Henry Butler, Jessica Williams, Jerry Gonzales, Johnny Griffin, Barry Harris, Paul Jeffrey, Alonzo King’s LINES ballet, writers Stanley Crouch and Robin D.G. Kelley, and more.  CDS and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz were co-sponsors of the series.  A number of Monk’s relatives from eastern North Carolina attended the shows.

Following Monk Sticker_web

During Following Monk CDS radio documentarian John Biewen created an NPR segment which was aired nationally on Monk’s birthday, “Digging Up Thelonious Monk’s Southern Roots,” featuring Monk’s son, T.S. Monk.  I wrote a cover story for the Oxford American’s annual music issue, “Is this Home?” concerning Monk’s return to North Carolina in May of 1970 to play for two weeks at Raleigh’s legendary Frog & Nightgown club.  Following Monk was covered by all the mainstream and alternative media outlets in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area.  Monk was in the air.  It felt like a significant achievement.

The cornerstones of Following Monk were two shows paying homage to Monk’s historic Town Hall concert from February 27, 1959, the first time Monk had performed his music with a big band.  The tentet arrangements were conceived and rehearsed by Monk and Hall Overton on the fourth floor of 821 Sixth Avenue, a diligent process that was documented by W. Eugene Smith in photographs and tapes.  In one Following Monk show trumpeter Charles Tolliver led his tentet through a powerful, near note-for-note re-performance of Monk’s original concert.  In the second, Jason Moran and his Big Bandwagon, an octet, created a seminal 75-minute piece called IN MY MIND.  The mixed media piece went back-and-forth in time, making explicit use of Smith’s photographs and tapes from Monk’s rehearsals, while evoking the Monk family’s Newton Grove homeland and blending elements of Jason’s own autobiography.

Moran’s connection to Jazz Loft in the first place was serendipity.  Let me backtrack.  In March of 2005 New York Times writer Ben Ratliff visited CDS for three days researching the first major story on the JLP.  Then, in the fall of 2006, not long after Aaron and I had lunch at Guglhupf, Ratliff interviewed Jason Moran on-stage at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  Jason talked a lot about Monk and he mentioned a gig in San Francisco for SFJAZZ in mid-2007 in which he would lead a tentet, with T.S. Monk on drums, performing new, yet-to-be-written transcriptions of Monk’s original Town Hall arrangements.  After the program Ratliff asked Jason, have you ever heard about the Jazz Loft Project and Eugene Smith’s documentation of Monk’s Town Hall rehearsals?  Jason answered no, but left intrigued.  I got my first email inquiry from him in November 2006.  Over the next eleven months Jason visited CDS and Duke many times.  We made a pilgrimage to Newton Grove with Jason’s videographer, visiting Monk’s Crossroads and the Monk Plantation, the grave of Monk’s father’s brother, John Jack Monk, who never left Newton Grove and lived to be 102 (outliving his nephew Thelonious) and we ate barbecue at Eddie’s Cafe.  Jason also sent the expert transcriber David Weiss to CDS for several painstaking days in our offices transcribing Monk’s Town Hall rehearsals from Smith’s tapes into charts for Jason’s band to play.  The resulting IN MY MIND premiered in October 2007 as part of Following Monk. It was co-commissioned by partners Aaron lined up, SFJazz, Chicago Symphony Center, and the Washington (D.C.) Performing Arts Society and it traveled to those cities.

The success of Following Monk led Duke’s President Richard Brodhead and Provost Peter Lange to boldly support a risky new project in New York City February 26-27, 2009, a presentation of Tolliver’s tentet concert and Moran’s IN MY MIND at Town Hall to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Monk’s original concert in that space.  By this time, Lauren Hart had joined me and Dan Partridge on JLP staff and we did everything we could to help Aaron and his staff.  At times it felt perilous, like a potential disaster, mostly for reasons out of our control.  I think Aaron felt like his job could be on the line.  People told us we were naive not to have somebody like Denzel Washington or Clint Eastwood introduce the concerts.  Nobody would show up without the celebrities.  (Three months before our Town Hall shows I gave pre-concert talks before three nights of Monk shows at Jazz at Lincoln Center and TV stars Soledad O’Brien and Courtney B. Vance introduced and narrated the three concerts).  But Aaron resisted.  With Duke’s support, he put the music on a pedestal and the ticket prices were held at relative low levels.  The Hall was about two-third’s full both nights and it felt raw and energized, not a refined culture-night-out.  Tolliver’s concert was broadcast live by WNYC: New York Public Radio, our collaborator on the Jazz Loft Project Radio Series, and I joined their “Evening Music” host Terrance McKnight in the broadcast booth.  More than thirty Monk relatives chartered a bus from the New Haven, CT area to Town Hall for IN MY MIND. The concerts were received well by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times twice here and here,, and New York magazine, among others.  Some of the informal feedback from pros and purists in attendance heartened us the most.

With support from CDS director Tom Rankin and associate directors Greg Britz and Lynn McKnight, CDS film director Gary Hawkins and producer Emily LaDue videotaped the Town Hall performance of IN MY MIND with seven cameras operated by students from their advanced video course along with cinematographer Steve Milligan.  After a year of intensive editing by Hawkins and LaDue, the highly anticipated results will be unveiled at the Full Frame Documentary Film festival later this week, on Friday night at 10:30pm.  We’ve seen early cuts.  Gary and Emily have created a vital piece of work, weaving poignant interviews with Jason and his band into the concert footage.  It achieves a difficult double entendre:  It pays homage to history while rendering fresh, new expressions, making it a tremendous example of documentary art.  I don’t know of anything like it among jazz films of recent times.  It transcends jazz and will be engaging to people who know little about jazz.  Gary and Jason Moran will do Q&A after the screening.

IN MY MIND will have its New York premier at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center on April 19.  Jason and Gary will do Q&A after this screening, too.

Looking back over the twelve year history of the Jazz Loft Project (eight years full-time), IN MY MIND is an outcome with so many integral roles.  That kind of teamwork makes it all the more meaningful.

-Sam Stephenson


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New Playlist on the Sounds Section of our Website

Check out Savoy, the new playlist on the Sounds section of our website. These tracks feature words from Mary Lou Williams, W. Eugene Smith, Weegee, and Hall Overton; some nice bass and cello solos; and three tune fragments that Smith recorded on the ends of their respective tape reels (hence the abrupt endings).  -Dan Partridge

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Late Night Radio

In the month of February WNYC is treating us with The Jazz Loft Anthology, rebroadcasts of Sara Fishko’s amazing 10-part series.  Her assembled segments are running every Monday night in February at 10pm.  We love this nocturnal schedule.  I’d estimate that 80% of Smith’s tape work was done after dark, maybe more.  Virtually all of the jazz sessions were at night – or deep morning.  Even when he was recording things off radio and TV, or when he was recording phone calls or random loft sounds, most of the time it was at night.  Maybe that’s when he was drinking the most scotch and pounding amphetamine pills?  Maybe it was simpler than that; maybe the most unique sounds are at night.  The daytime is normal; amateur hour.  Who knows?

This appeals to me.  I spend a lot of time listening to WFAN sports radio out of New York City late at night.  For twenty years we’ve been able to pick it up down here in North Carolina after dark.  Other than the summer of 1988 I’ve never lived in New York but I’ve felt at home there since I was fourteen.  I’ve made ninety-three trips to the city as part of this project.  Back home, almost every night I listen to at least a few minutes of WFAN.  It connects me to the city.  Sometimes it’s right before I go to bed.  Other times it’s 3am when I’m suddenly awake and trying to fall back to sleep.  WFAN’s nighttime hosts Steve Somers and Tony Paige are sublime.  Somers is a brilliant comedian.  Sometimes Paige will have legendary, 83 year-old saxophonist Lou Donaldson call into his show in the wee hours after Lou is done with a gig at the Village Vanguard.  Lou will talk about the gig but more often they talk about baseball or boxing or whatever.  Lou was a highly regarded third baseman in a semi-pro Negro league in his hometown of Badin, North Carolina.  Hearing them makes you glad to be alive and awake.  I hope their conversations are being recorded and preserved.

Sara Fishko and I once had a conversation about WFAN.  It’s one of the places where vernacular is alive and well.  24 hour sports radio was considered preposterous before WFAN began circa 1988.  Now every city has at least one all-sports station.  Here in Raleigh-Durham we have two excellent ones with top notch local sports talk.

Sara told me she had the idea one time of a 24-hour arts talk radio station.  There’d be some planned programming, concerts, etc., the same way sports talk stations have live games.  But the arts station would be mostly interview and live call-in shows.  I got excited about this.  Can you imagine some fanatic in Queens or the Bronx calling into the station at 3am to argue over whether some unknown viola player in Argentina was better than the terrific Lesley Robertson of the St. Lawrence String Quartet?  It would be fantastic.

-Sam Stephenson

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Smith on Robert Frank

In 1995, I made my first visit to the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, where I now work with the Jazz Loft Project. I went there on a field trip as part of Bill Bamberger’s documentary photography class at UNC to see a photography exhibition of Robert Frank’s The Americans. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is presenting these Frank photographs through January 3, 2010 as “Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans .” Frank made these photographs  from 1955-56 and Smith moved into the loft in 1957.   The Americans would make excellent prerequisite viewing before seeing and hearing Smith’s work as part of The Jazz Loft Project exhibition which debuts at the Library for Performing Arts at Lincoln Center on February 17, 2010.

Robert Frank’s photography comes up on a 1965 recording from the loft where W. Eugene Smith and Carole Thomas are discussing the possibility of creating a magazine called Sensorium with a potential partner and backer named Virgil Cory. Smith planned to publish a fully realized essay of his loft photographs with a flexi disc of loft recordings in the debut issue, but the magazine never came out. While elucidating his vision regarding the ideal relationship between photographers and editors, Smith compares Robert Frank to Franz Kafka. The following is a fragment from their dialogue, transcribed by yours truly, with an interpretative punctuation scheme based on how it sounds.

–Dan Partridge, Jazz Loft Project Research Associate

W. Eugene Smith and Carole Thomas talk to Virgil Cory about Robert Frank and Franz Kafka, with a nod to Norman Mailer (1965)

W. Eugene Smith: I simply will not, under no circumstances, accept the word “objective reporting.” A man can be as honest as he possibly can, and possibly he will be approaching the truth… maybe not, depending on his own abilities, his perception, his knowledge. I’m sure Norman Mailer, for instance, is an honest guy, but sometimes I think he blows the bloody truth, right out the… uh, exhaust pipe, just by the own intensity of his feelings on certain matters. And this is what I tried to point out, the difference in my opinion, one of the differences between the so called, (I phrased it once fairly well, but uh, I don’t think I can remember now) the so called, say “free artist” and the disciplines of the journalist. It’s not that actually, as for the ability of creating this final work, I think there’s an equal chance, but um, the artist, the free artist….gee, I can’t remember how I…

Carole Thomas: Well, I think the main point of it was that there is… it’s true there are certain responsibilities on both ends but when they’re presented, if the so called “free artist’s” work is presented as journalism…

Smith: …Thank you. Now, for instance, there’s a young photographer by the name of Bob Frank. I think one of the better photographers in the world that I know of, but he, he’s kind of a Franz Kafka.  Kafka, I don’t think, is a good journalist, if you’re presenting him as a journalist. And I don’t think you can present Bob Frank, say “here’s a journalistic, photographic journalistic report,” but you use these people for their qualities, you present them for what they are: “Here’s a very unique insight, a man of great talent and…” Present it. And use it that way, instead of…

Thomas: But without as much responsibility to his subject.

Smith: Yeah, you present it as the prejudices of a man. And you can learn an awful lot:  “Gee, I’m certainly glad we have a Kafka around…. I’m glad we have a Mailer around.” I think an editor’s job is to have the wisdom to use the greatness of others to create a totality of a magazine or whatever he’s editing into a greatness.

Thomas: And to know the difference between the two different aspects.

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Not Giving Up on Jazz in NYC

This week there was an interesting email roundtable on Nate Chinen’s blog.  The last two entries, by Andrey Henkin and Ben Ratliff, ponder whether New York City is still the best “farm” (Ratliff’s term) for jazz.  I like Ratliff’s hopeful wish for the future.

Back in the spring of 1964 Gene Smith made a priceless nocturnal recording on the fifth floor of 821 Sixth Avenue in which he caught saxophonist Zoot Sims and others lamenting the decline of the scene.  The clubs were dead, they said; the jam session scene was dead, too.  Zoot described resorting to a gig playing with strippers in Boston.  Bassist Vinnie Burke suggested there was a pall cast by JFK’s assassination (November 1963).  “It’s like Lincoln repeating itself,” said Burke.  Later in the morning saxophonist Clarence Sharpe knocked on the door and entered with his wife Shofreka.  Within minutes he and Zoot were blowing a blues, soloing and trading fours for about ten minutes.  Then, Smith’s tape ran out, mid-tune, and we have no idea what happened next.

We know the music lived on in general.  Zoot recorded several classic albums after 1964 (including this and this among many others) and C-Sharpe played enough good music to inspire Stanley Crouch to write a moving piece about him in the Village Voice on March 24, 1987 (I wish I could link to the piece but it doesn’t appear to be online).  Crouch called C-Sharpe “a figure glowing in the shadows.”

In today’s Times Ratliff and Chinen list their top 10 albums of 2009 and they offer a number of recorded reasons to believe the music isn’t dead.  But the possibility that the music might harvest more successfully on farms outside of NYC in the 21st century is interesting to ponder.  Certainly, at mid-20th century, the scene at 821 Sixth Avenue could have happened nowhere other than NYC.

- Sam Stephenson

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A Certain Amount of Patience

Ethan Iverson of the seminal jazz trio, the Bad Plus, has one of the most thoughtful blogs in not only jazz but all of music and the arts in general.  Like all good blogs Iverson’s is a public service.  The long study he did a couple of years ago on jazz records released from 1973 to 1990 – when jazz was supposed to be dead – was classic, and important.  His interviews are remarkable, too, including the recent one with Tootie Heath.

So I was pleased when somebody told me he’d written about the Jazz Loft Project last week.  Here is a link to his brief mention (scroll down a bit).

In the first sentence of his entry he writes that “you need a certain amount of patience with some of the tracks” on the Jazz Loft Project web playlists.  We aren’t entirely sure what Iverson means, but whatever he means we completely agree.  His comment provoked some banter among JLP staff this morning, reflections on the last decade of our work on this project, and a little bit of wry joking:  “If he’s impatient with these tracks, then wait until he hears cats meowing, or eight hours of hammering, sawing, and drilling (as Smith and Jimmy Stevenson were preparing the loft for a city building inspector in 1963), or four hours of John Doe (name withheld to protect the innocent) drinking and noodling on the piano, or all those callers to Long John Nebel’s radio show talking about UFO’s and alien abductions…”

Joking aside, Iverson’s comment jibes with our belief that the most lasting value of these tapes will be cultural and anthropological and historical, not musical, despite some really good moments of music on the tapes (which Iverson also points out).  The bassist Steve Swallow, who lived next door at 823 Sixth Avenue for a time, told us:  “Those jam sessions may have been more fun to play than they are to listen to.”  In Chamber Music magazine I was quoted by Gene Santoro saying, “We almost don’t care whether (the music) is good or not.  In some ways the bad stuff is almost more interesting.  History isn’t just spectacular moments; like James Baldwin wrote, its millions of anonymous moments, too.  That’s what we’re interested in: the human story, the texture of these lives.”

I began working on this project in 1998, but we didn’t hear any of these tapes until the summer of 2002 when we’d finally raised enough money to start making the gourmet transfers to digital files.  (Smith’s archive at the University of Arizona had a rightful policy that the tapes had to be properly preserved before we could hear them, fearing catastrophic loss during improper playback).  The reputation of Smith’s tapes wasn’t particularly good.  When he quit a high profile job at LIFE, gave up a big salary and expense account, and ended up in this derelict loft making tape after tape after tape, the photography world thought Gene Smith had once and for all lost it.  Maybe he had.

One of the things we noticed in hearing the first tapes was that the pitch wasn’t consistent.  The problem could be that Smith’s original tapes were recorded at a slightly different speed – a tad faster or slower – than the equipment setting (usually 3.75 inches per second or 7.5 inches per second).  It’s not an unusual issue with old reel-to-reel tapes and our expert consultants picked up on it immediately in our first batch of recordings.  From that date we made a philosophical decision to make “flat” transfers; i.e. to duplicate and preserve what is recorded on Smith’s tapes as closely as we could.  What you hear on our playlists is the sound found on the reels.

The pitch differences affect not only the music but the speaking voices, which can be especially maddening when you are trying to identify voices on a given tape.  Is that Hall Overton speaking?  It doesn’t quite sound like him on this other reel.  Is that Gil Coggins?  Is this same Judy the same Judy on this other reel?  Does this person sound drunk or high or have a bad cold?

Since the summer of 2003, JLP Research Associate and primary tape listener Dan Partridge has reported to work, donned headphones, and patiently listened to approximately 3,500 compact discs (to date) of material recorded by Gene Smith.  Dan expects to have heard every single Smith tape – 5089 compact discs – by summer 2011.  Dan has become one of the most specialized employees at Duke University.  There’s only one person in the world that can do this work; that can recognize the speaking voices of Alice Coltrane and Eddie Listengart and Jimmy Stevenson and Carole Thomas.  There’s a good chance that when human history ends Dan will be the only being to have heard every second of Smith’s tapes.

Even during some of the best moments on the tapes you have to be patient, such as one night when Roland Kirk is in the loft in 1964 talking about opening up a jazz club of his own.  While Kirk is talking, the brilliant bass player Henry Grimes is across the room woodshedding on his bass with a bow, making some of Kirk’s words hard to hear.  Phil Woods and Steve Lacy were also compulsive noodlers on their saxophones (great guys, too, we learned in the oral history part of our project).  Sometimes, when we are honing in on interesting talk in the room, we just want to reach through the headphones, grab their horns, and muffle them so we can hear the conversation better.

Smith knew he was recording something rarely recorded; everyday life.  Documentarians do their best to fade into the vapor so they can capture real life, not something rehearsed or posed or packaged or self-conscious.  It’s hard to do, and the process includes many more misses than hits.  In September 1961, Smith recorded himself in conversation with loft resident Jimmy Stevenson and Alice Coltrane (McLeod at the time).  Stevenson asked Smith about the difference between his tapes and a formal demo or practice tape musicians make to promote themselves.  Smith answered:  “What you’d lose there (with the demo) is the very quality I’m after:  The wonderful spontaneity, the addition of the dialogue that happened, you couldn’t duplicate it, you see.  It’s just something that couldn’t be repeated, including the cat in heat wandering around, the wonderful side effects…”

* Update: Iverson responded to this post here. We hear that the Bad Plus and Aaron Greenwald are cooking up something unique and significant for the ’10-’11 Duke Performances season.  With these two minds on fire – Iverson and Greenwald – there’s no telling what might happen.  I’m excited to see what they come up with.  We hope it becomes official and that our paths cross then or before.

- Sam Stephenson

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Thanksgiving in the loft

Yesterday I asked longtime Jazz Loft Project Research Associate and primary tape listener Dan Partridge to mine Smith’s tapes for Thanksgiving material.  Here are a few samples of what he found.  This array of sound is fairly indicative of what you might find on any given sample of loft tapes:

In 1959, Thanksgiving Day was on November 26.  On November 23, Smith recorded a jam session with what sounds like several dozen people in the room.  It’s in the loft space of David X. Young and it sounds like a big party.  Several unnamed women are in the room, presumably girlfriends or wives.  You could imagine them having day jobs like the secretaries on the AMC show Mad Men but these women were probably more like the downtown pot smoker that Don Draper had an affair with in the first season of the show.

Musicians confirmed on this tape include Zoot Sims, Jon Eardley, Dick Scott, Bob Brookmeyer, John Mast, Bill Potts, Bill Takas, and Herb Geller.  The group plays a few standards and as always Zoot sounds like he’s playing a really important gig, passionate and effortless in the unique and infectious Zoot manner.  There is also a lot of talking, room chatter, and laughter.  Joints such as Martin’s Bar, Matty’s Towncrest, Junior’s (which was on ground floor of the Alvin Hotel at Broadway and 52nd Street) are mentioned.

Somebody says, “I’m playing the Macy’s Parade this year.”  We aren’t sure who that person is or what they were playing.

There are numerous recordings made by Smith after Kennedy’s election in November 1960, lots of news reports about the new administration.

On Thanksgiving Day 1960 Smith was in the loft talking with George Orick, an attorney who acted as Smith’s agent and counsel for a brief time.  Smith recorded much of the conversation.  Smith goes on and on, as he was wont to do, about his philosophy of photo editing, making disparaging remarks about LIFE magazine where he had logged a long, legendary career before resigning due to frustration in early 1955.  Orick had wandered into Smith’s chaotic loft world and was trying to help him.  Smith had a way of attracting helpers like this.  There was a series of them.  Most of them would throw up their hands and leave sooner or later, sometimes never talking to Smith again.  In this conversation Orick is trying to help Smith figure out a constructive way in which he could return to LIFE and, thus, regain his former, much-needed salary and benefits.  Orick left Smith less than a year later and he and his wife Emily wrote angry letters to him.

Thanksgiving, 1962, Smith recorded the late night radio talk show hosted by Long John Nebel on WOR.  Nebel announces:  “Tonight’s show is about prominent figures in Jewish history and our guest is Robert St. John, author of the new book, They Came from Everywhere:  Twelve who Helped Mold Modern Israel.”

Happy Thanksgiving (2009) to everyone.

- Sam Stephenson

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