A Milestone Week for the Jazz Loft Project

Last week the Jazz Loft Project exhibition opened at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in New York.  CDS exhibitions director Courtney Reid-Eaton installed the show beautifully, working with LPA chief curator Barbara Cohen-Stratyner and LPA’s audio-visual services manager Michael Diekmann.  Jazz Loft colleagues Dan Partridge and Lauren Hart contributed heavily to the show going back months and years, and CDS photographer Harlan Campbell made the excellent blow-ups and banners.  It was a milestone moment for a project that dates back to the 1990s.

More than 600 people attended the opening reception on February 16, a splendid night after a day-long wet snow in the city.  (Check back soon for photos and video from the event, either here or on our exhibition page).

In the show we are projecting 16mm film footage of Gene Smith working in the loft.  It was shot by David X. Young in 1970 – a few years after the jazz scene had died down.  Last week on opening night, frame maker David Rothman watched the footage attentively.  He had moved into the loft shortly after the footage was shot, not long after Gene Smith had been evicted.  He watched the complete film loop and came up to me:  “I saw the old gas space heater that I inherited from Gene.  The gas was piped in from outside.  It was metered behind the building.  Some of the guys who lived in the loft before me had built exterior walls around the meters to hide them in the alley.  So when the meter readers came by they didn’t find any meters to read.”

Rothman’s roots in the loft ran deep.  His father, collage artist and frame maker Henry Rothman had employed Dave Young in his shop around the corner on 28th St. and he tipped off Young on the availability of that space in 1954.  Young David Rothman, an aspiring clarinetist, had wandered into the loft as a teen in the late 1950s to listen to Jimmy Giuffre.  Rothman gave up the clarinet and followed his father in frame making.  Today some consider him the best frame maker in the city.

After the reception we went to the outstanding, old-school restaurant on West 60th St., Gabriel’s, and broke bread with about 20 Loft Project principals, including our integral leaders of CDS, Tom Rankin, Greg Britz, and Lynn McKnight, along with Smith’s son, Kevin Eugene Smith, and Dan and Gloria Logan of the Reva and David Logan Foundation, whose support allowed the project to unfold over the past decade.  Also notable for their presence were my wife and parents, longtime Jazz Loft colleague Dan Partridge and his mother, and our aforementioned colleagues Harland and Courtney.  Special mention should be made of attendee Carol Buuck of Tucson, AZ, an old friend of my wife Laurie Cochenour, who once lived and worked in Tucson.  In traveling 2500 miles to visit Smith’s archive at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona more than twenty times, I’ve never once paid for lodging, thanks to Carol (plus our friends Linda, Dane, and Jimmy Armijo in Tucson, too).  Also present was the creator of the exquisite JLP radio series, Sara Fishko and her husband, legendary graphic artist Bob Gill, who visited the loft to see his friend, photographer Harold Feinstein in the 1950s.  This precise group will probably never dine together again.

The next night, February 17, the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund rented out the exhibition gallery and had a private reception for 37 people.  Friends on the Fund board – Aaron Schindler, David Friend, and Bill Hunt, among others – welcomed us there.  John G. Morris, a longtime friend of Smith and a founder of Magnum Photos as well as the Smith Fund itself, long ago introduced me to these generous folks who keep Smith’s flame alive by giving out a prestigious annual award.  Also joining the event were Courtney and Dan Partridge, Kevin Smith and Dan and Gloria Logan.  I gave a talk and Kevin and Courtney chimed in.  Friendships were rekindled and kindled.

The following night Dan Partridge and I attended the meeting of the New York Chapter of the Association of Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC).  We were invited and gracefully hosted by Dave Nolan.  The meeting was held on White St. in Tribeca, at the home of the Archive of Contemporary Music (ACM) which is run by Bob George.  I spoke, along with our old friend Chris Lacinak of AV Preserve.  Chris was the original engineer who masterfully preserved the first half of the Smith loft audio collection.  Chris’s talk was inspiring and enlightening.  I never fail to learn something from these pros in the fields of valuing old things and saving them.  There’s something metaphysical and haunting about what they do.

One interesting thing we learned that night is that behind ACM’s Tribeca brownstone is the two-story apartment of Leo DiCaprio.  We peered out across the alley, Rear Window-style, and leered at Leo’s hip, downtown crib.  We didn’t see him anywhere.  He was probably at the gym, or he was a block away at Tribeca Grand bar having a martini.  You could tell Leo’s place oozed hipness, with a soft copper glow.  He’s got an outdoor pool crammed into the alley in between his place and ACM.  The pool was covered by a stretched sheet or awning of semi-translucent outdoor fabric which is lit from beneath.  The scene looked minimalist Japanese.  Meanwhile, ACM was your typical clubhouse of audio fanatics.  It had ancient, dusty planks, dingy walls that hadn’t been painted since the Watergate years, and fluorescent lighting hanging from wires.  They had green plastic resin chairs set up in rows, and they had two-liter bottles of soda served in paper cups.  It was perfect.  The only thing that matters to these guys is sound, good sound.  They had wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling vinyl records including a Robert Johnson record of a vintage that is apparently only one of ten known to survive.  It made me think of Marybeth Hamilton’s comment that the Delta blues were born in a YMCA in Brooklyn.* If Gene Smith were alive he’d be living in something like this place, not Leo’s pad.  Although he’d probably coax Leo into loaning him some money.

Finally, on Friday, February 19, I spoke to about 40 jazz students at Juilliard in a class hosted by the brilliant pianist Frank Kimbrough.  It was meaningful to be there, the former employer of Hall Overton, speaking to kids who 50 years ago might have been at 821 Sixth Avenue instead of Juilliard.  We had to shut down the class meeting mid-stream at the 2-hour mark.  The kids dug into the story, engaged Smith’s photos and tapes.  They asked great questions and made insightful comments that I learned from.

All in all, it was a wonderful week in this history of this project.  When you are closer to the end of a project than the beginning and a week like this happens, you can only feel thankful and grateful and deeply fortunate.

-Sam Stephenson

*See her provocative book, In Search of the Blues.

1 Comment

  1. Tom Wayburn Said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 9:32 am

    Hi David,

    How are you doing? I am happy to hear of your success in frame making. I always knew you were talented.

    Tom