Jimmy’s Last Jam

Last week bass player and former resident of 821 Sixth Avenue James “Jimmy” Stevenson died at age seventy.  He was one of the youngest participants in the loft scene, having moved into the building at age twenty-two in the summer of 1961.  Originally from Detroit, James was the oldest of twelve children.  We were told by his son Star Stevenson, his nephew Tom Stevenson, and his ex-wife Sandy Krell that he died peacefully, surrounded by dozens of family members and loved ones.  Up to his last day he was singing and talking and enjoying his time.

I knew about Jimmy (as he was known in the loft) from an early stage in the project but I didn’t know much more than his name. Gene Smith had made an iconic photograph of him playing piano in the loft.  Smith used the image in his 1969 Aperture monograph and in his legendary 1971 exhibition at the Jewish Museum.  Smith’s tapes also had Jimmy’s name written on many labels.  But Jimmy wasn’t a part of the official American jazz annals and I had no idea who he really was or his role in the loft story.  Another obscure musician, saxophonist Ira Jackson, also from Detroit, was the first to tell me that Jimmy was a Detroit native.  In 2002 a volunteer for the project, Natalie Bullock Brown, submitted a random post to a Detroit jazz website asking anyone for information about Jimmy.

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Months passed and we forgot about Natalie’s post on the Detroit site.  We kept trying to find Jimmy by conventional means, which was proving to be painstakingly difficult.  Musicians from the loft hadn’t seen or heard from him in years.  Then in early 2003 we had a wonderful surprise.  Tom Stevenson randomly came across Natalie’s post.  He had been doing research on his grandfather (Jimmy’s father) also named James Stevenson, who had had a local TV show in Detroit in the early 1950s.  Tom’s google search for “James Stevenson” yielded Natalie’s post on the Detroit jazz site.  He was elated that somebody was interested in his uncle.  Tom put us in touch with Jimmy and Sandy.  It was a breakthrough in the project.  A major, unknown chapter in the story opened up.

Jimmy moved into the fifth floor of 821 Sixth Avenue in the summer of 1961 with Sandy and their baby son, Jimmy, Jr.  He had friendships with many Detroit musicians such as pianist Alice McLeod (Coltrane) and saxophonist Joe Henderson, both of whom sublet loft spaces from him in late 1961.  As we learned from more interviews and from Smith’s tapes, which by 2003 we were just beginning to understand, Jimmy was the host of some the loft’s great jam sessions.  There were so many sessions with so many different musicians that Gene Smith took to simply writing “Jimmy Jam” on reels recorded in Stevenson’s space.  Some of the musicians who played there were Ronnie Cuber, Sonny Clark, Lin Halliday, Roy Brooks, the McKinney brothers from Detroit, Booker Ervin, Clarence Sharpe, Eddie Listengart, Paul Plummer, Pete Yellin, Jane Getz, Gil Coggins, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Steve Swallow, and on and on.  On April 7, 1964, in a session with musicians such as Chick Corea, Joe Farrell, Joe Hunt, and countless others Smith wrote “Jimmy’s Last Jam.”  The next day Stevenson moved out and Smith took over the fifth floor of 821 Sixth Avenue.  It had been a long and substantial “career” for Stevenson in the building, an era that would have been almost entirely forgotten if it hadn’t been for the obsessive compulsions of Gene Smith.

In 2003 when I visited James (as he was known in his post-loft years) and his second wife, Suzanne Roach, they had a business selling wind chimes in a tent on the side of the road near Forestville, CA, a couple of hours north of San Francisco.  I made a date to meet James there during a two-week trip to visit other loft veterans in California in the summer of 2003 and I spent an afternoon with him.

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In 2004 James and Suzanne visited us for a week at the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS).  He listened to loft tapes and told us many stories.  He told us about driving to up-state New York for a duo bass and piano gig with Sonny Clark one night and they were stopped by cops who gave the African-American Clark a hard time because he didn’t have a photo ID.  James had been driving, so why did it matter so much that Clark didn’t have an ID?  Clark had with him several vinyl records he’d recorded on the Blue Note label and he held up one of them to the police – one with a big picture of himself on the cover – and he said, “This is me.”  Both James and Sonny ended up in jail, for no reason.

On December 12, 2009 I got two voicemails from James, one in my office and one on my cell phone.  Both messages were exuberant and warm.  It was a tone of voice I came to expect from him in the six and a half years I knew him.  Every time I talked to James he always asked about Jazz Loft Project Research Associate Dan Partridge, who began working for the project shortly after my 2003 California trip and who organized the tape listening sessions when James and Suzanne visited CDS in 2004.  In these two messages on December 12 he told me to give Dan his best regards.  I forwarded one of those messages to Dan.  In neither message did James indicate he was ill.  My wife and I had been traveling for the holidays and I planned to return James’ call after the New Year, but by then I’d gotten word from Sandy that he was on life support and would die in a few days.  A day later I heard from Star and Tom, both of whom indicated James had lived the life he wanted to live, without any regrets.

James is one of the numerous people I never would have met if it hadn’t been for Gene Smith’s tapes.  When James visited CDS to listen to the tapes in 2004 he made a statement that is one of my favorite passages in the Jazz Loft Project book:  “Hearing these tapes is like somebody playing back your memories for you, only these are memories you forgot you had.  But these aren’t just memories, this is real!”

Here is the obituary from the Santa Rosa (CA) Press Democrat.

- Sam Stephenson

8 Comments

  1. Elizabeth (Beth) Stevenson Buchanan Said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 11:17 am

    Dear Sam,
    I will be contacting you via email. I am Beth, The daughter of “Jimmy” Stevenson. I was born in 1963. I cannot express how much I appreciate all you did for our family. What an amazing work you accomplished. This book has reached so many people…but in such a profound way it has touched the heart of me and my family.

    It’s funny when we take on a project, we never realize who and how many we affect by that endeavor. I believe now more then ever that somethings are meant to be.

    Thank you for bringing such joy, happiness and peace to our family at this difficult time.

    With sincere appreciation,
    Beth Stevenson Buchanan

  2. Richard Mitnick Said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 7:24 pm

    Thanks for this kind of story. It goes way beyond the book.

  3. Suzanne Roach aka Artist Suzanne Said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 10:01 pm

    Dear Sam,

    Thanks for your loving tribute to James.
    We enjoyed the book so very much and I am so happy he saw it before he died. It meant a lot for him to see the finished product.
    We knew you and Dan worked long and hard on this plus raising all the money to complete it.
    It was an honor for me to play an itty bitty part with James in your getting it done.
    It is so wonderful for his children to know he played an important part in the NYC “Avant Garde” jazz scene.
    If it hadn’t been for The Cuban Missile Criss he and Gene might not have become friends.

    With love and respect,
    Suzanne

    arde

  4. Star Stevenson Said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 12:09 am

    I read the Jazz Loft Project in the comfort of my beautiful home on a overstuffed soft couch with a fine dark ink pen, sipping coffee in the morning or tea at night.

    I found the pages extremily comforting in the few days after my dads death. I was proud to hear that you had to have some “chops” to jam in the lofts; took solice in hearing that my father had done what he could to make the loft a better place for his friends.

    I wanted to blame my dad for his ailing health, BUT took serious solice in knowing that many of his contemporaries had died of overdose and diseases of excess while in the lofts or much earlier than my seventy year old dad!

    Funny to hear that Eugene used to take vertical pictures for the format of certain magazines, knowing that my dad took vertical pictures of his own, a process I never fully understood. Even funnier to hear my dad talking with Eugene Smith, only to have the phone ring with the person on the line wanting to know where my dad was (he was late for a meeting), a habit the carried on throughout his life!

    I smiled to think of my dad in his twenties, concerned with improving security and concerned for the musicians unions, funny, coming from a recently expired laid back ex-hippie!

    To have unwrapped this book as gift on Christmas morning, then take my dad into the hospital on Christmas night was surreal! The book came not a moment too late. It was simply the finest Christmas gift a son of a former Jazz cat could have.
    Thank-you
    Star Barry Stevenson

  5. Martin Eagle Said,

    January 14, 2010 @ 4:20 pm

    I played with Jimmy at the jazz loft, and at my own, as well as in several bands, including that of Don Ellis. He was a fine bass player and a good friend. I’d completely lost touch with him decades ago and was re-connected by the jazz loft project. When he came to Durham, he visited a jam I was running on 9th St. but, sadly, refused to play – said he hadn’t played in years.

    I’m grateful to Sam for putting us back in touch, and am truly saddened to hear of Jimmy’s death. He had a happy soul, and there are all too few of those.

  6. Tom Wayburn Said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 6:04 am

    In 1959, Jimmy and I came to New York (from Detroit) with practically no money in Jimmy’s old Plymouth. There is much more to the story, but I need time to digest the shock of his death. There is no one to tell me about Jimmy’s death except Sam or Jimmy himself. Mark Linn sent me an email about the Jazz Loft at the Lincoln Center library from which I found this blog.

  7. Sandy Stevenson Krell Said,

    February 16, 2010 @ 10:48 am

    Tommy
    I don’t know if you will read this but I want you to know that Jimmy and I talked about you the week before he died. Both Jim and I have very fond memmories of you from the loft. If you want to e-mail me and give me your phone number I will call you. My e-mail is tomandsandykrell@aol.com. Hope you are well. I would love to hear from you.

  8. Frank Amoss Said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 3:59 pm

    In the spring of 1961 I was living on the 5th floor of 821 6th Ave., sharing the loft with Dave Sibley. Jimmy Stevenson was a regular at the all night jam sessions. When Dave moved to Boston I asked Jimmy to share the loft with me, since I had been impressed by his friendliness and exuberance. He enthusiastically accepted and welcomed the opportunity to be involved in the scene on a full time basis.

    We spent that summer playing with and dealing with the foibles of the various musicians who found their way to that front room, overlooking 6th Ave. There were some glorious musical moments and some harrowing junkie instigated experiences.

    Jimmy and I debated the goals of being a New York musician. His ideal gig was to play be bop in a jazz joint, while my aspirations were in the direction of being a big-band and show drummer.
    By November of that same year I was disenchanted with the loft life style and jumped at the opportunity to sublet a basement apartment on W. 73rd. St.

    For the next few years Jimmy, Sandy and their infant son occupied the 5th floor. As an example of Jimmy’s sense of humor, Sandy once told me when they learned their newborn child was a boy, Jimmy suggested he be named Even.

    About three years after that I played once again with Jimmy. They were living in an apartment on Columbus Ave. (maybe Amsterdam Ave.) and we played for a singer named Jimmy Roselli at the Boulevard Club in Jackson Heights.

    I saw him one more time. He was walking through Times Square in what I recall as full Hippie regalia.

    I eventually migrated to Southern California. When I was first interviewed by Sam Stephenson for “The Jazz Loft Project” he mentioned Jimmy was living in Northern California. From that time on, I entertained the thought that one day I would be able to visit with him; perhaps in conjunction with a trip to San Francisco. Unfortunately I didn’t act in a timely manner. I was unaware of his ill health and his passing was sudden.
    I have fond memories of living and playing in the loft during the summer of ’61 and Jimmy Stevenson will always be a large part of them.