JLP Wins Award for “Innovative Use of Archives”

Yesterday we learned that the Archivist Roundtable of Metropolitan New York, Inc. has awarded the Jazz Loft Project with its annual award for Innovative Use of Archives.  There will be a reception and ceremony at Columbia University on October 20.  We’re told that previous winners of the award include the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, Ric Burns’ documentary on Coney Island, and Columbia University’s Mapping the African-American Past.  That’s good company.

This pleases us.  Archivists are a difficult lot to impress.  They naturally think in terms of decades or centuries.  Contemporary time means almost nothing to them.  JLP continues to receive a pulse of current publicity (click on the “news” section of our site) and we appreciate that, but this recognition by pros in the archival world is significant to us.

Without recapitulating my long JLP book acknowledgments, I want to stress that any innovative use of the JLP archives required long, complex collaborations and I should outline some of it here.  First and foremost, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University was a perfect home for this project. During the course of JLP, while dealing with the mind-boggling variety of material emanating from our oral history interviews, Smith’s photos, and especially Smith’s tapes, I could be heard saying, “We are one degree away from anything.”  So is CDS. Director Tom Rankin and associate directors Greg Britz and Lynn McKnight are to be lauded.  I don’t think JLP could have happened like it did anywhere else.  I can’t mention everybody who helped at CDS; so many played a role.

JLP Research Associate Dan Partridge is a centerpiece of it all.  Since 2003 he reported to work, donned headphones, and listened to Smith’s tapes daily.  He’s still doing it, he’s got about 7-800 hours he hasn’t heard, yet.  I’m confident that when human history ends Dan will be the only one to have heard everything.  Even Smith didn’t hear it all.  Sometimes Smith left the room, or the building, with the recorder running.  Unless somebody comes along with the time and resources and impetus to hear 5089 compact discs of sound, nobody will ever again hear what Dan has heard and cataloged.  He ought to get an honorary MA or doctorate from Duke as far as I’m concerned.

Kudos also to Lauren Hart, JLP Coordinator.  She joined the project two years ago just out of Hampshire College at a time of increasing chaos as we were organizing outcomes (the “innovative uses” we’re honored for here) and she shepherded everything, made sure it all happened, with the JLP website being her particular handiwork from conception to what you see now.

CDS Exhibitions director Courtney Reid-Eaton executed the JLP exhibition perfectly.  We had nearly 1000 people attend the opening at NYPL for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center and CRE oversaw that installation for two weeks, as well as the installation in Chicago.  The staff at NYPLPA – Jackie Davis, Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, and Sara Velez in particular and David Ferriero at the mid-town library, too – was essential, too.  NYPLPA’s public program during the exhibition, Hall Overton: Out of the Shadows was a highlight of the whole JLP for me (I can’t forget Sarah Ziebell and Cheryl Raymond for their roles at the library).  Many thanks also to Kim Rorschach and her staff at Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art for their support and contributions.  We are excited about the JLP show being at their great venue next spring, a “home stand” for JLP, so to speak, after living on the road.

Aaron Greenwald at Duke Performances initiated a collaboration with JLP in 2006, plotting 18-shows in the fall 2007, Following Monk, commemorating the 90th anniversary of Thelonious Monk’s birth in nearby Rocky Mount.  Cornerstones of that series were Jason Moran’s seminal In My Mind, an adventurous homage to Monk’s original Town Hall show using Smith’s documentation of Monk’s Town Hall rehearsals in 821 Sixth Avenue, and Charles Tolliver’s re-performance of Monk’s original show.  Then, in February 2009, with support from Duke’s President Dick Brodhead and Provost Peter Lange, Duke Performances and CDS presented these two shows in Town Hall on the fiftieth anniversary.

CDS filmmakers Gary Hawkins and Emily Ladue worked with seven CDS students to document Moran’s Town Hall concert and make an inspired film of In My Mind. A few months ago I wrote a long blog entry about that terrific piece of work.

Our colleagues at WNYC: New York Public Radio became valued friends and they made a monumental impact on all of JLP.  The producer of the JLP series, Sara Fishko, did beautiful work, and Exec. VP and director of programming, Dean Cappello, was supportive on countless levels.  In addition to their wonderful radio series and sundry associated publicity and programming on behalf of JLP, WNYC also broadcasted Charles Tolliver’s February 2009 Town Hall show live and they publicized and recorded Jason Moran’s In My Mind.   Hawkins and Ladue made use of WNYC’s sound for their In My Mind film.  Countless other staff members at WNYC contributed to all this.  Four parts of their series were broadcasted on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition over consecutive weeks last winter.  We are deeply thankful for WNYC’s role in the whole project.  For the past five years Sara also was a full-time brainstormer, a sounding board, for me and Dan Partridge, as we trudged through the material and content together, and her husband Bob Gill added a few poignant and timely pieces of advice, too.

Critically and centrally, there was my editor Victoria Wilson at Alfred A. Knopf, and book designer Peter Anderson, and editorial assistant Carmen Johnson, and publicists Kathy Zuckerman, Lena Khidritskaya, and Nora Brennan, and many more.  In the New York Times Dwight Garner called the book “chaotic,” “soulful,” and “elegiac,” and “a singularly weird, vital, and thrumming American document.”  I was fortunate to work with a publisher that appreciated the strangeness of this story and allowed it to be at the fore, while still producing something classy and beautiful.  Andrew Wylie, Sarah Chalfant, and Edward Orloff of the Wylie Agency were integral from the start as well.

The website was designed and built by the Splinter Group of Carrboro, N.C.  Steve Balcom and Lane Wurster went beyond the call of duty.  Their work was honored by Communication Arts magazine as a “Web Pick” last December.  New viewers continue to find our site every day.  Steve and Lane also helped us throw a great launch party in Durham last December.

There are countless other key roles, many lauded on this site before, such as the Reva and David Logan Foundation, who tracked me down and called me at home after my 1999 DoubleTake magazine piece was published, the first JLP salvo.  The Logans became the primary benefactors of the project, as I described in more detail in a previous blog entry.  There was also Ben Ratliff’s March 2005 New York Times piece that in many ways “broke” the story of Smith’s tapes and provided great momentum.  John G. Morris, founding executive of Magnum Photos and Smith’s original estate executor, had visited us in October 2004 and tipped the Times on the story.

So, to say the least, a sketch of the “innovative use of archives” for JLP would look like roots, a trunk, and branches of a tree, plus leaves and fruit (and some dead leaves and dead fruit, some broken limbs perhaps, some bark chewed off by a goat).

This brings me to the home ground of Smith’s materials, the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, our partner on JLP from Day 1.  We are grateful to them.  More than three decades ago they received two 18-wheel trucks of Smith’s materials shipped from New York City.  The shipment filled a high school gymnasium.  Among the debris were 1740 reels of tape.  CCP undertook the tedious task of making sense of that gymnasium, sorting and cataloging the materials and maintaining them in climate controlled conditions.  If they had not done what they did, the materials wouldn’t be available to us or anybody else.  Leslie Calmes and Amy Rule have done stellar work in that archive for many years.  Denise Gose and Dianne Nilsen in Rights and Reproductions have always been there for us, too.  I made my first visit to CCP in April 1997.  At the time I was naive, innocent, and had no idea what the next fourteen years would entail.

I’m leaving out many people.  The point is, it took a web of good people to pull off the “innovative use of archives” in this project.

Finally, Gene Smith was the one who created the materials.  Lo and behold we shouldn’t forget him.  Our “innovative use” was with his things.  He’s the real innovator here.  His family and estate, The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith, were essential to everything.

To be honest, there were times JLP felt impossible.  There were times when a less ambitious approach seemed smarter.  But we made it.  A group of archivists in New York think so, anyway.

-Sam Stephenson

1 Comment

  1. Mus14 Said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

    Congratulations on this award. You are most deserving of it. You give us really good content.