Smith & Frank versus “Mad Men”

We are pleased by Martin Johnson’s new review of the Jazz Loft project book on the terrific website, The Root.  First, Johnson mentions Jazz Loft alongside our friend Robin D.G. Kelley’s great new biography of Monk and Terry Teachout’s new Armstrong biography as well as a new jazz history opus by Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux.  That’s good company.  I haven’t read the latter two books but surely will.  They’ve received much acclaim.

I like Johnson’s linking of Smith’s work to that of Smith’s longtime friend, Robert Frank.  I know Frank would appreciate that association and Smith would, too, if he were still around.  I also like the subtle contrast Johnson draws between their work and a new book of jazz album cover photos which Johnson likens to work done by advertising agencies depicted in AMC’s outstanding series set in early 1960s Manhattan, Mad Men.  “Searing” is the word Johnson uses to describe Frank’s work – a word the opposite of cool.  Jazz album cover art is the epitome of cool.  Both are necessary for rounding out the story of this period.

Backstage at a festival in Saratoga Springs in 2002 I heard a famous, younger female vocalist ask Roy Haynes about the “good ole days” of jazz and he responded:  “It was horrendous.  You went to work at 9pm and you played 6 forty-five minute sets for a room half full of people who were maybe paying attention, but more often not, and you left the joint at 3am with a few dollars in your pocket and a greasy dinner in your stomach.  I wouldn’t want to return to those days.  You did this five or six nights a week.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed playing the music, but it was a constant hustle it would have been better to avoid.”  Haynes is a beautiful contrarian by nature.  He likes to sear the conventional view.  But more often than not he’s right.  His point  jibes with our Jazz Loft research, too.  The scene was gritty and topsy-turvy.

Today you can go into Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware in a standard suburban mall almost anywhere in America and you might hear a muted trumpet by Miles Davis or Chet Baker, and you might find a coffee table book of album cover photographs available for purchase.  What won’t be revealed in these books are the sad, agonizing moments in 1964 when a middle-tier, thirty-five year old musician hocked his saxophone and went to work for a fire extinguisher company (I couldn’t make that up if I tried).

-Sam Stephenson

p.s. Last year Johnson also wrote an excellent piece in New York magazine about the Town Hall shows, particularly Jason Moran’s IN MY MIND, engineered by Aaron Greenwald of Duke Performances.

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