The Making of the Jazz Loft Project

By Sam Stephenson, Jazz Loft Project Director

I’ve been researching W. Eugene Smith’s life and work ever since my wife, Laurie Cochenour, gave me a camera for Christmas thirteen years ago. When the owner of the camera shop in Raleigh, North Carolina, asked me what I’d be taking pictures of, I told him Pittsburgh. The city has captivated me since we first visited Laurie’s family there in 1995, and I’d just started researching its history and landscape. He asked if I’d ever seen Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh photographs. The previous night he’d caught an American Masters documentary on Smith, and it mentioned a big project he did on the city in the 1950s. I left the shop and walked around the corner to the public library to look for more information.

Smith went to Pittsburgh in 1955 for a three-week freelance assignment to make one hundred photos for a book commemorating the city’s bicentennial. He’d quit his job at Life magazine, where his photo essays had made him legendary, because of escalating editorial struggles. He wanted to change the world with his photographs and Life wanted reliable staffers who met deadlines. Smith’s burgeoning ambitions outstripped the Pittsburgh assignment pretty quickly, and over the next four years he made 21,000 photographs of the city. At one point he had 2,000 5x7 work prints pinned to walls and bulletin boards all over his studio. His Pittsburgh opus may have existed in that form. But it was utterly unpublishable, and when 88 of the images were published in Popular Photograph’s 1959 Photography Annual, he called the outcome, which had been under his control, a “debacle” and a “failure.”

In April of 1997 I made my first visit to the Smith Archive at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona (CCP). I was attempting to pick up the pieces of Smith’s unfinished Pittsburgh study. The results were Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project, a book published by W.W. Norton and the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) in 2001, and an exhibition of the same title for the Carnegie Museum of Art, which traveled to the International Center of Photography in New York in 2002.

My work with Smith’s Pittsburgh material led me to the 1,740 reels of tape and nearly 40,000 photographs made by Smith in his Manhattan loft between 1957 and 1965. Smith documented Thelonious Monk, Zoot Sims, Paul Bley, Roy Haynes, Roland Kirk, Chick Corea, and hundreds of others in jam sessions, rehearsals, and casual conversations. He recorded Martin Luther King and President Kennedy giving speeches on radio and TV, Jason Robards reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s essay “The Crack-Up,” and late-night callers to Long John Nebel’s radio show who claimed to have seen UFOs and been abducted by aliens. Smith also kept the tapes rolling when not much was happening. He recorded mysterious voices, people hiking up and down the stairs, taxis honking, and the Sixth Avenue bus chugging by every fifteen minutes.

The reels had not been listened to since they were deposited at CCP in 1977, when two eighteen-wheel trucks delivered 44,000 pounds of Smith’s work and personal belongings including letters, 25,000 vinyl records, thousand of 3x5 cards filled with notes to himself, and as many as a million negatives and contact sheets.  I picked through all the reels and noted 129 different names chicken-scratched by Smith on the labels, and I began tracking down the people who were still alive—Bill Crow, Roy Haynes, Dave Frishberg, Bill Takas, Ronnie Free, Carole Thomas, Freddie Redd, Henry Grimes, Jimmy Stevenson, David X Young, and many more.

In December of 1999, after publishing an article in DoubleTake magazine about the Jazz Loft Project, I received a miraculous phone call at my home in Pittsboro, N.C., from David Logan of the Reva and David Logan foundation in Chicago.  David Logan said, “I saw your article in DoubleTake.  What can I do to help?”  The Logan Foundation became the primary benefactor of the Jazz Loft Project, and I will be forever grateful for this serendipitous phone call and the Logan family’s subsequent generosity. The project has received additional funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the Grammy Foundation, the Duke University Office of the Provost, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, and Ken and Amelia Jacob. In 2001, I established the Jazz Loft Project as my full-time gig.  Smith’s work has become my work.

Not infrequently I wonder if I should be doing something else, doing my own work from scratch, as I intended more than a decade ago in Pittsburgh, but I believe his core material is too good to not keep going, and it leads me in too many interesting directions. With the help of my colleague, Dan Partridge, I’ve interviewed over 330 survivors from Smith’s old loft scene. Some of them are famous, but most of them have gone unrecorded in the official annals of music, photography, or anything else. It is the wonder and fortune of my work.  

As of fall 2009, two thirds of Smith’s audio recordings have been catalogued. Based on the findings so far, we believe the total sound recordings will amount to roughly 4,000 hours. On average, one hour of Smith’s audio requires three hours of work to properly index it for content. Each new reel of tape yields new people to track down or new historical items to research. Who is that drummer?  Where was the nearest Nedick’s hot dog stand?  What businesses inhabited the ground floor of the loft building during which years? Are these business owners still alive? If we track them down, will they remember Gene Smith and the jam-session scene?

These stories are brought to life as the Jazz Loft Project unveils this seminal chapter in jazz music history.  

821 Sixth Avenue, second from left. December 2008.  Photo by Scott Landis.

821 Sixth Avenue (second from left). 
December 2008. Photograph by Scott Landis.

Additional Information

Video: Interview with Dan Partridge, Jazz Loft Project research associate
Partridge talks about what it is like to be the first to hear Smith's reels of tape, which resulted in a set of 5,089 compact discs made in the preservation process.