Jazz Loft Project

Available November 24, 2009

Published by Alfred A. Knopf
288 pages
$40.00 Hardcover
ISBN/EAN: 978-0-307-26709-2



The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965

By Sam Stephenson

Winner 2010 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award.

"Buy the book - it's incredible!" - Elizabeth Avedon.

"a work of social archeaology and a testament to the artists whose music caught all the tumult and excitement of a changing American" - Sean O'Hagan.  The Guardian.

"a breathtaking tome." - London's MOJO magazine.

"a book whose pages convey, beautifully, the strange cultural moment when a rat-infested hulk of a building hosted a perfect storm of creativity." - Financial Times Weekend Magazine.

"a stunning cross of scholarly history and Smith's haunted photography." - Village Voice

"(A) lavish, must-read excavation of a photographic, musical treasure trove." - PopMatters, Best Non-Fiction Books of 2009

"One of only thirteen books in 2009 to make each Year End lists of Publisher's Weekly, Amazon, and the New York Times." - Amazon

"The most chaotic and soulful gift book this year...The book is an elegiac stew of sight and sound, and a singularly weird, vital and thrumming American document." - Dwight Garner, New York Times.

"The samples from the tapes that Stephenson had transcribed work with the photos to bring a moment in jazz loft life as perhaps no work in any other medium, including documentary cinema, ever has. Absolutely magnificent." - Booklist, starred review.

"(A) landmark book...This will be an essential book for jazz fans, photographer lovers and those interested in the history of New York." - Publisher's Weekly, starred review.

"Every obsessive deserves his own obsessive Boswell, and W. Eugene Smith has his in Sam Stephenson" - Fred Kaplan, New York magazine.

The following is excerpted from the prologue of the book.

January 29, 1960

W. Eugene Smith sits at the fourth-floor window of his dilapidated loft at 821 Sixth Avenue, New York City, near the corner of Twenty-eighth Street, the heart of Manhattan’s wholesale flower district. He peers out at the street below, several cameras at hand loaded with different lenses and film speeds. His window faces east from the west side of Sixth Avenue. The dawn light begins to rise behind the Empire State Building and other Midtown skyscrapers looming over the modest neighborhood. Three musicians stand together on the sidewalk below talking and laughing. One holds an upright bass in its case, another has a saxophone case slung over his shoulder, and the other is smoking a cigarette. It is six o’clock in the morning; the temperature is a moderate thirty degrees. The musicians are going home after a night-long jam session. Smith snaps a few pictures.

Across the street flatbed trucks unload fresh blooms for the shops that are preparing for daily business. At this time of year the local farms in Long Island, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania’s Dutch country grow roses in the greenhouse while spider mums, lilies, carnations, orchids, chrysanthemums, and birds of paradise are imported from Florida. Smith snaps a few more pictures. Then he hears the familiar sound of quarter-inch recording tape flapping at the end of a reel on the tape machine sitting in his nearby darkroom. He walks into the darkroom and turns off the machine. He places the reel in a box and labels it “Zoot Sims, Roy Haynes, Ronnie Free, Eddie DeHaas, Dave McKenna, Henry Grimes, John Mast, Fred Greenwell. January 29, 1960.” He loads a new tape into the machine and presses “play” and “record.” The only sounds in the loft now come from a transistor radio in the corner tuned to the morning news (supporters of Fidel Castro clashed with dissenters in Central Park the day before; fifteen of New York’s hospitals teetered on the brink of bankruptcy). Sounds from the awakening city—honks and chugs of taxis and the Sixth Avenue bus—waft through Smith’s open window.

January 20, 2009

It isn’t necessary to imagine too much of what happened inside 821 Sixth Avenue from 1957 to 1965. Smith documented the goings-on with more than one thousand rolls of film (roughly forty thousand exposures), both inside the building and through his fourth-floor window. He also wired the building from the sidewalk to the top (fifth) floor and made 1,740 reels of audio recordings.

For thirteen years I have been researching Smith’s life and work. Once enough money was raised (more than half a million dollars) to transfer Smith’s analog tapes to digital files (resulting in 5,079 compact discs of material), my colleague Dan Partridge and I began listening to them for the first time. We’ve traveled to nineteen states and the District of Columbia and interviewed 315 people who passed through the loft building. We played these recordings for as many loft participants as was practical and affordable.

On December 8, 2000, I visited the saxophonist Lou Orensteen in his apartment on Fifty-fifth Street, New York City, between Eighth and Ninth avenues, where he’d lived for four decades. He shared two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a small living room with his wife, Ingrid, their young daughter, LouLou, and their cat, Nadine. I took the elevator to the ninth floor and knocked on his door. Before I sat down, Orensteen handed me a slip of paper torn from a pocket-sized spiral notebook. “I’ve racked my brain,” he said, “and these are the people I remember being at the loft.” He had listed Gil Coggins, Al Haig, Elvin Jones, Gary Hawkins, Ed Levinsohn, Hod O'Brien, Tom Wayburn, Lin Halliday, Chick Corea, Al Levitt, Eric Dolphy, Sonny Clark, and Jimmy Wormworth.

Orensteen was sixty-eight years old when I visited him. He stood a lean, muscular six feet, and his considered movements, strong jaw, and squinty eyes made him seem like a retired longshoreman. He said that he suffered from Dupuytren’s disease, which causes fixed flexion contracture in the hands. He’d undergone surgery three times to free up some movement, but holding the saxophone and executing the fingerings were no longer possible. Aside from some occasional teaching and arranging, his jazz career existed mostly in the recesses of his memory.

Orensteen was born in Los Angeles, and at age eight he moved with his family to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he graduated from high school in 1950. After playing with military bands in the Korean War, he moved to Chicago and met musicians such as Johnny Griffin, Ira Sullivan, Clifford Jordan, John Gilmore, and Chris Anderson. Everyone was moving to New York in those days, though, so Orensteen followed suit and made the move in 1957. It didn’t take long for him to find the jam-session scene at 821 Sixth Avenue.

Orensteen’s small scrap of paper stands outside jazz history. It flattens the hierarchy of the normal jazz story. Three icons are listed—drummer Elvin Jones, pianist Chick Corea, and saxophonist Eric Dolphy—and two other musicians of historical significance, pianists Al Haig and Sonny Clark. But they are no more important in Orensteen’s memory than Tom Wayburn, Gary Hawkins, Ed Levinsohn, Al Levitt, and Jimmy Wormworth—five obscure drummers. James Baldwin once said, “History is not a procession of illustrious people. It’s about what happens to a people. Millions of anonymous people is what history is about.” Orensteen’s list represents Baldwin’s kind of history. Everyone is worthwhile, like characters in a Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams play. Among Orensteen’s thirteen names are six drummers and five piano players.

Drums and pianos can’t be carried around town easily. The lofts at 821 had tuned pianos and tuned drums set up all the time. Word got around. The thirteen names also represent birthplaces in at least eight different states.

The loft building was a kind of funnel, with people from all over the country finding their way to the dank stairwell of the building. Of these fourteen musicians (including Orensteen) we know, as of this writing, that at least eight are recorded on W. Eugene Smith’s tapes: Orensteen, Coggins, Hawkins, Levinsohn, Wayburn, Halliday, Corea, and Clark.

If Smith had not moved to 821 Sixth Avenue in 1957 and turned his quixotic documentary fevers toward his new home, I never would have traveled to visit Orensteen. I wouldn’t even know his name.

About the Author

Sam Stephenson is a writer, instructor, and director of the Jazz Loft Project at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. He is the author of Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project and W. Eugene Smith 55. He lives in Chatham County, North Carolina.