jazz_250In 1957 W. Eugene Smith was broke, in debt and depressed, with a professional reputation for being difficult. At his home in Croton-on-Hudson, in Westchester County, he and two assistants were printing the Pittsburgh project that he had shot in 1955-56. Rigorously editing what he saw as his greatest body of work, Smith subleased a workspace on the fourth floor of 821 Sixth Avenue in New York’s flower district, occasionally returning home to direct his assistants but increasingly staying in the city.

The loft spaces in the building were used by many of the jazz musicians who were drawn to New York at the time. 821 became known as a place where musicians could meet to jam or rehearse to the early hours of the morning. Composer Hall Overton worked there with Thelonius Monk, Zoot Sims, Bill Evans and Charles Mingus and countless other musicians passed through 821 to meet and play.

The book The Jazz Loft Project is an outgrowth of the larger project at The Center for Documentary Studies to organise and present the 4,000 hours of tape recordings and some 40,000 pictures that Smith made at 821 from 1957 to 1965 (although Smith occupied the loft on and off until 1971). The book contains many images that Smith made from his window not seen in the 1958 Life essay “Drama Beneath a City Window”, pictures of the many jazz musicians and other visitors who frequented the building, and transcripts of reel-to-reel recordings that Smith made of conversations, jam sessions, street sounds and television and radio broadcasts, often plays or readings. These materials are supplemented by interviews conducted by Sam Stephenson and Stephenson’s contextual writing. Many of the recordings transcribed in the book can be heard on The Jazz Loft Project website (www.jazzloftproject.org).

“The image of Smith maintained by the loft musicians,” notes Stephenson, “contrasts with the one that still prevails today in many photography circles, where his compulsions are judged to have been driven by megalomania and lunacy.” Through the transcripts and interviews and in his study of the street, Smith comes across with a humour and ease that belie his difficult reputation. Smith once asked a visitor: “Do you mind if I turn on my recorder in case something brilliant happens?” There are conversations between Smith and musicians and recordings of jam sessions in the loft upstairs – he drilled holes and snaked microphones throughout the building, controlling them from his studio where his multiple recorders sat.

Smith’s compulsion to record speaks not only to his documentary instincts but also to an ongoing exploration of the possibilities of documentary practice. Just as his ambition for the Pittsburgh project was to create an allegorical photo essay on a scale never before seen with a single subject, his photographs and recordings at 821 demonstrate his interest in documenting his own surroundings, making a record in real time of, apparently, everything. Was the urge to document an effort to define his own identity? He was also trying in this period to publish a retrospective of his work. Was it a way of steadying himself even as he was staying awake for days at a time printing and editing, fuelled by amphetamines? 

While the material in the book is by Smith, the narrative is Stephenson’s. Jazz Loft Project aspires to be a layering of multiple voices speaking to and across each other, quoting, echoing, and exploring ideas, like a jazz improvisation or a Smith photo essay. The book’s strength is the rich dimensionality that it brings to a portrait of a time and a place. However, Smith’s material is deployed for its effectiveness in evoking a past milieu, and not according to any archival rigor. That’s fine – but we come away in the end with the story that Stephenson wants to tell and we are not much closer to Smith’s intentions for this record.

Leo Hsu