The Jazz Loft Project in Chicago | Bleader

The Jazz Loft Project in Chicago


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W. Eugene Smith
  • W. Eugene Smith
Last fall writer and documentarian Sam Stephenson published The Jazz Loft Project (Knopf), an extraordinary book collecting photographs shot by W. Eugene Smith between 1957 and 1965—the time he spent living at the famed loft at 821 Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. Smith was a remarkable photojournalist who made his name with work in Life magazine, but in '57 he sought refuge in the raw loft space after spending a frustrating three years on an unrealized project about Pittsburgh.

One of his new neighbors was Hall Overton, an accomplished pianist and composer and a teacher at Juilliard. Overton's connections to the local jazz community helped transform the building into a fulcrum for the scene, and it hosted after-hours jam sessions almost nightly for years. Smith's impulse to document what was happening extended beyond photography; he wired the entire building with microphones and regularly taped jam sessions as well as conversations between residents and habitues, both celebrated and obscure. Musically speaking the building is most famous for hosting Thelonious Monk's rehearsals with the orchestra featured on his legendary Town Hall concert in 1959 (which was reprised four years later at Lincoln Center); Overton had done the arrangements. But in one of Stephenson's appendices he lists all the known visitors to the loft during the span of Smith's residence, illustrating what a magnet it was for major figures in the jazz world and beyond: Mose Allison, Diane Arbus, Chet Baker, Art Blakey, Stan Brakhage, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Salvador Dali, Dennis Russell Davies, Eric Dolphy, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Stan Getz, Jackie Gleason . . . well, you get the idea.

Thelonious Monk and musicians in rehearsal for the Town Hall concert
  • Thelonious Monk and musicians in rehearsal for the Town Hall concert
The book is loaded with gorgeous black-and-white photos by Smith, both of musicians playing inside and of street scenes shot through loft windows. There are elaborate descriptions of what ended up on the 1,740 reels of audio tape from the Smith collection—from radio and TV broadcasts to transcriptions of conversations, including a particularly chilling one where saxophonist and Chicago fixture Lin Halliday tries to keep brilliant pianist Sonny Clark upright and awake after they shoot heroin together. What the book is unable to provide is a sampling of the music from all those taped jam sessions. The presence of some of those recordings is what makes the exhibit The Jazz Loft Project: W. Eugene Smith in NYC, 1957-1965, which opens tomorrow Saturday at the Chicago Cultural Center, particularly special.

In addition to 186 photographs, pieces of Smith's photographic equipment, and other ephemera, there will be a listening station with 45 tracks culled from all those tapes—which when digitized filled more than 5,000 CDs. Additionally, a different selection of recordings will be played in the gallery space, featuring performances by Monk, Zoot Sims, Paul Bley, Dave McKenna, Roy Haynes, and Chicago's Eddie de Haas, among others. The show, which runs through September 19, will be enhanced during its run by a handful of special events, including a gallery talk by Stephenson on August 26 and two screenings (August 8 and September 3) of In My Mind, a documentary about a performance of a piece by pianist Jason Moran that incorporates audio and images from the loft. The opening reception is next Friday, July 23, from 6 till 8 PM.

Today's playlist:

Various artists, Ethiopiques 24: Golden Years of Modern Ethiopian Music 1969-1975 (Buda)
David Berkman Quartet, Live at Smoke (Challenge)
R. Stevie Moore, Phonography (ReR)
Oscar Feldman, Oscar e Familia (Sunnyside)
Issa Juma & Super Wanyika Stars, World Defeats the Grandfathers (Sterns)