Clip: Tape Machine as a Fly on the Wall of Jazz
Tape Machine as a Fly on the Wall of Jazz
By BEN RATLIFF
Published: March 10, 2005
W. Eugene Smith was one of America's great photojournalists, a Life
magazine staff member during the 1940's and 50's whose work yielded
archetypal American images. He photographed American and Japanese soldiers
at war, a country doctor in Colorado, a midwife in rural South Carolina. He
became famous for his work ethic, as well as for the empathy of his
In the late 1950's, a few years after a nervous breakdown, he cut loose
from a Time-Life salary and a family in Westchester and became an obsessive
documenter of a Manhattan loft full of jazz musicians, on Sixth Avenue near
28th Street. Living there, he shared building space with the painter David
X. Young, the trumpeter Dick Cary and the composer and pianist Hall Overton.
This time, Smith used not only cameras, but the latest portable tape
recorders as well.
He was in several kinds of pain. He had been wounded in the head and arms
in the war, and had become an alcoholic and an amphetamine addict. But his
true drug was work: musicians say the loft walls and stairwell were covered
with drying photo prints. And though he paid $40 a month in rent, he may
have spent more than that on recording tape alone.
"The loft was open every night until about 11," recalled the pianist Paul
Bley, who remembers dropping by about once a week. "You climbed the stairs
and Smith would open the door, with a camera held waist-high. He was
charming, hipper than most musicians. He'd chat you up for quite some time
with the camera going click-click-click as fast as it could go."
Smith's jazz-loft project, if you can call it that, lasted from 1957 to
about 1965, through what were arguably jazz's best years, when most of the
music's early masters were still alive, and the players of a new generation
were challenging its foundations.
The project had no proper dimensions, and never attained anything
resembling publishable form; it ended when the building's resident
musicians moved on and the scene dissipated. When Smith died in 1978,
evidence of that period lay deep within his 22 tons of pack-rat archives.
Sam Stephenson, a writer, instructor and research associate at Duke
University's Center for Documentary Studies, and an expert on Smith, has
spent the last four years discovering what, exactly, is on the nearly 3,000
hours of tape in the archives. With an associate, Dan Partridge, he has
constructed an oral history of the jazz loft, speaking to 177 people who
spent time there.
So far, the tapes indicate a lovely and finite discovery - a few great
sessions from jazz's greatest period - inside a grander and more mysterious
one. Until I took a trip to Durham, N.C., last week, nobody had heard the
Smith tapes since their rediscovery, except some of the musicians on them
and Robin D. G. Kelley, a Columbia University professor who is writing a
biography of Thelonious Monk. (Some other recordings from the loft, made by
David X. Young, were released on CD five years ago.)
I heard hours of loft rehearsals by Monk's big band, prior to its Town Hall
concert in 1959; by Paul Bley's magnificent trio in 1961 and 1964; by Zoot
Sims with a just-drifting-through cast, including the pianist Dave McKenna
and drummer Roy Haynes; of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Chick Corea, Warne Marsh
Some of these recordings will be useful to jazz scholarship, including many
conversations with the elusive, sometimes taciturn, Monk. Some of the
sessions are strong enough to be released on CD. But I also heard many
hours of tepid jamming on standards by musicians who never made it, because
of lack of talent, psychological instability or drugs. They are part of
jazz history, too, though usually never documented.
And there are honest, elucidating moments between bursts of music. At a jam
session in January 1964, Rahsaan Roland Kirk (then just Roland Kirk) is
thinking out loud about asserting greater control over his art. He wants to
open a small Manhattan performance space without a liquor license, entirely
about music and not bar profits.
"Jazz cats don't have no faith," Kirk gripes to three other musicians
there. "But I have faith in myself. If I were playing in a place, people
would come and I could make a living. I don't need no million dollars."
"When I get to 50 years old, I don't want to be working for nobody else but
myself," he says.
"I might not do it in the next five years," he goes on, "but I'm going to
do it before I pass away." Kirk was 27 at the time; he died in 1977, at 42.
And there is the deep end of Smith's documentary mania. He miked three
floors of the building, as well as the stairway. There are reels of Sixth
Avenue street noise, Smith's chats with the local beat cop, telephone calls
to editors and acquaintances (including one to Charlie Chaplin), taped
television and radio programs, and endless conversation about money:
evidence of the daily grind among the musicians, artists and quasi-bums at
821 Sixth Avenue.
On one tape, Smith is talking to a pianist from Detroit in her mid-20's,
Alice McLeod; a few years later she married John Coltrane. The topic is the
ethics of documenting musicians in the loft. It seems that Ms. McLeod
herself did not know that even this conversation was being recorded.
Mr. Bley, who has heard the tapes, said: "I wasn't aware that he was
recording me. But I'm glad that he did."
There are many more hours of Smith's tapes, sitting with the rest of his
archive in the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona
in Tucson. It is costly to find out what they hold. Grants, including from
the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Reva and David Logan
Foundation, have allowed Mr. Stephenson and Mr. Partridge to make
high-quality digital transfers of the first 300 tapes (or more than 900
hours) out of the full cache of 1,790, and to construct their oral history
of the period. There may be a book of photographs and some CD's out of all
this at the end, but nothing can happen until the other tapes are heard.
Many of the remaining tapes are unmarked. But to judge by the photographs
Smith made in the loft, as well as the testimony of the scene's survivors,
the tapes might include Jimmy Giuffre's late-50's trio with Bob Brookmeyer
and Jim Hall; Bill Evans; Vic Dickenson; Pee Wee Russell; Cecil Taylor;
Kenny Dorham; John Coltrane; and possibly even Bob Dylan.
But then again, they might not. The markings on 86 tapes indicate that they
contain the sounds of cats in heat and meowing; 113 more are recordings of
Long John Nebel's late-night radio show on WOR, to which Smith would
compulsively send listener-response telegrams. What they will show, for
sure, is life as it happened around Smith, an anthropology of a fascinating
time and place.
"This is postwar, midcentury, urban fieldwork," Mr. Stephenson said. "Even
if there was no music, it'd be important. Even it was people sitting around