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Clip: Tape Machine as a Fly on the Wall of Jazz

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  • Carl Zimring
    Tape Machine as a Fly on the Wall of Jazz By BEN RATLIFF Published: March 10, 2005 W. Eugene Smith
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 10, 2005
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      Tape Machine as a Fly on the Wall of Jazz

      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
      and others.

      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
      shooting pool."
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