The Nasher Museum and Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies presented The Jazz Loft Project: W. Eugene Smith in New York City, 1957-1965, an exhibition of photographs and recordings of some of the jazz world’s greatest legends. In the late 1950s, W. Eugene Smith lived and worked in a New York City loft building with an amazing list of visitors–jazz musicians, filmmakers, writers and artists. In photographs and audio recordings, he documented an era and rare moments with people such as Thelonious Monk, Zoot Simms, Norman Mailer and Salvador Dali, among others.
In January 1955, W. Eugene Smith, a celebrated photographer at Life magazine whose quarrels with his editors were legendary, quit his longtime well-paying job at the magazine. He was ambitious, quixotic and in search of greater freedom and artistic license. He turned his attention to a freelance assignment in Pittsburgh, a three-week job that turned into a four-year obsession and, in the end, remained unfinished. During this trying period, Smith moved into a dilapidated, five-story loft building at 821 Sixth Avenue in New York City’s wholesale flower district.
The address 821 Sixth Avenue was a late-night haunt of musicians, including some of the biggest names in jazz-Charles Mingus, Zoot Sims, Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk among them-and countless fascinating, underground characters. From 1957 to 1965, Smith exposed 1,447 rolls of film at his loft, making roughly 40,000 pictures, the largest body of work in his career, photographing the nocturnal jazz scene as well as life on the streets of the flower district, as seen from his fourth-floor window. He wired the building like a surreptitious recording studio and made 1,740 reels (4,000 hours) of stereo and mono audiotapes, capturing more than 300 musicians, among them Roy Haynes, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Roland Kirk, Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry and Paul Bley. He recorded, as well, legends such as pianists Eddie Costa and Sonny Clark, drummers Ronnie Free and Edgar Bateman, saxophonist Lin Halliday, bassist Henry Grimes and multi-instrumentalist Eddie Listengart. Also dropping in on the nighttime scene were the likes of Doris Duke, Norman Mailer, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Salvidor Dali, as well as pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts, thieves, photography students, local cops, building inspectors and marijuana dealers.
Writer Sam Stephenson discovered Smith’s jazz loft photographs and tapes 11 years ago, when he was researching another Smith project in the archives at the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography, and he has spent seven years cataloging, archiving, selecting and editing these materials for a book and, along with other partners, a radio series, an exhibition and website.
Courtney Reid-Eaton, exhibitions director at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, was co-curator of the exhibition. The Jazz Loft Project opened at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts in New York City, then traveled to the Chicago Cultural Center. From the Nasher Museum, the Jazz Loft Project will travel to the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, CA, and the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.
The Jazz Loft Project: W. Eugene Smith in New York City, 1957-1965 was organized by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.
The Jazz Loft Project at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University was made possible through the generous support of the Reva and David Logan Foundation, with significant additional support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (The Grammy Foundation), the Duke University Office of the Provost, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, Ken and Amelia Jacob, and Kimpton Hotels.
At Duke University, major support for the exhibition was given by David Lamond, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass, the Robert K. Steel Family Foundation, Sally and Russell Robinson, Bruce and Martha Karsh, Charles Weinraub and Emily Kass, Drs. Victor and Lenore Behar, Barbara T. and Jack O. Bovender Jr., G. Richard Wagoner, the Bostock Family Foundation, Laurene M. and Scott M. Sperling, and Ruth W. and A. Morris Williams Jr. Additional support was given by William H. and Lorna Chafe, John A. Forlines Jr., Tom and Margaret Gorrie, the Graduate Liberal Studies program at Duke University, Peter and Debbie Kahn, Patricia and John Koskinen, Peter Lange and Lori Leachman, Ann Pelham and Robert Cullen, Barry Poss and Michele Pas, Tom Rankin and Jill McCorkle, Alan D. Schwartz and Nancy C. Seaman, Mary D.B.T. Semans, and Courtney Shives. We also thanked Patty Morton, Joy and J.J. Kiser, Cookie and Henry Kohn, Michael Marsicano, Susan M. Stalnecker, Sallyan Windt, Karla F. and Russell Holloway, Jim Roberts, Robert J. Thompson, Jr., James L. and Florence Peacock III, W. Joseph and Ann Mann, Charles and Barbara Smith, Drs. Leela and Baba Prasad, Louise C. and Waltz Maynor, Joy and John Kasson, Dr. Assad Meymandi, and Alan B. Teasley.
For more information go to www.jazzloftproject.org.
TOP: IMAGE: W. Eugene Smith, Rose Bar sign from fourth-floor window of 821 Sixth Avenue, c. 1957-1964. Collection of the W. Eugene Smith Archive, Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona and The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith.