eavesdropping on jazz giants
January 3, 2010 4:31 PM   Subscribe

The Jazz Loft Project - From 1957 to 1965, celebrated photojournalist W. Eugene Smith made 4,000 hours of surreptitious recordings and took 40,000 photographs in a loft in Manhattan's wholesale flower district where Roland Kirk, Thelonius Monk, Hall Overton, Charles Mingus and other jazz greats jammed until dawn. Archived in the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, the project is now accessible via a book, a traveling exhibit, a 10-part Jazz Loft series on WNYC, NPR's Jazz Loft Project Sights & Sounds, and an interview with JLP author Sam Stephenson, which includes some images from the book. Via a Grain Edit post, which also has some great images.

More about the passionate W. Eugene Smith, who abandoned his successful career at Life magazine and his family to devote himself to obsessively documenting the jazz loft.
Non-jazz photography:
Various images, including Tomoko Uemura in her bath, Minamata, Japan
Life series The Country Doctor
Life series Spanish Village
Life series Man of Mercy, and essay on Albert Schweitzer
The Pittsburgh Project
An excellent documentary on 1950 photos from Wales: The Lost Pictures of Eugene Smith Part 1, pt 2, pt 3, pt 4
posted by madamjujujive (21 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
The Loft series on WNYC is pretty amazing.

W. Eugene Smith, who abandoned his successful career at Life magazine and his family...

(God, the wreckage artists leave behind.... )
posted by R. Mutt at 4:40 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Marvelous post madam. Thanks so very much.

"Put yourself in this jazz musician's shoes for a minute. Your record label just dropped two of its most acclaimed acts from the roster in order to aggressively pursue pop artists. Still, you think you have a sound that's relevant to the moment—and to prove it, you need a stay of execution from what's starting to look inevitable. So you pick up the phone, dial the label president, and beg for release from the adjective that's become pure poison in the marketplace. "If you stop calling me a jazz man," you promise the boss, "I'll sell more." That's exactly what Miles Davis said to Clive Davis at Columbia Records—more than 40 years ago."

"This anecdote—first related by the record mogul in his autobiography—also appears in Jazz, a new, close-listen-ing history of the genre by critics Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux. Even though the trumpeter was right—Miles's Bitches Brew, complete with psychedelic cover art pitched at the Summer of Love crowd, would go gold after its release in 1969—you can't help but read Jazz and not realize that the art's economic fortunes have been dicey for decades. Every few years, a new piece of data comes along to kick up the hoary question: is jazz dead?"Jazz Is Dead. Long Live Jazz.

"The music may never again be a popular force, but it is still swinging—if you know where to listen."
posted by netbros at 4:42 PM on January 3, 2010

This is pretty fantastic, and I'm going to have a great time delving into this. But with 40,000 photographs, you'd think just a few more examples of them would be online, or am I missing something?
posted by Jimbob at 4:54 PM on January 3, 2010

I agree, Jimbob - I could find precious few. But the whole project is pretty new - they don't even have the blog launched yet, so I am hoping that more will be released. Perhaps metafilter music buffs could descend on Duke's archivists en masse and demand beg that more be put on line.
posted by madamjujujive at 5:09 PM on January 3, 2010

Jimbob, click on the 2nd link in this FPP (10-part Jazz Loft series ) and scroll down just a bit to a video slide show featuring 25 of the photos. Monk is glorious.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:11 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Great post, mjj!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:12 PM on January 3, 2010

I try to avoid the romanticizing of decades past, but those photos make it really hard. I want to be there, around then, doing stuff, cool stuff!, preferably with those people, and nothing anybody can say will stop me from feeling that way, at least not right now.

Thanks, madamjujujive.
posted by invitapriore at 5:20 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have to say I'm more than a little conflicted about the "surreptitious" part. Tell you one thing, as a musician I'd be mad as hell to learn that someone had been surreptitiously recording any rehearsal that I was part of.

From the interview clip with JLP author Sam Stephenson: "With this place wired from the sidewalk to the fifth floor you get to hear those moments that you don't get to hear... you get the behind-the-scenes, the rehearsals, the mistakes, the mediocrity, the flat and bad music that has to happen in order to play the good music."

It has to happen, but that doesn't mean anyone besides the musicians has any inherent right to hear it, unless the musicians choose to allow that. But these musicians didn't know they were being recorded. That's fucked up.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:34 PM on January 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

That's fucked up.

My rational self agrees with you. The historic voyeur in me is pleased.
posted by madamjujujive at 5:38 PM on January 3, 2010

My rational self agrees with you. The historic voyeur in me is pleased.

Me too, mjj. That's why I used the term "conflicted"!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:41 PM on January 3, 2010

Yeah, if I recorded like that in my research right now, I'd be out of a job.
posted by umbú at 6:53 PM on January 3, 2010

But these musicians didn't know they were being recorded. That's fucked up.

You bring up an interesting point, midnite, although I would argue that you are reacting hyperbolically. It's certainly immoral to record an artist for personal profit without their consent. And it's certainly rude to do so for the hell of it.

Let's compare this act with, say, the preservation of Kafka's posthumously publishedworks. Was that fucked up? I don't ask sarcastically; part of me says, "Yes", and the rest of me commends Max Brod's actions.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:08 PM on January 3, 2010

There is a lot more of such surreptitious recording going on than you may suppose, some going even further, like actually setting up the situation in the first place... some years ago I bought a Harold Budd CD called "La Bella Vista", and I've enjoyed it ever since - yet this CD came to life through a total setup. Daniel Lanois knew Harold Budd enjoyed and was inspired by the company of young women, and so he invited him to his house for a soiree where there were plenty of young attractive women present. Budd sat at a piano and played, inspired by the company - only Lanois set it all up and recorded the whole thing, which was later put out on the CD (presumably with HB's assent). Here's what's interesting: perhaps, not realizing that he's being recorded, Budd played very differently than he would had he been conscious of "BEING RECORDED". And that can have artistic interest and value. I like the CD quite a bit.

Anyhow, great post. Hope all this stuff appears on bt and then for purchase.
posted by VikingSword at 7:09 PM on January 3, 2010

This is a great post.
posted by OmieWise at 7:10 PM on January 3, 2010

When do we get to hear the other 3,999 hours and 30 minutes?

I mean, really... photos are great and all, but...
posted by alms at 9:00 PM on January 3, 2010

Great post—I heard most of the radio series and loved it. I understand flapjax at midnite's point about being recorded surreptitiously, but I don't understand being all that conflicted about it. The music is worth the ... surreptition? Surrep... Surr... It's worth it, dammit!
posted by languagehat at 7:33 AM on January 4, 2010

Great stuff. Also liked that Newsweek article for the inversion of the general malaise over whether jazz is dead. It's as dead as dub, punk and great indie rock.
posted by klangklangston at 12:19 PM on January 4, 2010

I want to hear Mingus fighting with someone!
posted by Ber at 2:01 PM on January 4, 2010

I want to hear Mingus fighting with someone!

The dull thud of his fist against Jimmy Knepper's jaw, followed by Knepper's teeth skit-scattering across the hardwood floor?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:22 PM on January 4, 2010

But that was actually at Mingus's apartment, which almost certainly was not wired for recording...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:26 PM on January 4, 2010

No mention of any of the 'primary' Beats. Kerouac would be really sad he never made this scene.
posted by m@ at 8:08 PM on January 4, 2010

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