The legendary photojournalist, W. Eugene Smith, at what could be considered the pinnacle of his career, did the unthinkable. In early 1955, after escalating battles over editorial decisions allotting space, and questions of layout for his essay on Albert Schweitzer (”Man of Mercy”). He quit — for the second time — a steady and highly paid job on the staff of LIFE magazine. He then signed with the MAGNUM agency for a short time.
In Pittsburgh on a seemingly routine three week assignment to make one hundred scripted photographs for a book commemorating the city’s bicentennial, he stayed on for a year, making some twenty-two thousand photographs of the city and its life. With two Guggenheim Grants, he spent three years printing and developing layouts of the Pittsburgh work for an essay, which he likened to the late Beethoven Quartets. Considering this essay and those that followed, the comparison is valid.
To establish working space, he moved into the fourth floor of a loft building at 821 Sixth Avenue in New York, which was shared with the studio space of the composer Hall Overton. He eventually took over all three floors of the loft space, other than Overton’s half of the fourth. Working twenty-hour days on the Pittsburgh project, and without assignments, he set himself to document the outside world of the “flower district” beneath his window, and then the inner space of the loft itself. (One thinks immediately of Sonny Rollins’ sojourn of three years on the Williamsburg Bridge) He also acquired a number of tape recorders and effectively wired the whole building for sound.
“As from my window I sometimes glance.”
“The loft from ‘inside in’, grudgingly admitted: it is a slum-style loft building. But for years— less now— it was an exciting building. A place to work, noise at any hour, and each individual who used the place— each had something to offer his neighbors. Fine musicians, artists, both embryo and accomplished. ’Chaos Manor’, ‘Confusion Hall’. The activity of creation was goaded by the excitement that paraded [sic] the place. Happenings such as three jam sessions going on at once caused projection into the avant-garde through criss-cross blending.”
W. Eugene Smith
Those jam sessions encompassed a “Who’s-Who” of Jazz at that period. The loft, where Hall Overton had installed pianos and drum kit, became an after-hours magnet for local and touring musicians. Regulars included: Zoot Sims, Charles Mingus, Roland Kirk, Jim Hall, Bill Evans, Bob Brookmeyer, Jimmy Giuffre, and Steve Reich. Visitors: Doris Duke, Norman Mailer, Salvador Dali, Bob Dylan, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Smith recorded and photographed everything until 1965.
What must have been a highlight of this period were the rehearsals of the Thelonious Monk Orchestra — Overton did the arrangements of Monk’s compositions — for their famous Town Hall concert of February 28th 1959. Hall’s task was to transcribe Monk’s piano music for a large ensemble, and it cannot be too strongly stated that this was a true collaboration, Overton and Monk spending hour after hour at side-by-side upright pianos during the initial work. Rehearsals started after 3:00AM, the only time when all the musicians (ten) could make it. All had gigs in various clubs. By 4:00AM all were present and well underway; rehearsals broke at 7-8 in the morning.
“Monk trusted Hall because Hall knew exactly what to leave out and what to put in, and you got to know that with Monk. I mean, you can’t just — you know it’s not vanilla. In other words, It ain’t like usual it’s got to be what Monk did. And the band, that tentet, was like a piano. You had to write it like a piano. So you’d be playing all kinds of parts, they intertwine and go up and down, each instrument was like a key on the piano. Monk must have been pleased with Town Hall or else he wouldn’t have wanted to work with Hall again, on Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.”
Trombonist Eddie Bert. who was a member of all three Monk big bands who rehearsed at the loft.
It is by no means an accident that I received in the same week, both Sam Stephenson’s book:
“The Jazz Loft Project”:
The Jazz Loft Project website
And Sara Fishko’s excellent ten-part series produced by WNYC and the Center for Documentary Studies. with additional web features:
and my CD of the concert.
Thelonious Monk Orchestra
I had owned the LP in 1959, and, several years ago, had downloaded the album from e-Music. The re-issue Riverside CD was acquired at the same time as the Jazz Loft Project book.
This is not a classic “Big Band”: rather, instrumentation is similar to the Miles Davis/Gil Evans ,1949-1950, “Birth of the Cool” band, a mix of individual brass and reed players. These were: Donald Byrd, trumpet; Eddie Bert, trombone; Robert Northern, french horn; and Jay McAllister, tuba; Phil Woods, alto; Charlie Rouse (his first appearance with Monk), tenor; and Pepper Adams, baritone; Monk on piano; Sam Jones, bass; and Art Taylor, drums. The stand-out track is “Little Rootie Tootie”, which is repeated as an encore. This was arranged from an earlier Monk piano solo, the horns playing largely in unison, where the varied instrumental tessituras show to advantage.
Both LIFE and LOOK magazines offered Smith $20,000. for the six hundred finished prints, but would not cede editorial control. Smith, despite desperate poverty, refused. A retrospective exhibition of 642 prints was arranged in 1971 at the Jewish Museum, but the work in any entirety existed only in 5 x 7″ work prints, pinned and pasted to every available space in the loft and its hallways. Smith spent most of a year in Japan for Hitachi, and then, in late 1971, was evicted from 821 Sixth Ave., prior to his leaving again for Japan, and the two-year project of “MINAMATA”— documenting a fishing village devastated by industrial mercury poisoning. There he suffered extensive injuries from a beating by company goons, from which he never completely recovered.”Now much of the excitement, the mental stimulation is gone. It is all but shorn of its vital human chemistry. Ghosts seem to picket the place.
It is now no more than the depressing slum it has long been. A place to leave.”
W. Eugene Smith
When Smith died in 1978, he had only $18.00 in the bank— and about twenty-five thousand vinyl records, mostly classical and jazz.
In the Fall of 1977, two eighteen-wheel trucks hauled twenty-two tons of W. Eugene Smith’s materials from New York City to the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona. The shipment included the photographs and 1740 tapes that form the basis of the Jazz Loft Project.
Link for Aperture: http://www.aperture.org/w-eugene-smith-masters-of-photography.html
Link for Masters of Photography portfolio: http://masters-of-photography.com/S/smith/smith.html
John Edward Bain
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