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The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965by Sam Stephenson and W. Eugene Smith
Synopses & Reviews
In 1957, Eugene Smith, a thirty-eight-year-old magazine photographer, walked out of his comfortable settled world — his longtime well-paying job at Life and the home he shared with his wife and four children in Croton-on-Hudson, New York — to move into a dilapidated, five-story loft building at 821 Sixth Avenue (between Twenty-eighth and Twenty-ninth streets) in New York City's wholesale flower district. Smith was trying to complete the most ambitious project of his life, a massive photo-essay on the city of Pittsburgh.
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. As his ambitions broke down for his quixotic Pittsburgh opus, Smith found solace in the chaotic, somnambulistic world of the loft and its artists. He turned his documentary impulses away from Pittsburgh and toward his offbeat new surroundings.
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 Salvador Dali, as well as pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts, thieves, photography students, local cops, building inspectors, marijuana dealers, and others.
Sam Stephenson discovered Smith's jazz loft photographs and tapes eleven years ago and has spent the last seven years cataloging, archiving, selecting, and editing Smith's materials for this book, as well as writing its introduction and the text interwoven throughout.
W. Eugene Smith's Jazz Loft Project has been legendary in the worlds of art, photography, and music for more than forty years, but until the publication of The Jazz Loft Project, no one had seen Smith's extraordinary photographs or read any of the firsthand accounts of those who were there and lived to tell the tale(s) . . .
"After having a breakdown in the midst of working on a photo-essay on Pittsburgh in 1957, legendary photographer W. Eugene Smith holed up in a loft in New York's Chelsea, in the Tin Pan Alley area. There, over the next several years, he became deeply embroiled in the New York City jazz scene, opening his home as a practice and performance space for some of the great artists of mid-century jazz, including Thelonious Monk, Zoot Sims and many others. Of course, he took pictures — both of musicians and of a window-size view of mid-century New York — and also wired the place for recording, logging hours and hours of tape, capturing the music and the talk around it. These photos and tapes had been thought lost — the stuff of rumor, buried in Smith's archive — until Stephenson dug them out and culled the best, along with transcriptions of material from the tapes, for this landmark book. Smith's stunning use of contrast makes figures like Monk seem dramatic and completely ordinary at the same time. The photos of the city offer a rare glimpse into a neighborhood being itself when it thought no one was watching. This will be an essential book for jazz fans, photography lovers and those interested in the history of New York." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"The samples from the tapes that Stephenson had transcribed work with the photos to bring a moment in jazz to life as perhaps no work in any other medium...ever has. Absolutely magnificent." (Starred Review) Booklist
From 1957 to 1965, Smith photographed some of the biggest names in jazz. Stephenson discovered Smith's photographs 11 years ago and has spent the last seven years cataloging, archiving, selecting, and editing Smith's materials for this book.
About the Author
Sam Stephenson is a writer and instructor at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. He is the author of Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project and W. Eugene Smith 55. He lives in Chatham County, North Carolina.
Born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1918, W. Eugene Smith was a combat photographer during World War II, and worked for Life magazine during the 1940s and 1950s, producing more than fifty photo-essays. In the early 1970s, he photographed in Minamata, Japan, a small village affected by industrial mercury poisoning.
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