Describe your latest book/project/work.
I've been studying the life and work of photographer W. Eugene Smith for 13 years. My first book (Dream Street, 2001) was about his extended, unfinished essay on the city of Pittsburgh in the 1950s. While working on that book I learned about Smith's unknown Jazz Loft materials which are the focus of my new book. What happened is that while Smith was in the throes of his Pittsburgh obsessions — he was trying to make 2,000 master prints from a set of 22,000 negatives exposed in the city — he basically abandoned his family in suburban New York and moved into a derelict loft building in Manhattan's old wholesale flower district which turned out to be a legendary after-hours haunt of jazz musicians. His quixotic Pittsburgh ambitions were doomed (what do you do with 2,000 prints?) and he gradually turned his attention to the loft around him, wiring the building from the sidewalk to the fifth floor and making 1,740 reels of tape and exposing more than 1,000 rolls of film (about 40,000 negatives) between 1957 and 1965. Working at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, we raised a lot of money to preserve Smith's tapes and hear them for the first time. The transfers yielded 5,089 compact discs, a laughably impossible number. Each tape requires detective work; a couple of new voices or names to figure out and track down, a new saxophonist or piano player, a new photographer working with Smith. For every Thelonious Monk or Steve Reich or Henri Cartier-Bresson on the tapes, there are about twenty people nobody remembers and I find these latter figures completely fascinating. You can hear them talking and joking about forgotten bars, hot dog stands, automats, mob owned jazz dives, all of which we track down. There are also interesting cultural and current events taped off of radio and TV. Working with two colleagues, I've traveled to 19 states, made 91 trips to New York City, and interviewed about 350 participants in this loft scene, either in person or on the phone. Hearing their stories has been the honor and privilege of a lifetime. The new book, The Jazz Loft Project, published by Knopf, is a mix of Smith's photos and images of his tape boxes with a text based on his tapes and our interviews. It is accompanied by a public radio series we're producing with WNYC, an exhibition opening at New York Public Library, and a website: www.jazzloftproject.org.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
The biographer Richard Holmes. I'd start with Doctor Johnson and Mister Savage, which is a masterpiece. Holmes explores the mysterious two-year relationship between Samuel Johnson and the mad poet and murderer Richard Savage in 18th century London. Johnson's obsession with Savage might be akin to Truman Capote's obsession with Perry Smith.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
I sit here in my little room. I, Brigge, who am twenty-eight years old and completely unknown. I sit here and am nothing. And yet this nothing begins to think and thinks, five flights up, on a gray Paris afternoon, these thoughts:
Is it possible, it thinks, that we have not seen, known, or said anything real and important? Is it possible that we have had thousands of years to look, meditate, and record, and that we have let these thousands of years slip away like a recess at school, when there is just enough time to eat your sandwich and an apple?
Yes, it is possible.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (translation by Stephen Mitchell)
How do you relax?
I listen to late night sports talk radio out of New York, WFAN, which we've been able to pick up after dark in North Carolina for many years. Night time hosts Steve Somers and Tony Paige are sublime. In the wee hours the callers get more passionate and anxious, so I get a brief feeling of what it might have been like to attend a game at Ebbets Field. Somers is a brilliant, subtle comedian, too. Some nights at 3 a.m. Paige will interview the great 80-something saxophonist Lou Donaldson who is on the phone after his gig at the Village Vanguard. Donaldson was once a highly regarded third basemen in a Negro semi-pro league in North Carolina. It makes you feel fortunate to be alive, and awake.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I like visiting childhood homes and graves. I went to find Joseph Mitchell's grave in his native Fairmont, North Carolina, and ended up writing a story about it for the Oxford American magazine, which wasn't my intention when I went down there. Mitchell grew up in coastal plains tobacco and cotton country and then went on to become the ultimate chronicler of old, vernacular New York City. Then when he died his body returned to Fairmont to be buried in the most banal cemetery you can imagine, in a family plot he helped choose years earlier. It says a lot about him. Pilgrimages are important. Bob Dylan apparently does pilgrimages, which makes a lot of sense. His career is basically 50 years of aural pilgrimages. It's what you should do. One of my recent pilgrimages concerned the wonderful jazz pianist Sonny Clark, who grew up in a coal mining "patch" in western Pennsylvania and then died of a heroin overdose in New York City in 1963 at age 31. His grave is in a rural, primarily African-American graveyard outside Pittsburgh and it took a lot of work to find his gravestone, which had sunk into the ground.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
My first book, Dream Street, was published in 2001. In 2006 my niece Julianne who teaches public high school in Pittsburgh had an Orthodox Jewish girl come to class and make a presentation based on Dream Street. Julianne had no idea. The girl told the class Dream Street made a big impact on her. Julianne and I were both elated. The same week a colleague showed me a Sunday School book with a lesson based on a magazine article I'd written about The Jazz Loft Project. The lesson was by a Baptist minister in Asheville, North Carolina, who wrote:
Documentary studies, done with the evident sensitivity and care Stephenson brings to them, are ways of tracking down the clues God has left about the infinite creativity and wonder of life.
These two affirmations — one male and one female, an Orthodox Jew and a Baptist Christian, a teen girl and a 50-something man — made me feel like I was on the right track.
Who are your favorite characters in history? Have any of them influenced your writing?
In my coastal hometown of nine or ten thousand people, Washington, N.C., there was a Lebanese man named Albert Jowdy who owned an appliance, radio, and T.V. shop where you could also get the latest Stevie Wonder or Elton John album. It was called Jowdy's and it was opened in downtown Washington circa 1930 by his older brother Mitchell and it lasted for more than 50 years. Albert was an ingenious repairman. He could fix anything — refrigerators, toaster ovens, AM/FM radios, anything. I also remember an older African-American lady named Martha Ellen Battle who was a master at furniture upholstery. Her son-in-law was my ninth grade science teacher. She made house calls and she'd bring fabric, tools, a lunch, and she'd stay all day. By nightfall she made the furniture look more beautiful than it ever was. She'd sing hymns under her breath while she worked. This was the tail end of an era, just before everything moved to big box chains and suburbia and fast food and college education. It was the kind of cultural flux period that Richard Russo likes to write about. I try to apply this older self-taught commitment to craft to my own writing.
Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
There are too many musicians and visual artists to name, but saxophonist Zoot Sims is worth a mention. One of the marvels of the Jazz Loft Project is hearing his inventive blowing in these jam sessions. It was a non-descript building in the middle of the night where there were no audience and no pay, often playing with no-name musicians, and Zoot made beautiful, fresh sounds come out of his horn every time, no matter what. He was infectious. "Let's blow one," he'd say to a room of musicians milling around. As writers, maybe we think about audiences and markets too much sometimes. Maybe we should just blow.
If you could have been someone else, who would that be and why?
Greg Maddux or Pedro Martinez. For a decade or more they may have been the best right-handed pitchers that ever existed. It must have been enjoyable for them to report to work.
Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
Pre-suburban New York City and post-war jazz have been my line of work recently. Here are eight books that cover those topics better than most.
Collected Works and American Musicians II by Whitney Balliett
The Jazz Life by Nat Hentoff
Four Jazz Lives (previously published as Four Lives in the Bebop Business) by A. B. Spellman
The Scene by Clarence Cooper
Notes and Tones by Arthur Taylor
The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers
Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell
Living with Jazz by Dan Morgenstern