In the late '50s and early '60s, photographer W. Eugene Smith lived in a dilapidated building where the era's top jazz musicians frequently stopped by to play jam sessions. He made approximately 4,000 hours of reel-to-reel tape recordings, and took nearly 40,000 photos, of the goings-on in the loft. Every Sunday in December, NPR's Weekend Edition presents highlights from The Jazz Loft Project Radio Series on WNYC. For more information, and to see photos and hear audio clips from the Jazz Loft, visit NPR's Jazz Loft Project Online Interactive.
Audio for The Jazz Loft Project courtesy of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.
By 1963, photographer W. Eugene Smith had achieved something phenomenal in the dingy, bare-bones loft space at 821 Sixth Ave. For six years, Smith had been quietly and exhaustively documenting, in pictures and sound, the large, unwieldy loft community.
Bass player Bill Crow was there a lot. As open and spontaneous as the place was, he says, there was a kind of order to it.
"Everybody had their own value and we all knew what it was," Crow says. "I would show up; I was willing to bring a bass there and climb up all those stairs and play as long as they wanted to play."
It was hard not to notice, though, that by the early '60s, something was dramatically different. To the regulars in the Jazz Loft, one of the most obvious changes was in the music itself. Pianists Dave Frishberg and Dick Katz felt it, in their own ways.
"It was a whole different world then, musically and socially," Frishberg says. "The folk musicians came and took over; the guitar players came and took over. The recording engineers came and took over. It changed the face and the sound of music forever."
"It was this period where rock took the ball and affected the jazz world," Katz says. "Because these rock guys, it was really about — they were theater. It wasn't about the music. That's the way I see it."
The New Thing
Jazz had its own readjustments. In one of Smith's tapes from 1963, trumpeter and bandleader Don Ellis addresses his group just before a jam session. They follow his instructions and begin to play what might be called free jazz.
"It was an entirely different kind of music," says jazz musician and teacher Bill Kirchner. "The avant-garde became one of the biggest focuses of jazz of the 1960s."
Pianist Paul Bley remembers it as a transitional moment, coming directly from Charlie "Bird" Parker. His impact was still being felt years after his death in 1955.
"Bird did it all," Bley says. "Bird played everybody's part, everybody's instrument better than they did and summed it all up. And that was the problem; that's when free jazz came about because they said, 'Geez, what's next, what comes after Bird? The guy did it all.' And so that was the conundrum we faced in the early '60s in Eugene Smith's loft. How could you be recognizable?"
Washington University professor Gerald Early, author of One Nation Under a Groove, says that a certain type of predictability had crept into jazz — much like with any form of art.
"It was always, I suppose, against this kind of predictability that you kept getting innovation in the music to try to stave off predictability," Early says.
Predictability was gone, too, from life outside the loft. Smith had his radio on frequently, and his tape recorders picked up broadcasts from up and down the dial.
By the end of 1963, when the radio was almost always on, it was beyond unpredictable. With the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the unthinkable had happened.
As for Smith, he was going through his own crisis. In one of the last tapes recorded in the Jazz Loft, Smith — having over the years resorted to alcohol, amphetamines and other solutions — was now having his astrological chart read by Eleanor Bach. It was December 1967.
Smith's whole world was, to some degree, coming apart, observes Sam Stephenson, author of the new book The Jazz Loft Project.
"I think he really became down-and-out in the mid- to late '60s," Stephenson says. "He ran out of money."
Stephenson also notes that Smith's obsessive taping slowed way down.
"There weren't as many musicians coming through," he says. "So I think it was a combination of the scene changing and him being down-and-out personally that cause this to stop. I don't think he made a conscious decision: 'I'm going to stop doing this now.' He just sort of moved on."
His son, Pat Smith, received frequent cries for help from his father, increasingly alone in the now less-populated Jazz Loft.
"He was going through a period of depression, and he would call up in the middle of the night, and we would have to go hold his hand," Pat Smith says. "He was always threatening to commit suicide back then — I'm not sure he ever meant it, or he just needed attention. But we did make some midnight runs down there."
W. Eugene Smith was evicted from 821 Sixth Ave. in 1971 after lengthy disputes with the landlord there. Soon after, he poured his heart into one of his most dynamic and notable projects: Minamata, a photo essay about the deadly effects of industrial contamination in the water of a small Japanese town. Smith died of a stroke in 1978.
The Jazz Loft building still stands on Sixth Avenue, just north of 28th Street.
"Barely. I walked by there the other day," says Sharon Zukin, author of Loft Living, a book that studies loft history. "And I was a little surprised that it is still standing. It looks as though it's really living on borrowed time."
The building is currently owned by a family that imports and manufactures wigs.
"From the outside it looks like a residential tenement," Zukin says. "It's a relatively narrow five-story building, no elevator."
But it's filled with memories, from the ground floor to the top.
Teddy Charles: "We were just going in and having these really freewheeling, swinging jam sessions."
Dave Frishberg: "You just showed up, any time of day or middle of the night ..."
Phil Woods: "It was life. We didn't think anything of it. Now it's a big deal, 'Oh you played with ...' Yeah, so? That's the way New York was."
Nancy Overton: "But everybody loved it; it was just the place."
821 Sixth Ave. The forgettable address of a nondescript building that was, for some number of years, the place to be.
WNYC's Jazz Loft Project Radio Series is produced in association with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. The Jazz Loft Project Radio Series is supported, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities; and by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.