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In the 1950s and '60s, jazz musicians rehearsed, hung out and jammed in a five-story walkup in New York City. Since then, the building has become known as The Jazz Loft. It was also home to W. Eugene Smith, a celebrated "Life" magazine photographer.

He had left his family in a small town up the Hudson River to hole up in a Manhattan loft, where he shot pictures and tape recorded the sounds of mid-century life there.

Some musicians knew they were being taped. Most didn't care or even notice. Now some of those tapes and stories can be heard through WNYC's Jazz Loft Project radio series, produced in association with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.

Here's WNYC's Sara Fishko with Part One.

SARA FISHKO: Upon entering 821 Sixth Avenue, starting in 1957, you might hear the warped door of the old building.

(Soundbite of creaking door)

FISHKO: And then you'd be greeted by photographer W. Eugene Smith, who rented space there for several years.

Mr. W. EUGENE SMITH (Photographer): Hi.

Unidentified Man: Hello there. Eugene?

Mr. SMITH: How are you?

FISHKO: More than likely, you'd be photographed by him, as pianist Paul Bley was on occasion.

Mr. PAUL BLEY (Pianist): He had a remarkable six-shooter style. You'd be standing in the hall with him at his loft and while he was chatting you up and being very attentive and intriguing...

Unidentified Man: No, thank you. That's very generous and thoughtful of you.

Mr. BLEY: The camera was at his kneecap level, and he would snap, snap, snap.

FISHKO: Smith was also, less obviously, audio taping nearly everything that happened in the loft. As nearly 600 people over the years came through, talked, crashed there and played music, people like guitarist Jim Hall and composer David Amram.

Mr. DAVID AMRAM (Composer): I'd heard about it from the different musicians because all of us � I came to New York in 1955 � had a kind of a wonderful underground community where the catchword is: Where's the session?

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JIM HALL (Guitarist): Somebody would say: A bunch of us are going to go over to this painter's loft on Sixth Avenue after work. Would you like to come along? Probably something very casual like that.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. AMRAM: And no one said: Let's be spontaneous. It was just something that was in the air, and jazz reinforced that spontaneous feeling and that daring and that virtuosity in everyone.

FISHKO: The Loft already had a history by the time Smith moved in. It had been a gregarious jazz-loving painter, David X. Young, who had discovered the loft building in the mid-1950s. He had been looking for a cheap place to paint. This place was cheap, all right: $40 a month, barely any electricity or water, in New York's Flower District, in the West 20s along Sixth Avenue.

Bass player Bill Crow, among many musicians, befriended Young.

Mr. BILL CROW (Musician): He got a piano up there, and we were welcome to come and play: Zoot Sims, and Bob Brookmeyer, and Dick Katz.

FISHKO: All the famous players of the day stopped by, as vibes player Teddy Charles tells it.

Mr. TEDDY CHARLES (Musician): Miles, Mingus, Art Blakey, of course, Bird. When Bird came up, it was like a visit from God, you know.

FISHKO: Then Eugene Smith, a man given to shooting 3,000 photos while on assignment to shoot 30, became drawn to the space and to the commercial neighborhood around it that was completely deserted at night. He left his family upstate and moved in.

His son, Pat Smith, visited the loft many times as his estranged father became entrenched there.

Mr. PAT SMITH: He kept renting more and more floors and stored more and more stuff. It's kind of a wonder the whole place didn't collapse.

FISHKO: Composer Steve Reich visited the loft often.

Mr. STEVE REICH (Composer): I just remember, you know, there was one overpowering image, which is I walked into this room, and this room was wall-to-wall, you know, it was four walls of photographs. Into those photographs were stuck other photographs, which were kind of like, leaning, you know. And then behind them were others. So the whole room was kind of just�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REICH: I was about to fall and engulf you.

FISHKO: In the 1950s, lofts were still an underground way of life, recalls composer David Amram.

Mr. AMRAM: You weren't supposed to live in them, but they did. And they were basically workplaces that had either been abandoned or kind of left to people to renovate on the sly. And artists of different kinds would sneak in there to live.

FISHKO: Sam Stephenson, author of the new book "The Jazz Loft Project," and the man who uncovered these tapes in the Smith archive, reminds us that there was some deception involved.

Mr. SAM STEPHENSON (Author, "The Jazz Loft Project"): They had to have plywood boxes that they put over top of their mattresses to hide the fact that they were sleeping there, because the cops would come over and write them, you know, some sort of citation.

Mr. DAVE FRISHBERG (Pianist/Songwriter): It was what we called a funky place.

FISHKO: Pianist and songwriter Dave Frishberg was a regular in the loft.

Mr. FRISHBERG: Funky now has become a term of enthusiastic approval. But in those days, funky meant messy, dirty and smelly.

FISHKO: Eugene Smith felt right at home there. He turned his tape recorders on soon after he arrived in 1957. He began with the idea of recording his cats.

(Soundbite of cats)

FISHKO: His son Pat remembers.

Mr. SMITH: Lots of cats. I don't know how many cats he had.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMITH: I couldn't even guess. There were cats everywhere.

FISHKO: He recorded the television and radio programs he had on daily, in the loft, as he was printing and working in his darkroom.

Unidentified Man #2: I'm too sanguine about the prospects of fallout shelters...

FISHKO: Which reveal a lot about the obsessions of the era, late '50s, early '60s.

Unidentified Man #3: Has the Dresden been rebuilt?

Unidentified Man #2: Yes.

(Soundbite of jam session)

FISHKO: In one room and another, musicians gathered for jam sessions. He taped those, too, observes his former assistant and colleague, photographer Harold Feinstein.

Mr. HAROLD FEINSTEIN (Photographer): Eugene Smith, it's not simply turn this tape recorder on, but he practically wired the whole loft upstairs and downstairs so that he could tape everything. So this was a project of his, or he was an extraordinary voyeur, or both. Yeah, probably both.

Mr. SMITH: Hello.

FISHKO: He even taped some of his own phone calls.

Mr. SMITH: Bill?

BILL: Yeah.

Mr. SMITH: Gene Smith.

BILL: Yes, Gene.

Mr. SMITH: Hi. How are you?

BILL: Oh, I'm pretty good. Up to my ears, as a matter of fact.

Mr. SMITH: You're up to your ears?

BILL: Yeah.

Mr. SMITH: In what? That might be interesting.

FISHKO: All this at a time when, as bass player and loft regular Steve Swallow recalls, it was a rather odd thing to be doing.

Mr. STEVE SWALLOW: The machines were still fairly primitive. It wasn't that far from the days of wire recorders. And people didn't commonly have tape recorders at that time. So it was a kind of innovative and exciting venture that he was involved in, in 1960.

FISHKO: So, as it turns out, the Jazz Loft was much more than just jazz. Again, Sam Stephenson, who led the project to organize, digitize and catalog the tapes.

Mr. STEPHENSON: Early on, what we really honed in on was everything but the music. What were the conversations about? What could you hear out of the window? Because it gave us a sense of what it was like to live in America, in New York City, in this particular neighborhood in Manhattan, in this time period, in a manner that nothing else could.

(Soundbite of music)

FISHKO: And, there's the music, of course. This is Sonny Clark jamming with a group in The Jazz Loft in 1960.

(Soundbite of music)

FISHKO: So, we wander into sounds and stories of life in a grimy, old building in some of the golden years for New York jazz.

For NPR News, I'm Sara Fishko.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: The Jazz Loft Series continues next week when we'll hear about the collaboration between Thelonious Monk and Hall Overton, the Juilliard teacher, composer and jazz pianist who drew many musicians to work and play in The Loft.

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