The Jazz Loft: In The '60s, A Musicians' Building In Flux The arrival of a new decade heralded new styles of music, and new challenges, for the jazz artists who met up at 821 Sixth Ave. in New York. And for the struggling photographer who documented it all, it was also the end of an era.
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In The '60s, A Musicians' Loft In Flux

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All this month we've been hearing stories about the Jazz Loft, a beat-up old building in the New York of the 1950s and '60s that became a hangout for artists and musicians. It was the home of photographer W. Eugene Smith, who turned his tape recorders on in 1957 to capture the music, talk and life in general there. But nothing lasts forever, as we learn in this chapter of WNYC's Jazz Loft Project radio series, produced in association with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.

Here's Sara Fishko with the final episode in our series.

(Soundbite of gathering)

Ms. SARA FISHKO: The Jazz Loft, 1963. By this time, photographer W. Eugene Smith had achieved something phenomenal in the dingy, bare-bones loft space at 821 Sixth Avenue. For six years, Smith had been quietly and exhaustively documenting, in pictures and sound, the large, unwieldy loft community.

(Soundbite of music)

FISHKO: 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.

Mr. BILL CROW (Musician): Everybody had their own value, and we all knew what it was.

FISHKO: What was yours? Do you know?

Mr. CROW: I would show up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CROW: I was willing to bring a bass there and climb up all those stairs and play as long as they wanted to play, you know.

FISHKO: This is Crow jamming with two other Loft regulars, Zoot Sims and Bob Brookmeyer.

(Soundbite of music)

FISHKO: 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.

Mr. DAVE FRISHBERG (Musician): It was a whole different world then, musically and socially. 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.

Mr. DICK KATZ (Musician): It was this period where rock took the ball and affected the jazz world. Because these rock guys was really about - they were theater. It wasn't about the music. That's the way I see it.

FISHKO: Jazz had its own realignment.

(Soundbite of music)

FISHKO: In a loft tape from 1963, trumpeter and bandleader Don Ellis addresses his group just before a jam session.

Mr. DON ELLIS (Musician): Everybody, like now, think of something you want to do musically. And then, I'll give a downbeat and everybody do it. You can listen to what somebody else is doing, but don't change your thing. I mean, set it now and then stick with it, okay?

FISHKO: They follow his instructions and begin to play.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BILL KIRCHNER (Musician, Teacher): It was an entirely different kind of music.

FISHKO: Jazz musician and teacher Bill Kirchner.

Mr. KIRCHNER: The avant-garde became one of the biggest focuses of jazz of the 1960s.

FISHKO: Pianist Paul Bley remembers it as a transitional moment, coming directly from Charlie Parker, nicknamed Bird. Parker's impact was still being felt years after his death in 1955.

Mr. PAUL BLEY (Musician): Bird did it all. 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 finally they said, geez, what's next after Bird? I mean, the guy did it all. And so that was the conundrum we faced in the early '60s of Eugene Smith's loft. How could you be recognizable?

(Soundbite of music)

Professor GERALD EARLY (Washington University; Author, "One Nation Under a Groove"): And I think that, you know, what happened with jazz, what happened with any other kind of art after a certain point is that a certain kind of predictability came into it.

FISHKO: Washington University professor Gerald Early is author of "One Nation Under a Groove."

Prof. EARLY: It was always, I suppose, against this kind of predictability that you kept getting innovation in the music to try to stave off predictability.

(Soundbite of music)

FISHKO: Predictability was gone, too, from life outside the loft.

(Soundbite of recording)

Rev. RALPH ABERNATHY (Civil Rights Activist): I listened to the White House in Washington, D.C. And President Kennedy said that state troopers were on their way.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

FISHKO: Smith had his radio on a lot in those days. And his tape recorders picked up broadcasts from up and down the dial. By the end of '63, when the radio was almost always on, it was beyond unpredictable. The unthinkable had happened.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Newscaster: A grieving Jacqueline Kennedy made an unannounced visit late Monday night to her husband's grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

FISHKO: As for Gene Smith, he was going through his own crisis. This is one of the last tapes recorded at 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.

Mr. W. EUGENE SMITH (Photographer): I'm not coping so well this week.

Ms. ELEANOR BACH (Astrologer): Well, that's all right.

FISHKO: It was December 1967.

Ms. BACH: You know, it may be that you're going through a kind of death now.

FISHKO: Smith's whole world was, to some degree, coming apart, observes Sam Stephenson, author of the new book "The Jazz Loft Project."

Professor SAM STEPHENSON (Author, "The Jazz Loft Project"): I think he really became down-and-out in the mid to late '60s. And I think he ran out of money.

FISHKO: His son, Pat Smith, received frequent cries for help from his father, from the now less-populated Jazz Loft.

Mr. PAT SMITH: He was going through a period of depression, and he would call up in the middle of the night, and we'd have to go hold his hand. He was threatening to commit - 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.

FISHKO: Sam Stephenson notes that Smith's obsessive taping slowed way down.

Prof. STEPHENSON: There weren't as many musicians coming through. So, I think it was a combination of the scene changing and him being down-and-out personally that caused this to stop. I don't think he made a conscious decision: I'm going to stop doing this now, but he just sort of moved on.

FISHKO: Eugene Smith was evicted from 821 Sixth Avenue 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 on 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.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SHARON ZUKIN (Author, "Loft Living"): Barely. I walked by there the other day.

FISHKO: Sharon Zukin, author of "Loft Living," a book that studies loft history.

Ms. ZUKIN: I was a little surprised that it is still standing. It looks as though it's really living on borrowed time.

FISHKO: The building is currently owned by a family that imports and manufactures wigs.

Ms. ZUKIN: From the outside it looks like a residential tenement.

FISHKO: But filled with memories from the ground floor to the top, say, Teddy Charles, Dave Frishberg, Phil Woods, and Nancy Overton.

Mr. TEDDY CHARLES (Musician): We were just going in and having these really swinging jam sessions.

Mr. DAVE FRISHBERG (Musician): You just showed up, any time of the day or middle of the night.

Mr. PHIL WOODS (Musician): It was life. We didn't think anything of it.

Ms. NANCY OVERTON (Musician): But everybody loved it. That was just the place.

Mr. WOODS: Now it's a big deal. Oh man, you played with - yeah, so? You know, that's the way New York was.

FISHKO: 821 Sixth Avenue. The forgettable address of a nondescript building that was, for some number of years, the place to be.

For NPR News, I'm Sara Fishko.

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