Friday, January 8, 2010

What I'm Reading: The Jazz Loft Project

                                         White Rose Sign. W Eugene Smith 1957-58

In 1957, photojournalist Eugene Smith was working on a photographic essay on the city of Pittsburgh, a project that he imagined. hoped, might be his medium's 'Ulysses.' Over the course of a year he had exposed twenty-two thousand images. But his personal life was a shambles. He quit a lucrative job at Life magazine, left his wife and four kids in New York State, abandoned his lover and child in Pittsburgh, and rented a loft space on Sixth Avenue in New York City. The walls of his loft, the stairs leading up to it, were covered in layers of prints, a narrative who's thread he would forever be unable to piece together. But there, in the city's flower district (near 27th Street), he also documented the street life looking out through his studio window. And, he recorded - both with camera and audio - the extraordinary procession of jazz giants who climbed the stairs each night and played jam sessions that lasted until morning: Thelonius Monk, Zoot Sims, Roy Haynes, Don Cherry.

Over a period of eight years, Smith shot almost 1500 rolls of film (40,000 images), and made 4000 hours of reel recordings (once transferred to disc, at a cost of half-a-million dollars, the reels amount to over 5000 compact discs). Astonishingly, most of this work never even saw the light of day. Author Sam Stephenson has spent thirteen years researching Smith's life, exploring the contents of his reels and unopened boxes. One result is this extraordinary book, a book that rewards slow, careful reading. It tells  a story that is definitively New York, quintessentially jazz. Implicitly, it speaks volumes about the lives of artists and musicians existing on the fringes, living on the brink...

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