Replaying Jazz, Reel by Reel

Aural vision: Smith's experimental portrait of 821 Sixth Avenue

Aural vision: Smith's experimental portrait of 821 Sixth Avenue. Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona

One man's midlife crisis a half-century ago has given jazz fans and historians a mother lode of vibrant, off-the-cuff recordings whose rediscovery will influence the way many of the music's singular figures are perceived.

W. Eugene Smith was pretty much a mess in 1957. At thirty-nine, he had abandoned the suburban security of Westchester County, New York, and quit his job as a photographer for Time-Life, for whom he had captured some of the most resonant scenes of day-to-day Americana in the 1940s and '50s. Then, with quixotic devotion, he turned a three-week freelance commission to document life in Pittsburgh into a four-year project. "While still in the throes of his Pittsburgh obsession," as documentarian Sam Stephenson A. M. '97 puts it, he took comfort in a new one.

He rented a loft in a building in Manhattan, at 821 Sixth Avenue, a place that was known as a hangout for jazz musicians. One of its tenants was Hall Overton, a pianist and arranger, who had turned the address into a kind of ongoing jam session three years earlier. The situation wasn't unusual, as artists and musicians often lived and worked in such spaces. But, in most cases, what occurred was rarely documented.

Delighted with his new arrangement, Smith set out not only to take pictures of the players, but also to record them, placing microphones throughout the space and collecting 1,740 reel-to-reel tapes—about 4,000 hours of impromptu gigs, rehearsals, conversations, even encounters with the cops. Since the musicians included such future legends as Thelonious Monk, Don Cherry, Booker Ervin, Roy Haynes,  Rahsaan Roland Kirk,  and Zoot Sims—during an astoundingly fertile period in jazz—even seemingly trivial moments come loaded with cultural significance.

"It's a dream," says Stephenson. "We don't know what we're going to hear next." Stephenson, who directs the Jazz Loft Project at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies, found out about the tapes while putting together a 2001 exhibit and book on Smith, Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh Project.

As he immersed himself in the Smith archives at the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) at the University of Arizona, Stephenson saw an opportunity to bring to light an entire new dimension of Smith's work. Since the CCP had no resources for exploring the trove, Stephenson put together the necessary grant funding and launched the Jazz Loft Project ( Five years later, Stephenson and his assistants, Dan Partridge and Sarah Moye, have sifted through 1,600 hours of tapes, which they have rendered as digital copies of the originals.

Stephenson has also collected 250 interviews with surviving individuals whose voices are heard on the recordings, which run through 1965. "At one point on the recordings, a policeman shows up," Stephenson says. "He's very familiar. He calls Smith 'Smitty.' I'm trying to find that cop. We've even put ads in Fraternal Order of Police newsletters. There was a lot of minor gangster activity that the cops were in on, so I'm thinking that's maybe why we haven't gotten a reply."

The impact of the Jazz Loft Project is only beginning to be felt. Until all of the material is duplicated and catalogued, it won't be available to the public, but recordings of Thelonious Monk played a critical role in developing commissions for Duke Performances' six-week-long "Following Monk" series.

David Harrington, founder of the San Francisco-based chamber group Kronos Quartet, was so inspired listening to tapes of Monk and Overton conversing about musical arrangements that he incorporated them into the quartet's recent performance at Duke. Their voices—even the sound of Monk's feet as he paced restlessly—could be heard, playing at an ambient level, before the show began.

"It's incredible," says Harrington. "You just hear him walking around, these footsteps creating this rhythm." 

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