Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Jazz Loft Project

In January 1955 the photographer W. Eugene Smith quit his well-paying job at Life Magazine, left his wife and four kids and sunk wholeheartedly into his obsession with the New York jazz scene. He moved into 821 Sixth Avenue, a dilapidated, five-story loft building in the City’s flower district which was a late-night haunt of musicians, including some of the biggest names in jazz— Charles Mingus, Roy Haynes, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Roland Kirk, Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry, Paul Bley and Thelonious Monk among them—and countless fascinating characters. Smith holed up in his apartment and turned his camera to his new surroundings.

Between 1957 and 1965, Smith shot 40,000 photographs at the Sixth Avenue loft, documenting the nocturnal jazz scene as well as life on the streets of the flower district, as seen from his window. He wired the building like a surreptitious recording studio and created 4,000 hours of audiotapes, capturing more than 300 musicians. Also dropping in on the nighttime scene were cultural figures like Norman Mailer, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Salvador Dalí, as well as pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts, thieves, cops, building inspectors and drug dealers.

The jazz scene declined after the mid-60's, and Smith left the building in 1971 to move to Japan and find his way back into commercial photography. After more than 50 years, Smith's photos and recordings are finally being organized into an accessible body of work. The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University in cooperation with the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona has created "The Jazz Loft Project," devoted to preserving and cataloging Smith's photographs and tapes, and obtaining oral history interviews with all surviving loft participants.

The project has an extensive website and blog, and a travelling exhibition of more than 200 prints is currently on display at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, along with listening stations that give access to remastered selections from Smith’s tapes. All of the photographs featured in the exhibition are included in the new book The Jazz Loft Project. The project is also the subject of a ten-part radio series produced by WNYC, episodes of which can heard here.

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