Jazz Loft Project

"This is gold as far as the history of the music goes. This is one of the missing pieces of the jazz puzzle.” -trombonist Roswell Rudd

From 1957 to 1965 legendary photographer W. Eugene Smith made approximately 3,000 hours of recordings on 1,740 reel-to-reel tapes and nearly 40,000 photographs in a loft building in Manhattan’s wholesale flower district where major jazz musicians of the day gathered and played their music. The tapes have not been played since they were archived, following Smith’s death in 1978, at the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) at the University of Arizona.

The Jazz Loft Project, organized by the Center for Documentary Studies in cooperation with CCP and the Smith estate, is devoted to preserving and cataloging Smith’s tapes, researching the photographs, and obtaining oral history interviews with all surviving loft participants. The transferred recordings reveal high sound quality and extraordinary musical and cultural content, offering unusual documentation of an after-hours New York jazz scene. Smith wrote 139 names of jazz musicians on his partial, haphazard tape labels: famous stars like Thelonious Monk, Zoot Sims, Roland Kirk, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Roy Haynes, and Lee Konitz, along with underground legends like drummer Ronnie Free, bassist Henry Grimes, drummer Edgar Bateman, multi-instrumentalist Eddie Listengart, and saxophonist Lin Halliday, as well as many unknowns. Research on the preserved tapes so far indicates that at least 300 different musicians are represented. Monk was recorded in private collaborations with Hall Overton, a loft resident, and full band rehearsals for now-famous concerts at Town Hall, Lincoln Center, and Carnegie Hall in 1959, 1963, and 1964. As of summer 2007, more than 250 of the loft participants have been interviewed as part of the project.

The tapes also contain many Smith obsessions and oddities, such as recorded street noise in the flower district, late-night radio talk shows, telephone calls, television and radio news programs, and many random loft dialogues among musicians, artists, and other Smith friends and associates. In addition to his photographs of the loft jazz sessions, Smith made thousands of photographs out of his fourth-floor window of life in the flower district. Smith’s tapes, photographs, and the oral histories of surviving loft participants provide a unique portrait of an intriguing place and time. The project will culminate in 2009 with a book, a radio series in collaboration with WNYC Radio in New York, and a traveling exhibition.

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