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Posts Tagged ‘Jazz Loft Project’

Managed Mayhem

September 15, 2011 | by

W. Eugene Smith, Jazz Loft, ca. 1959, black-and-white photograph. Courtesy of the Heirs of W. Eugene Smith and the W. Eugene Smith Archive at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.

It’s late August in Brooklyn, and two men are trying to figure out how to hoist a piano up to a third-floor window and then release it so that it smashes onto the sidewalk below. “I think the major issue is just balancing out its weight,” says one. They push open a door to the roof to explore their options. A security alarm goes off; they’re undeterred.

The two men, director Chris McElroen and “professional problem solver” Dan Baker, are part of the team behind Chaos Manor, a multimedia performance inspired by the unconventional life of W. Eugene Smith. In the 1950s, Smith, celebrated for his front-line World War II photography, found himself increasingly at odds with his Life magazine editors. He quit his job and, several years later, embarking on what some might call a midlife crisis and others a visionary project, left his wife and children and moved into a dilapidated Manhattan building frequented not only by “derelicts, hustlers, and thieves” (in the words of his biographer) but also by some of the “biggest names in jazz.” From his fourth-floor apartment, Smith spent the next eight years relentlessly documenting the sights and sounds around him. His forty thousand photographs and 4,500 hours of audio reels captured hundreds of musicians, including legends such as Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, and Roy Haynes. Read More »

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W. Eugene Smith’s Wichita

June 22, 2011 | by

A postcard of Wichita, KS, ca. 1900. The Wichita State University Library Special Collections.

Last year I visited Wichita, Kansas, for the first time, a guest of the Ulrich Museum of Art, where I gave a talk on W. Eugene Smith, a native son. At dinner afterward, the photographer Larry Schwarm asked, “Do you have pictures of Smith all over your house?” I’ve come to expect the question of whether I identify with Smith’s obsessions, but it had never been framed like this. I paused, pondered, then answered that I didn’t have any pictures of Smith in my house. I do have pictures of Joseph Mitchell, Flannery O’Connor, Bernard Malamud, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Emmylou Harris, and the hand of Wilco’s drummer, Glenn Kotche. But none of Smith.

I visited Wichita again last April to give another talk at the Ulrich. Like the first trip, I spent several extra days soaking up the town and researching its history, trying to learn as much as I could about Smith’s roots from the vantage of nearly a century later. Nabokov once wrote that examining his childhood was “the next best thing to probing one’s eternity.” But what about probing someone else’s childhood, someone long dead? Rather than my memory or other people’s memories (there aren’t many alive who can attest to Smith’s childhood), I’m investigating faint footprints—artifacts, news clippings, whatever I can find. It seems flimsy, never quite enough.

Between 1900 and 1930, Wichita’s population grew almost five-fold, from 24,000 to 110,000. It was a pioneer town. With few binding traditions and conventions, anything could happen. People could move to town from the farm and figure out ways to make money. It became known as “Magic City.” It also became known as the “Air Capitol of the World,” home to Cessna, Beech, and other aircraft manufacturers during the ascent of that industry.

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Tamas Janda

April 20, 2011 | by

Carole Thomas cutting Tamas Janda’s hair, with Smith’s recorders, ca. 1960. Photograph by W. Eugene Smith. Courtesy of the W. Eugene Smith Archive at the Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona. © The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith

In the fall of 1958, things weren’t going well for eighteen-year-old Tommy Johns. He had graduated from Croton-Harmon High School that year and was working as a janitor, while living with his mother, stepfather, and four younger siblings in an unheated, drafty wood house about two hundred yards from the river and railroad tracks. His parents had money for beer, cheap liquor, and little else. One morning, Tommy got up, put on his secondhand Swedish army coat, told his family he was going to the corner store for cigarettes, and hitchhiked the fifty miles to Manhattan.

Let out of the car in Greenwich Village, he started wandering up Sixth Avenue, choosing that route for no particular reason—maybe just because the cars were going that way. When he crossed the intersection at Twenty-eighth Street, he was surprised to see the familiar figure of W. Eugene Smith standing on the curb next to a tractor-trailer.

Tommy had gone to school with Smith’s son, Pat, and daughter, Marissa, in Croton. He had been over to their spacious, stone home in a quiet, leafy neighborhood on the other side of town. Tommy knew that Mr. Smith had been a famous photographer for Life magazine, covering World War II and other important subjects, yet here he was, standing on the sidewalk smoking a cigarette and looking forlorn.

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Dorrie Glenn Woodson

December 22, 2010 | by

Dorrie Glenn Woodson, 1956. Photograph by Harold Feinstein.

I was encouraged to reach out to pianist Dorrie Glenn Woodson by her first husband, the photographer Harold Feinstein, and she and I met in person in New York before last Thanksgiving. Dorrie, seventy-six years old, had naturally gray hair that was long and free flowing, parted down the middle, and it framed her glasses in the style of Gloria Steinem. Among jazz musicians, no appearance is unconventional (except a rigid one), so I didn’t think about hers until we talked on the phone a few weeks later: When she described her parents, I couldn’t visualize them in her. She was born Dorothy Meese in 1934 on a small farm in rural Pennsylvania near the Mason-Dixon line; her father farmed fruits and vegetables and peddled them in nearby towns, and her deeply religious mother practiced the dawn-to-dusk farm traditions with dedication and care. The Dorrie I met was a long way from the farm.

Young Dorothy displayed a touch and dexterity on piano beyond her years; she won talent shows and admiration. The radio brought Ella Fitzgerald, Nat Cole, Duke Ellington, and other African American musicians into her home, in a nearly all-white region. She was transfixed. Her dreams of being a professional jazz pianist distilled and grew more potent. In 1952, after a talent show in Salisbury, Pennsylvania, eighteen-year-old Dorothy met an African American bassist and singer in the Herb Jeffries vein. He was from Frostburg, Maryland, and twenty years her senior. They began a long-term relationship, in secret due to the scandal of interracial romances at the time. She gained confidence in her ability to make impressions musically and generate opportunities for herself. Things seemed hopeful. But she’d grown up with no sex education—nobody uttered a word about it—and birth control was still illegal and often unreliable. It was double jeopardy.

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W. Eugene Smith

December 20, 2010 | by

W. Eugene Smith at a photography workshop in Eugene, Oregon, 1966. Photographs by Don Getsug.

Since January 1997, I’ve been studying the life and work of photographer W. Eugene Smith. I was thirty years old when I started, and now I’m forty-four. If this wasn’t my calling, God help me.

In 1998, while researching a freelance magazine assignment on Smith’s 1950s Pittsburgh photographs in his archive at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, I stumbled on 1,740 dusty, moldy reels of mysterious tape made in a New York City loft building. What became known as the Jazz Loft Project at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, where I worked, began that day.

Smith’s strange, obsessive achievement between 1957 and 1965 in an after-hours jazz haunt in Manhattan’s flower district—forty thousand photos and four thousand hours of audio recordings—spurred me to visit twenty-one states and interview more than four hundred people. I’ve made 115 trips to New York City over a span of time that can be measured by telephones and storefronts: I called Robert Frank from a cold, indestructible pay phone at the end of Bleecker, near CBGB; Roy Haynes on a Motorola StarTAC from a brownstone on 9th Street, a few doors from Balducci’s; and, a few weeks ago, Mary Frank on my iPhone from Spoon in Chelsea.

Smith is often portrayed as a classic midcentury male artist-egotist, and not without reason. But there was something selfless about his work in this old Sixth Avenue loft building. The people that passed through that space—some famous, most obscure—have sustained me all these years. Perhaps it’s this perpetually unfolding documentary quality that makes the loft work his greatest.

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