Jazz Through the Lens of a Master

A decrepit loft building in New York's wholesale flower district was once one of the most idolized venues in jazz. Referred to simply as "the loft," it was an after-hours jazz heaven where artists—mainstream and underground alike—rehearsed and held endless, spontaneous jam sessions. It was also the home to many of these musicians. Then a new neighbor moved in: legendary photojournalist W. Eugene Smith.

Between 1957 and 1965, Smith cut ties with his job and his marriage, and confined himself to the loft. He was looking for a cheap place to live and a refuge from family, economic and professional problems. Fate made him stumble into the largest body of work of his career: about 40,000 photos documenting his stay at the loft that would become The Jazz Loft Project.

The loft, at 821 Sixth Ave., became a musicians' refuge after an artist bought the building. He used one of the floors as a painting studio, but had pianos and drum sets installed in another. A jazz aficionado, he encouraged musicians to use the space for whatever they pleased. These musicians needed a place away from residential areas, where they could practice from dusk until dawn without disturbing anyone. The loft became a huge musical blessing.

"It was a former industrial building that hadn't been used for years. Apparently, it had no heater and no running water," said Cass Fey, curator of education at University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography, who recently finished her research on The Jazz Loft Project. "But musicians and audiences were still loyal to the place, and still came to admire everything that took place there."

Some of the most influential jazz musicians in the world walked on the loft's deteriorated, wooden floors. Pianist Thelonious Monk, bassist Charles Mingus and saxophonist Zoot Sims were among the regulars at the venue. These jazz legends attracted audiences from various backgrounds and from all over the world, including Spanish painter Salvador Dalí and photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank, who appear in some of the photos now on display at the Center for Creative Photography.

But the loft wasn't exclusively for mainstream musicians and big-shot artists. Lesser-known horn players, bassists, pianists and singers also played a huge role in turning the loft into the music legend it has become.

The musicians knew of Smith's past work with Life magazine and his status as photojournalism royalty. He became a fly on the wall, trusted and respected by the visiting musicians. After a few months of snapping photos, Smith installed microphones and began recording the conversations and music that radiated from the loft. The result was about 4,000 hours of recordings.

"The recordings added another dimension because, all of a sudden, there was sound to pair up with the amazing photos," Fey said. "And it just shows Smith's extraordinary documentarian skills."

Smith was among the first photojournalists to publish photo essays, and is often credited with creating the concept.

Among Smith's most memorable works are his photo essays from World War II that depicted the horrifying violence on islands such as Guam and Okinawa; the Minamata project, which showed the impact of mercury poisoning on residents of Minamata, Japan; and Country Doctor, in which Smith shadowed a general practitioner in a small town in Colorado.

The Jazz Loft Project is a big departure from Smith's earlier work. The liberating atmosphere he encountered at the loft was something Smith had been seeking out for years. The limits on his artistic freedom while working for Life pushed Smith to quit several times, and he made the split permanent when he moved to the loft.

"There was a simpatico there between Smith and the jazz musicians, because they, too, were searching for artistic freedom," Fey said. "At the loft, the musicians encountered a place with fewer limitations, away from the commercial world, where they could create jazz in its rawest form."

As he expected, the work Smith did at the loft had no outside funding, and he had to be creative in finding ways to cut costs. For example, when editing photos, he used bleach to bring out highlights and contrasts.

The Jazz Loft Project consists of Smith's original prints and audio recordings. Writer Sam Stephenson discovered the material at the Center for Creative Photography while doing research on another of Smith's photo essays. Stephenson put the exhibition together and gave it the title. And now, after touring since its successful debut in 2010, it is returning to Arizona.

"The exhibition is a great learning experience of Smith's techniques, as well as a great viewing experience of the photos he took at the loft," Fey said. "It has a lot of historical importance because of the time and place it documents. People have the opportunity to see the work of one of the greatest photojournalists of the era."

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