W. Eugene Smith, [Loft interior]. ©1981, 2015 The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith.
The beige building located on 821 6th Avenue in Chelsea’s Flower District doesn’t look like much. It is trumped in height by the skyscrapers surrounding it and partially covered by a green construction scaffold – a seemingly ever-present fixture in New York City. A handbag store, with an orange awning, currently sits on the bottom floor of the building. Without knowing its history beforehand, no one would ever guess that between 1957 and 1965, it was a jazz loft, where music legends like Thelonious Monk and Hall Overton once came together to play.
The Jazz Loft (beige building on far right)
Aside from the physical building, little remains of the Jazz Loft. Even so, its legacy is not forgotten thanks to W. Eugene Smith, a LIFE magazine photographer and a documentarian, whose “unstable genius” translated itself into long periods of isolation and depression. His life is now the subject of director Sara Fishko’s film The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith, which will screen from September 23 to 29 at the Metrograph independent cinema at Ludlow.
The film focuses on the time period after 1955, when Smith left his life as a suburban man (he was married and had four children) to move into a rundown loft in Manhattan, next door to the Jazz Loft. By that time, the building – though crammed and dark – had become a popular place for both prominent and obscure jazz musicians to hang out. Although it was illegal to live there, clothing was stored in file cabinets and people maneuvered from one room to the next by using the fire escape.
W. Eugene Smith, [Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Crow, Jim Hall, and Bill Potts], 1957-1965. © 2009, 2015 The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith.W. Eugene Smith, [Ron Free, drummer], 1958. © 1981, 2015 The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith.
It was the perfect subject for Smith who would spend the next decade photographing the people who came in and out of the house. His command post was also his loft window on the fourth floor, where he perched and had an excellent vantage point of Sixth Ave from above.
W. Eugene Smith, [Self-portrait at loft window]. © 2009, 2015 The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith.
Between the years 1957 and 1965, he took roughly 40,000 photographs in the Jazz Loft, and produced 4,000 hours worth of audio recordings by rigging the house with microphones. He recorded legends like drummers Ronnie Free and Edgar Bateman, bassist Henry Grimes, and multi-instrumentalist Eddie Listengart; he watched as Thelonious Monk and Hall Overton worked together during a three-week rehearsal, and stood in the shadow as icons like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Salvador Dalí passed through the loft. Altogether, he documented more than 300 musicians.
W. Eugene Smith, [Thelonious Monk and his Band], 1959. © 1999, 2015 The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith.
The genius behind the film is that Smith’s story is told through his own recordings and photographs, aided only by the narration of surviving loft participants and those who knew him or of him. It is possibly the most fitting way to tell his narrative; Smith was a photo essayist after all. Before the television became a standard fixture in homes, people had access to images, and while a photographer can capture a single moment in time, Smith’s photographs collectively describe a time frame of events. Even after his death, the audience learns about the history of a still-existing building, and more importantly, abut a “long-lost Manhattan,” particularly focused around the after-hours of New York’s jazz scene.
The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith, presented by WNYC Studios in association with Lumiere Productions, will premiere today at the Metrograph independent cinema.
Next check out Inside Metrograph, NYC’s Independent Cinema on Ludlow.