The Jazz Loft Project is a story told in fragments by disembodied voices. It is a successful work of art made from the ruins of a failed one, a complete work made from an intentionally incomplete one. It is the story of 2 equally obsessive men, photographer W. Eugene Smith, who made thousands of hours of reel-to-reel tapes at his New York City loft, including jam sessions with some of the greatest jazz artists, and Sam Stephenson, who discovered the archive decades later and produced the book and accompanying film (and website). Smith and Stephenson collaborated on the Jazz Loft Project, decades apart, without ever knowing each other. But this is a work with many authors, some of them unwitting. In addition to the tapes, Smith took thousands of photos of the goings-on in the street below in the flower district. These images together with the tapes create a portrait of a unique time and place in jazz history.
The jazz loft itself was the product of another failed obsession, Smith’s photo-essay of Pittsburgh. A famous photojournalist at Life magazine, severely wounded in WWII while working as a battlefield photographer, Smith quarreled with his superiors and eventually quit. Receiving a commission to create a portrait of Pittsburgh, he ended up taking thousands of photos, expanding the project far beyond it’s intended scope. Enthralled with the idea of creating a complete portrait of a city in pictures, Smith was attempting to do the impossible. Like Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, a similarly incomplete attempt to embody a city in words and images, the project eventually collapsed under it’s own weight and uncertain structure. Telling a coherent story from all of these disconnected fragments proved too difficult. Breaking down emotionally and financially, Smith abandoned the project (and his family), living illegally at the flower district loft, covering every available space with photographs, and wiring the entire place with microphones. He recorded everything, not just music but conversations, radio shows, television sound, the sound of his cat and the sound of the street.
Jazz musicians both famous and obscure came to the loft, sometimes even living there, jamming after hours until early morning. The personnel and the music were free-flowing, unpredictable. Smith recorded everything, with remarkable sound quality, while quietly capturing the scene on his camera from the background. Thelonious Monk rehearsed his Town Hall big band there, and the recordings of him working on the arrangements with Hall Overton is one of the highlights of the project. Even in the so-called golden age of jazz, many of these great artists were struggling. Substance abuse took a terrible toll. Pianist Sonny Clark overdoses at the loft in a particularly harrowing scene. The loft’s resident drummer Ronnie Free, rescued from obscurity by his inclusion on the tapes, became an addict and ended up in the mental hospital before leaving town for good.
Jazz itself is revealed as a music of deep obsession. It is a music of incredible freedom and incredible precision. Smith clearly admired and related to these qualities in the music because of the improvisational approach and meticulous attention to detail he displayed in his own art. An art form requiring incredible dedication, with limited popularity and financial reward, jazz is the story of people who are willing to take enormous risks for the life they choose. Jazz was created in the crucible of these endless jam sessions, these experiments in spontaneous collaboration. The Jazz Loft Project is a work of archaeology, of reconstruction from bits of disconnected evidence. Like jazz, it attempts to create something permanent out of these fleeting moments. Like jazz, it weaves all of its disparate, chaotic elements into something lasting and beautiful.