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A Jazz Weekend

With guests staying in town and tickets to the Village Vanguard to hear Bill Frisell's 858 Quartet on Sunday night, the weekend took on a jazz theme. In addition to also hearing snippets of free live jazz in Washington Square Park, we took a group excursion to the NYPL’s Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center to see the exhibit, The Jazz Loft Project. On Sunday afternoon, I ventured a solo trip to revisit photographer W. Eugene Smith's loft on Sixth Avenue, the subject of the exhibit, to see what remained of this jazz-infused block near W. 28th Street. Within forty-eight hours, a few trips on the A train and the walks around Lincoln Plaza, the parks, the streets, and the avenues assumed varying syncopated tempos on their own. Like Vachel Lindsay picking up the tempo of the elevated trains for his poetry, the walking excursions to places in jazz history tapped into the alternating syncopations and meters of the language of jazz. Listening to the street, the visits seemed to inspire riffs on an altered image, down beats strong enough to forsake straight photography at times for alternative sources of visualization. Jazz was making me look anew at the city's visual rhythms.

The Jazz Loft Project, a multimedia exhibition focusing on photographer W. Eugene Smith's documentation of the city's jazz scene in the 1950s and 1960s, closes at NYPL's Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center this week, and for serious jazz fans, it's not to be missed. The exhibit was organized by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University in cooperation with the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona and the Smith estate.

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. 40 Lincoln Center Plaza.

A successful photographer for Life magazine, Smith quit the magazine in 1955 after arguing with the editors in order to pursue more creative freelance assignments. He joined the Magnum Photo Agency and soon headed to Pittsburgh for a documentary project. He managed to lengthen a short visit of a few weeks into an unmanageable project of thousands of photographs over a period of three years. Stressed and strung out, he moved away from his family and home up the Hudson and into a messed-up loft in New York at 821 Sixth Avenue near W. 28th Street. In the heart of the flower district, the five-story building had become a favorite late night hangout for some of the most celebrated jazz musicians in the history of the genre - Thelonius Monk, Zoot Sims, Charles Mingus, Bill Evans, Roland Kirk, and many more. According to the documentation by scholar and writer Sam Stephenson, nearly six hundred musicians, teachers or artists can be documented at one time or other visiting this mecca of jazz, creativity, and art during its heyday.
821 Sixth Avenue is the white five-store building at right. Smith lived on the fourth floor.

As a resident of the loft, Smith made approximately forty thousand exposures between 1957 and 1965, images of jazz sessions, portraits of musicians and colorful characters, and of street life from the vantage point of a window in his fourth-floor apartment. His night images in black and white - neon signs, cars slipping through rainy streets, smoke, and exhaust fumes - often evoke a seedy and slightly dangerous film noir city, one often depicted by other photographers and cinematographers in the 1950s. Many are straight shots, while others, such as a shot of the nearby Empire State Building seen through a jagged tear in a papered-over window, veer toward the experimental.

The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965
Fortunately, the photographer, enjoying the fad of the day for reel-to-reel sound recording, wired 821 Sixth Avenue for audio recording. Previously unheard before The Jazz Loft Project, Smith's preserved recordings reveal his wide range of interests, from recordings of jazz sessions to ambient street sounds to tapes of radio and TV programs. He taped Mr. Magoo cartoons, radio talk shows, poetry readings, and news coverage of John F. Kennedy's election and assassination.

The exhibit of The Jazz Loft Project includes sights and sounds, displays of his photographic and recording equipment, and a 16mm film of Smith working in the loft. Listening to the jazz in the headphones while looking at the photos encourages rich associations between image and sound. The exhibit continues through May 22, 2010. The official website is the main place for exploring the project online, and the companion book is great for offline browsing.

• The loft building at 821 Sixth Avenue still stands today (see above), although the jazz milieu along the block has given way to the wholesale trade in pashmina scarves and cheap handbags. Within the dwindling Flower District near Seventh Avenue and W. 28th Street, older loft buildings house inexpensive accessories and merchandise, but many of the buildings shown in Smith's photographs have since been replaced with high rise apartment buildings, unremarkable office buildings, or cheaply built fast food restaurants. A few remnants of the older city linger. A flower shop in Smith's photograph at the corner of W. 28th and Sixth Avenue, for example, is still a flower shop.


Contemporary scenes of Sixth Avenue and W. 28th St,

• Last weekend's sunny weather brought out the crowds and the musicians to Washington Square Park. The jazz cats often frequent the west side of the park, and it's possible to hear some great jazz standards while relaxing on a park bench and watching the world walk by. Help them out when they pass the hat or buy one of their CDs.



Richter 858• On Sunday evening, our merry group took in Bill Frisell's 868 Quartet at the Village Vanguard (178 Seventh Avenue), and while the composer and accompanying star musicians (Hank Roberts, Eyvind Kang, and Jenny Scheinman) played in one of jazz's best known houses, the music itself pushed through existing walls in the genre. Frisell originally composed the music for his 858 Quartet based on Gerhard Richter's Abstract Picture (858-1 through 858-8) - hence the group's name, so the music offered intentional dissonance and abstraction while still finding its way to Frisell's well-known lyricism. For an hour, sitting behind clusters of people gathered around tables, I became lost in sounds that defied my expectations. In the richly sonorous triangular basement room of the Vanguard, I heard new sounds that I immediately longed to hear again. And what better way to wrap up a walk through a jazz weekend in New York?

Empire State Building, from near the corner of Sixth Avenue and W. 28th Street. Made with an iPhone and Hipstamatic app.

Images and sketches by Walking Off the Big Apple. May 15-16, 2010.





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