What do you get when you cross a professional photographer driven by an obsessive (some might say self-destructive) work ethic, a rotating selection of musicians from the golden era of jazz, a ramshackle New York City loft, archive of roughly 40,000 photos and 4,000 hours of reel to reel audio tape? The answer is a book, public radio series, and—finally—documentary film that provides a fascinating look at its subjects and unearths some visual and audio documentation of an important piece of jazz history.

WNYC Radio producer Sara Fishko listened to around 400 hours of the tape from W. Eugene Smith’s collection to put together the original radio documentary and the film.

W. Eugene Smith (1918-1978) was an award winning photographer best known for his photo journalism, including several essays published in Life magazine during its heyday and a stint as a paid staff member: a plum job.

While Smith is the central figure in the film, an equally important character is the ramshackle loft at 821 Sixth Avenue that Smith inhabited from 1957-1965. The building happened to be an after hours hangout for jazz musicians and had the perfect environment for them. At the time, the area was the center of the wholesale flower trade and largely uninhabited at night. Large, spacious loft spaces without neighbors to complain about after work jam sessions—which meant the wee hours of the morning for working musicians—drew several jazz luminaries. Charles Mingus, Zoot Sims, Bill Evans, and Thelonious Monk were all drawn to the space and Smith captured some 300 musicians on tape, including Roy Haynes, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Roland Kirk, Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry, Paul Bley, and Ron Free.

Smith originally moved in to the loft (abandoning his family in the process) to focus on his work and finish an ambitious project he had been commissioned to do: a photo essay on Pittsburgh, PA for its bicentennial. This period is where the film begins in earnest. Smith’s experience in Pittsburgh is probably an equally apt metaphor for his life and approach as is his prodigious output and awards.

Meant to be a fairly quick and lucrative project, the Pittsburgh photo essay drew him in. Instead of the two to three weeks and 200 photos he was contracted for, he stayed for months (later returning for more photos) and took some 17,000 photos. Smith, driven to prove his artistic chops after quitting his staff position at Life over creative differences, had taken on a Sisyphean task—and one that he would not complete in his lifetime.

While the film doesn’t dwell on the point, Smith’s obsession with work took priority over his family. It’s probably an understatement to say that he wasn’t the ideal father.

When telling stories like this one, it’s difficult to avoid falling into the twin traps of painting an uncritically nostalgic picture of the magic of the loft scene or reducing it to a story of tragic artists consumed by their work to the exclusion of all else.

To Fishko’s credit, the film avoids value judgments, instead allowing the subjects to tell their own story and viewers can come to their own conclusions.

Still, the film points out the toll that the loft life took on the musicians. Drummer Ronnie Free is interviewed extensively and was in the midst of the loft activity. Free ended up in Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric ward. Exactly why isn’t explained, but Free and others recount the prevalence of drugs on the scene and a generally unhealthy vibe. Following his release, Free got out of NYC and never returned. It marked the end of his jazz career, but it’s suggested that the decision may have saved his life.

Toward the end of the film, Smith’s son returns to recall that toward the end of his father’s stay in the loft (he was evicted in 1965), he finally had to put firm boundaries on their relationship. The elder Smith would call in distress and the son would rush down in the middle of the night. He put a stop to it to preserve his own family — and sanity — from the type of disruption that, viewers can presume, took its toll on the elder Smith’s family.

The centerpiece of the film, however, is an account of preparations for pianist Thelonious Monk’s 1959 Town Hall concert and collaboration with Hall Overton, who helped arrange Monk’s complex music for the large ensemble. Rehearsals lasted for three weeks and the loft was the headquarters for the effort. Historian (and Monk biographer) Robin D.G. Kelley is interviewed and the helpful context he provides for Monk is a welcome addition.

As usual, Smith was there and kept the tape rolling as musicians worked through the arrangements and debated how best to adapt the more challenging parts while several microphones Smith had embedded all over the space captured the sounds. The musicians’ comfort level with Smith was high enough that he just blended into the background, his camera clicking away, visually documenting preparations for what ended up being a historic performance.

Saxophonist Phil Woods appears throughout the film both on Smith’s audio recordings and in a recent interview reflecting on the loft. It’s an unexpected but welcome treat considering his recent death.

Kelley and Woods shed light on the difficulty of Monk’s music and the task of translating his idiosyncratic phrasing into work for a large ensemble. Monk and Overton collaborated on this and the film chronicles their working relationship and process extraordinarily well.

The large segment devoted to Monk in the middle of the film threatens to derail the storyline, but it goes safely back on course.

One major unanswered question of the film is left to a police officer walking his beat who climbs the rickety stairs to Smith’s loft to ask what’s going on. Why record all of this stuff and document it all so obsessively?

Smith’s quick reply to the bewildered officer—recorded on reel to reel audio tape by himself of course—is that he’s writing a book. While Smith did complete a photo essay of street scenes shot from his loft window for Life as a freelancer, whether or not a full length book was truly his quest is something only Smith could answer for sure. The same goes for exactly why he began capturing everything possible decades before technology would progress enough to provide viable platforms to display his obsessive documentary efforts.

Smith’s departure from the loft seems almost anticlimactic and minimal space is devoted to it: a wise choice, considering the film’s focus.

To a certain extent, it’s the end of an era. Jazz declined precipitously in popularity in the late 1960s and artists were having an increasingly more difficult time supporting bands and finding work. Sixth Avenue, with the elevated railway becoming a more distant memory and with its rebranding as Avenue of the Americas, was in the process of becoming the more upscale strip it is today and less amenable to quirky spots like the loft.

The loft scene itself would continue, with musicians simply moving elsewhere: Ornette Coleman’s loft downtown and Larry Rivers’ Studio Rivbea as just two examples.

What we’re left with is a film that does an admirable job of assembling several diverse storylines into a coherent whole. Expert editing combines Smith’s wonderful photos and impressively good audio into a very watchable package.

The Jazz Loft According to W Eugene Smith captures a snapshot of a New York that’s largely disappeared, an important era in jazz history, and an artistic mad scientist who aimed high and didn’t always meet the impossibly high goals he set for himself, but left an astonishing body of work in his wake. The film does justice to all of that.
Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York.