by Sam Stephenson
Alfred A. Knopf
Sam Stephenson’s book contains photos and accounts of the many jazz musicians who were welcomed to assemble and jam at his New York apartment building. The top three floors of the building on Sixth Avenue in the industrial/retail section of mid-town Manhattan was inhabited by artists and musicians and allowed for late night jamming without complaints from neighbors.
821 Sixth Avenue was home to one of those rare circumstances in the history of musics where like-minded musicians and artists gathered consistently over a long period of time to collaborate, play music, and share ideas and experiences and further their craft without outside pressures or restrictions. Painter David Young, who resided on the 5th floor came to know some of the local jazz musicians in the early 50’s. He opened his loft to them for rehearsal space. Hall Overton, who was influential to notable musicians Steve Reich and Thelonious Monk, occupied the 4th floor where he would conduct music lessons. Musician Dick Cary occupied the 3rd floor.
W. Eugene Smith moved into half of Overton’s level to complete work on an ambitious project to document the city of Pittsburgh. The photojournalist became known for his front-line photography of WWII and was a popular photographer for life magazine. After setting up his apartment to sort through the thousands of photos taken in Pittsburgh, he eventually abandoned the project and turned his attention to life on the street outside his window and the musicians that came to his building.
In addition to taking thousands of candid stills of the musicians in action, Smith also wired the entire building with microphones and recorded just about everything. Details of the the music recordings and photos of the indexed open reel tape boxes abound throughout the book as well as transcripts and accounts Smith’s recordings of conversations, radio and television broadcasts, and musicians simply practicing. There is even a transcript of a recording of Smith talking about his recording equipment. The photos, though, are where interest in Smith as a photographer and the musicians who were there intersect. The list of jazz greats that stopped by is a long one, and the jazz great-but-unknowns is longer. A short list of photos of musicians featured in the book include Thelonious Monk, Jim Hall, Zoot Sims, Buck Clayton, Jay Cameron, Dave McKenna, Roland Kirk, Bud Freeman, Wingy Manone, Gus Johnson, and Bob Brookmeyer.
In addition to the black and white photos of the musicians, Smith also captures life on the street outside his window. These photos paint a vibrant picture of New York in the late 50’s and early 1960’s and provide additional historical context to the events occurring inside 821 Sixth Street: photos of men in suits with handkerchiefs in the breast pocket wearing fedoras and porkpie hats; ladies wearing gloves and trench coats; stenciled lettering on shop windows next to hand painted and neon advertisements; fire trucks with open cabs and police cars with the single bubble emergency light on the roof; whitewall tires on a passing car.
It must have been quite a scene. In one of the transcripts of Smith’s recordings from 1964, Zoot Sims and some other musicians discuss how the loft scene is regrettably coming to its end. They knew what they were a part of was something unique and are sad to see it go. W. Eugene Smith’s work and Sam Stephenson’s compilation of these efforts captures what they were going to miss.