Inside Whales and Lofts, Part 2

Last time I left you with some impressions I got reading a George Orwell essay, but I also came upon a documentary this week on things this project deals with — things that you, welcome reader or artist, may also want to consider in your art or life. That film was The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith.*

I had some minor grasp of the loft scene in the ‘70s to early ‘80s, and I figured it might be worth a watch. I got more than I expected, though not quite what I expected. This story is centered in the late 1950’s, a time of tremendous artistic momentum that underpinned much that occurred in the more famous ‘60s later. Oddly the man, Gene Smith, featured in the title isn’t a jazz figure at all, but a photographer who lived in part of a run-down and irregularly converted commercial loft in New York City. Smith gets his name in the title, not only because he’s interesting and because his artistic biography is well-covered in the documentary, but because he had a curious desire at this point in his life to document large portions of his everyday reality via still photos, movies, writing, and copious audio recordings.

This trailer for the film leads with the Jazz, underselling the compelling story about photography it contains.

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Lofts are often prized by artists, who like a gas are likely to expand to fill any space — and Smith certainly did that. Whenever I pause to consider my own studio space where many of the recordings for this project were done, I am embarrassed by how messy and cluttered it is. Smith matches me in that clutter from what we see, and the documentary would support a viewer who sees obsessive-compulsive elements in Smith. But unlike myself, or the garden-variety hoarder, Smith was a very accomplished black & white photographer in a number of styles. And then, somewhat like me, the clutter didn’t seem to stop Smith’s productivity — or if it did hamper it, his drive to continue to produce art was strong enough to make that issue moot.

I’m unsure how famous Smith is in art photography circles, but the film departs from its Jazz Loft focus to let us know that he was a very effective war photographer during WWII, one who was seriously wounded in the Pacific theater of that war. He worked for the large format magazines and photo services of the day as a photographer, with enough pull and force of personality to be allowed to create multipage photo essays he selected and laid out for publication himself. By the time of the Jazz Loft he seems to have been doing a lot of street photography, often shooting out of his window at the day to day people who had no sense they were being photographed.**

Even if, like me, you are not au fait with photography and photographers, it’s likely you know at least one or two of Smith’s photos. He’s the guy who shot the famous Harry Truman holding up the “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline. And when I saw a print of another photo just pinned up somewhere off to the side in the clutter of his workspace early in the film, I wondered if he’s responsible for another image that I knew: the emotionally resonant “A Walk to the Paradise Garden”  photo. If you watch the film you’ll get more context for that photo.

So, is there Jazz in this film called The Jazz Loft?   Yes. The late ‘50s were a time when a great many magnificent Jazz records were made, and when high-quality live Jazz performance was still commercially viable. The NYC area was a center of both of those things. The Jazz Loft was apparently like some places I know from my youth just slightly later, it was an open scene, and folks just wandered in and out of some of the loft, including a number of musicians who used it as a place to workshop or jam for their own enjoyment. From Smith’s documentation, it was a somewhat integrated scene at the loft, but predominantly white.*** This may be secondary to the man who apparently owned the loft (he’s said to have been Smith’s landlord during the film) Hall Overton. Overton was a figure unknown to me who was active in what in that era was known as “Third Stream.” Third Stream was an effort to combine composed concert music, often with orchestral instruments, with Jazz. Many, but not all, of the proponents of Third Stream were white musicians crossing over from modern “classical music.” I don’t want to over-simplify this, but while some Afro-Americans coming from a jazz background were interested in such a fusion and contributed significantly, Black Jazz musicians were also involved heavily at that moment in trying to keep Jazz culturally and commercially relevant to their Afro-American peers (“Hard Bop” and “Soul Jazz”) and with the more spiritual and political Black Arts movement.

The film eventually gets to concentrate on Overton for a while, and he’s as interesting as Smith, particularly for someone like myself who’s interested in Jazz and composition. If he sounds like something you’d like to nerd over for a while, I can recommend this lengthy and detailed article by Jazz pianist and composer Ethan Iverson on Overton, but if you’re trying to finish a translation and eventual musical piece using words by Rimbaud, I’d suggest you don’t click on that link.

Other folks who drifted through the Jazz Loft have stories that are told in shorter segments, and I personally like the way the editing and flow of the film allowed the stories to emerge organically, like a good Jazz set. The use of the archival materials (largely from Smith’s posthumous archive) is done very well.

Jazz, “Third Stream,” late ’50 NYC bohemia, and black & white photography are all niche interests. You may need to be interested in at least two of those things to have the highly rewarding experience I had with this documentary. If not, you need to be open to adventure in these areas. No car chases, no who’s sleeping with who dish, no unfolding speculative universe, other than the one that the arts often live in inside everyone else’s: whale’s bellies and lofts.

What did watching The Jazz Loft  bring me? An appreciation of Overton’s efforts, which were largely unsuccessful even within the limited expectations of his niche. In Smith’s story, I found a mirror of my own somewhat obsessive drive to make the elements of this project, and a warning of the possible side-effects of that.****  Recall as I concluded Part 1 of this, that one of my artistic maxims is: All Artists Fail. George Orwell was despairing in 1940 at the batting average of artists seeking to change things in his society, while I’m somewhat heartened that they keep trying. Same box score, just different outlooks. So, Smith succeeded, for a while, and then descended into a state that was productive but not healthy. Overton for all his not-even-a-footnote status in musical history, made an honorable effort. They chose their own adventure, followed its path, saw and felt and knew what they saw.

New Rimbaud here soon, but for today, I’ll leave you with my performance of a quote from an Afro-American writer telling what he saw, felt, and knew about John Coltrane, a piece using a excerpt from LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s liner notes for John Coltrane’s “Live at Birdland”  LP. Jones speaks to the balance of that struggle, of Coltrane’s admirable struggle, and how it might reward us to pay attention.

And thanks for your attention. The player gadget for the audio piece is below, or this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.

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*This assumes you are giving evidence by reading and listening here that you care about some less-mainstream things, and worse yet, a variety of them.  “The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith”  is available most places you can rent or buy movies on computers, smart TVs, or tablets. There’s also a podcast-series which I have yet to sample.

**It’s apparent that many folks either didn’t know or didn’t care that they were being recorded by Smith either. The general reaction of those interviewed was that Smith was fairly overt about his documenting everything he could figure out how to capture, but other stories have him placing microphones all over the place. In terms of his photography within the loft, he had the advantage of “always being there” so that the people drifting in and out didn’t strike a pose for the camera.

***No, I’m not getting all woke on the people portrayed in this film. Just stating what I noticed that ran counter to my initial expectations of what I’d see in the Jazz milieu, even in the late ‘50s when de jure Jim Crow was still a thing. Indeed, the folks in the center of this film were probably significantly more cross-racial than their general society, and for that matter probably more than I am in this other century. Afro-American Jazz giant Thelonious Monk does have a sizable part in a story of one project workshopped at the Jazz Loft depicted in the film.

****I hope not that more dangerous take-away trope: well, I’m not that  obsessed, or chemically dependent, etc. as that person.

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