Books: May-June 2010

Writer: 
June 1, 2010
The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith From 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965

The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith From 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965. By Sam Stephenson. Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. 288 pages. $40.

Last year produced a wealth of books on jazz, with Robin D.G. Kelley's Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux's Jazz, Terry Teachout's loving memoir of Louis Armstrong, Pops, and this amazing book. Of these four books, Loft is the most elliptical in approach but also the most alluring.

W. Eugene Smith was a legend in photographic circles when, in 1957, he gave up a steady job as staff photographer for Life magazine, left his wife and four children, and moved into a cockroach- and rat-infested apartment on Sixth Avenue, between 28th Street and 29th Street, in Manhattan's wholesale-flower district. He lived there from 1957 to 1971, shooting photographs out of his window and taping anything and everything that interested him. He rigged the wiring for his tape recorder across three floors through the walls, even floorboards, amassing a time capsule of random sounds and events, from jam sessions to conversations in the hall to late-night radio and television broadcasts. (He asked a visitor once, "Do you mind if I turn on my recorder in case something brilliant happens?") Before his death in 1978, Smith donated his photographs and audiotapes to the University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography, twenty-two tons of materials including 1,740 reels (4,000 hours) of audiotape and roughly 40,000 photographic prints.

The Jazz Loft Project is a stew of Smith's photographs and audiotapes, augmented by interviews with 330 musicians who lived in or passed through the loft. The loft was a magnet for jazz musicians. Rehearsal space was free. There were no neighbors to complain about noise. Best of all, musicians met there as equals; the only hierarchy was talent. And they played as long as they wanted—there was no time limit on solos. Composer-arranger Hall Overton and jazz legend Thelonious Monk rehearsed Monk's orchestra there for the famous Town Hall concert in 1959 and subsequent concerts in 1963 at Lincoln Center and 1964 at Carnegie Hall. Trumpeter Miles Davis, bassist Charles Mingus, and vibraphonist Teddy Charles worked out the ensemble sound Davis featured on his album Blue Haze. Guitarists Jimmy Raney and Jim Hall and valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer developed a unique ensemble sound for their combo.

Then there was Zoot. If one musician was king in these sessions, it was tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims. Bystanders claimed that he played best when he was so drunk he couldn't stand. "Everybody wanted to get a piece of Zoot, you know," says alto saxophonist Phil Woods.

Sam Stephenson, a writer and instructor at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies, and his colleague Dan Partridge traveled nineteen states and the District of Columbia to interview 330 people for this book. They have documented 589 people who played or hung out at the Jazz Loft between 1957 and 1965. The list of musicians who were there is an honor roll of East Coast jazz in the 1950s to mid-1960s: Monk, Sims, Raney and Hall, and Brookmeyer, along with Roland Kirk, Sonny Rollins, Paul Bley, Jimmy Giuffre, Peewee Russell, Buck Clayton, Vic Dickenson, Bill Evans, Roy Haynes, Stan Getz, Steve Lacy, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Joe Henderson, Dick Cary, Buck Clayton, Steve Swallow, Moses Alison, Alice Coltrane. Socialite Doris Duke, the only daughter of the university's namesake, J.B. Duke, made an appearance there. So did composer Steve Reich; painter Salvador Dali; writers Anais Nin and Norman Mailer; photographers Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Robert Frank; and, maybe, once, Bob Dylan.

In December 2000, tenor saxophonist Lou Orenstein, largely unknown today, reminisced about the sessions in which he played. At Stephenson's urging, he jotted down a list of musicians he remembered playing with. Three were jazz icons (Chick Corea, Eric Dolphy, Elvin Jones), two others less well known but significant in jazz's development (Al Haig, Sonny Clark). The remaining names—eight in all—are men who have vanished from the historical record, along with the music they made. Jazz looks different viewed from below.

The Jazz Loft Project evokes a mood similar to that of Dylan Thomas's poem-play, Under Milkwood. Voices rise out of the background, are heard for a moment, and disappear again. Stephenson masterfully juxtaposes photo images and taped conversation to re-create a bygone time and place. Loft is a singularly affecting book, and the photographs are stunning.

 
Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound

Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound. John Biewen, editor; Alexa Dilworth, coeditor. University of North Carolina Press, 2010. 224 pages. $22.95.

When public-radio journalist John Biewen began producing in-depth, long-form programs in the 1990s, he received some ominous advice from a veteran industry executive. "Whatever you do, don't call these shows documentaries," Biewen recalls being told. "Stations won't air them. Program directors will fear mass abandonment by their audiences."

"To a lot of people back in the twentieth century, the word 'documentary' evoked memories of films watched from a schoolroom desk," Biewen writes in Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound. The radio documentary was an especially rare specimen. Commercial stations had all but abandoned in-depth journalism, which was expensive to produce and seemed unlikely to attract an attention-span-challenged audience. Even on public radio, documentaries largely had been squeezed out by shorter, tightly formatted reports of the day's news.

But in part because of persistence from Biewen and other young producers, the start of the twenty-first century brought an unlikely resurgence of the public-radio documentary in a new, more innovative form. Ira Glass pushed the boundaries of the medium with This American Life, an offbeat weekly program that many programmers were predictably slow to embrace. It eventually grew into one of public radio's biggest hits. Robert Krulwich, who already was serving up short doses of inventive reporting on NPR and ABC, teamed with Jad Abumrad for Radiolab, a long-form series that irreverently explores broad topics like "choice" and "morality." And Joe Richman created first-person narratives so compelling that NPR deviated from its regimented news format to broadcast them.

Biewen—the audio program director at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies—chronicles this rebirth of the documentary in Reality Radio, profiling a new breed of radio producers who "do not simply hold microphones in front of people and ask questions," but are willing to get involved with their subjects, reveal parts of their own lives, and paint vivid pictures with sound. Biewen steps aside after his introduction and allows more than a dozen producers to write about their careers and inspirations.

"I loved sound. Recording sound. Editing sound," writes Peabody Award winner Dmae Roberts, whose work has ranged from documentaries about Asian-American history to a dramatic reenactment of her mother's tumultuous childhood in Taiwan. Roberts uses the cadence of her subjects' voices to create rhythms and rhymes that blur the line between journalism and performance art.

Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, known on radio as the Kitchen Sisters, employ sound another way, shedding light on forgotten moments in history and under-appreciated parts of American culture. Through their ears, a routine event like a Tupperware party becomes an aural tapestry: The guests' voices, the springy sales pitches, and the clatter of plastic bowls combine to paint a vivid audio portrait.

Biewen envisions Reality Radio as a companion to the documentarians' audio. People who treasure listening to a particular storyteller now can read about the behind-the-scenes creative process. But he also hopes Reality Radio will be used by aspiring producers. While it's not written as a traditional textbook (thankfully, as most radio texts are sterile and simplistic), Realty Radio's essays reveal techniques of the medium's best practitioners. Richman, for instance, hands over his recording equipment to his subjects, letting them use it for months to record "audio diaries." But he says it's usually weeks before the recordings become usable, when subjects stop "trying to sound like Tom Brokaw" and become themselves.

Glass details mistakes he made as a young reporter struggling to find his voice, then describes the process of constructing an episode of This American Life. As spontaneous as his stories sound, each involves extensive planning and often excruciating interviews, where Glass admits to firing off "half-baked questions, speculations, and proddings" to obtain the one answer that might make a story special. He also reveals a stunning fact in this era of budget-driven journalism:  This American Life throws out (but still pays for) a third of the stories it commissions because they just don't work.

While Biewen alludes to experts who have declared this "the golden age of the radio documentary," Reality Radio doesn't spend much time speculating about why the format is thriving. In an era when the average home has more television sets than people, when we can watch video on our cell phones and interact with multimedia on our computers, radio in some ways seems an anachronism.

But the essayists in Reality Radio know—and audiences continually re-discover—the allure of sound, unencumbered by photos, video, or Flash animation. "We are blind listening to the radio," writes public-broadcasting pioneer Jay Allison. "We create the characters, envision the settings. Images are indelible because we participate in their creation."

—Adam Hochberg

Hochberg, a former NPR correspondent, is a journalist based in Chapel Hill. He teaches radio journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.