Hep Cat

Exhibition of W. Eugene Smith work celebrates jazz legends
April 1, 2011

What goes on: W. Eugene Smith at his legendary Sixth Avenue loft in 1957.

What goes on: W. Eugene Smith at his legendary Sixth Avenue loft in 1957.
Collection of the W. Eugene Smith Archive, Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona and The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith

In the late 1950s, photographer W. Eugene Smith lived and worked in a New York City loft building with a remarkable list of inhabitants—famous jazz musicians, filmmakers, writers, and artists. In photographs and audio recordings, he documented an era and captured rare moments with some of the world’s most legendary jazz musicians.

“The Jazz Loft Project: W. Eugene Smith in New York City, 1957 1965,” now on display at the Nasher Museum of Art, includes photographs and audio and video recordings Smith made during that time. Smith exposed 1,447 rolls of film at his loft, making roughly 40,000 pictures—the largest body of work in his career—of the nocturnal jazz scene as well as life on the streets as seen from his fourth-floor window. He wired the building like a surreptitious recording studio and made 1,740 reels (4,000 hours) of stereo and mono audiotapes, capturing more than 300 musicians, among them Paul Bley, Don Cherry, Alice Coltrane, Bill Evans, Roy Haynes, Roland Kirk, and Sonny Rollins.

He also recorded pianists Sonny Clark and Eddie Costa, drummers Edgar Bateman and Ronnie Free, saxophonist Lin Halliday, bassist Henry Grimes, and multi-instrumentalist Eddie Listengart. Also dropping in on the nighttime scene were Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Salvador Dali, Doris Duke, Robert Frank, and Norman Mailer, as well as pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts, thieves, photography students, building inspectors, and marijuana dealers.

Writer Sam Stephenson A.M. ’97, a research associate at the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS), discovered Smith’s jazz loft photographs and tapes eleven years ago, when he was researching another Smith project in the archives of the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography. He has spent seven years cataloguing, archiving, selecting, and editing these materials for a book. In collaboration with CDS, the University of Arizona, and the Smith estate, Stephenson also has created a radio series, a book, and a website. The exhibition is on view at the
Nasher through July 10.

Learn more about the Jazz Loft Project.