W Eugene Smith & the Jazz Loft Project

W. Eugene Smith: Dream Street, Pittsburg 1955

This was the photograph, seen on a postcard I suppose, that first brought Eugene Smith to my attention. The late 70s it would have been, possibly early 80s; I was living in Nottingham and working sporadically towards a Ph D thesis on post-war America, film noir and noir fiction. It barely got started, never mind finished. But if it had and if the published version had needed a cover, then this would surely have been a contender. Extremes of black and white, car titled at an angle in a narrow lane, Freudian analysis of dreams, the letter that never came or perhaps it did, the postman who rang twice. How much more noir can you get?

What I didn’t know at the time was that this was just one of 13,000 photographs Smith took in the course of the two years he spent documenting the city of Pittsburg for an assignment that was meant to take three weeks. There followed another two years in which he sought to print and lay out the resulting work. Not a man to do things by halves. Neither a man to suffer the needs and admonitions of picture editors at magazines like Life gladly. They wanted him to hand over the negatives, take his pay cheque and move on to the next job; he wanted to supervise – if not undertake himself – every step of the process, printing, lay out, everything.

The other thing I didn’t know, before seeing Sara Fishko’s recent documentary, was the extent to which Smith worked on images during the printing process; those bright white horizontals along the car’s bumper, for instance, the flare over the offside wheel, almost certainly the result of a skilful application of ferricyanide bleach.

Fishko’s film, The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith, which I saw as part of the London Jazz Festival, spends sufficient time on Smith’s earlier work – photo essays for Life magazine, including the remarkable photographs from his time with American forces in the South Pacific (where he was seriously wounded) towards the end of World War Two – for it to be clear why he was considered one of the masters of his field.

W Eugene Smith: Wounded, Dying Infant found by American soldiers in Saipan mountains, June 1944
W Eugene Smith: Three Generations of Welsh Miners, 1950

But Smith’s battles with those who sought to publish his work never seemed to become easier and his own perfectionism ensured that each new venture took longer and longer, expanding to the point where publication was all but impossible. Joining the Magnum Photo Agency doesn’t seem to have helped a great deal and earning a living to help support his family – he and his wife had four children – became more and more difficult. In 1957, he left them (to fend somehow for themselves apparently, the film isn’t clear about this) to live in a dilapidated loft high in a run down building in New York’s Flower District and there he stayed for seven years, sharing the premises with the composer and arranger Hall Overton and the artist David X. Young.

This was – this became – the Jazz Loft. Musicians would come by after work – which often meant around three in the morning – and jam. Beboppers, Dixielanders, Mainstreamers; Zoot Sims, Pee Wee Russell, Thelonious Monk et cetera. And Smith, more obsessive than ever, recorded everything. Recorded on film: 20,000 photographs taken inside the loft, 20,000 more looking down onto the street from the fourth floor window. Recorded on tape: close to 2,000 reel-to-reel tapes capturing not just the music that was played, but concerts from the radio, conversations, telephone calls.

Beautifully put together, Fishko’s film uses a succession of images and sounds, interlaced with recent interviews with those who were involved, to create a sense of creativity emerging from chaos, and never more clearly than in the section dealing with the collaboration between Monk and Overton which led to the successful concert at New York’s Town Hall on February,28th, 1959. We see Overton, whose students including a young Steve Reich, listening to Monk playing one of his compositions – Little Rootie Tootie – on the piano, then copying down the idiosyncratic voicings and intervals before scoring them for an orchestra comprising trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba, three saxophones, bass and drums. Not easy to do; not easy to play. The musicians involved, including the alto player, Phil Woods, made it clear how difficult the music was to play, how much rehearsal time was needed – three weeks of rehearsing from three in the morning till early morning, and this, as Woods said, with musicians who hardly ever rehearsed at all.

W Eugene Smith: Thelonious Monk Orchestra in rehearsal, New York, 1959. Monk at the piano, Overton standing alongside doorway.


There’s more information about the movie here …

I’m not at all sure where it might be seen theatrically, but it seems to be available for streaming online. See it if you can.


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Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life

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Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life


Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life