“I caught the tail end of when New York was cool,” said a woman waiting in line to watch movies with Shia LaBeouf this morning.
Should she want to relive those days, she might want to forget about #AllMyMovies and catch The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith, showing Friday and Monday as part of the DOC NYC festival. The documentary by Sara Fishko is an offshoot of her “Jazz Loft Radio Series,” a 10-part WNYC production that unboxed the audio recordings that legendary photographer W. Eugene Smith made while sharing his Chelsea loft with some of the jazz greats of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Her new documentary adds a visual element, sharing some of the thousands of photos that Smith took of the loft’s habitués, from Thelonius Monk to Salvador Dali to Warhol’s Ultra Violet, and the street life below.
In the 1940s, Smith was a “kind of saint among photojournalists,” as one observer puts it. But he was also a procrastinator and a control freak, and his career as an acclaimed Life magazine photographer came to an end amidst editorial squabbles. Hired by Magnum to shoot 100 photos to mark Pittsburgh’s bicentennial, he ended up taking some 22,000 shots over the course of four years – a testimony to the frenzied, obsessive nature that kept Smith up at all hours of the night. (Amphetamines also helped.)
Before he moved into the jazz loft, Smith and his family lived in a stately manse, said to be a former sanatorium, in Croton-on-Hudson. There, recovering from wounds he sustained while photographing World War II, he took his famous “A Walk to the Paradise Garden” photo. But Smith, a restless workaholic, wasn’t cut out for family life. When unpaid taxes forced him to leave suburbia, he all but abandoned his wife and children to take up residence in the loft.
Visitors to 821 Sixth Avenue, interviewed here, describe the loft overlooking the Flower District as a cluttered “rat’s nest” and a “dump” within a “cave of a building.” But the hoarder’s den was also a “little nirvana” where, due to the neighborhood’s commercial zoning, jazz musicians like Zoot Sims could jam till dawn. There’s a story of Sims holding court for two days straight, to the point where he wiped out all of his fellow saxophonists and the drummer; he ended up playing the drums himself while he kept on blowing the horn. Take that, Shia LaBeouf.
Smith completely wired the building for sound and recorded day and night, clocking over 4,000 hours on 1/4-inch tapes. He captured everything from the sound of a cat chasing a rat to his favorite TV and radio programs (early in the film, we hear a recording of a WNYC broadcast; as it so happens, The Jazz Loft is WNYC’s first film production).
Among those who share their memories of the jazz loft are legendary composers David Amram and Steve Reich. What brought them there was Hall Overton, a charismatic, chain-smoking composer and music teacher. “I remember the lessons,” says Reich, one of his students. “One time he wrote down what composers do for development. It was a list of maybe 10 or 15 things, and all composers, that’s all they ever do.”
So comfortable was Smith with his neighbor that he would drill holes in his ceiling and through Overton’s floor, so he could put microphones through them. But the relationship wasn’t always harmonious. At one point, when Smith was behind on rent, Overton nailed him into his loft and refused to let him out and until he paid up.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the film comes when Monk works with Overton on an orchestral version of his songs, for what would become The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall. Smith’s photos of Overton attempting to notate Monk’s unorthodox voicings are accompanied by audio recordings of the two hashing out the project on two side-by-side pianos. It’s just great stuff.
All in all, The Jazz Loft is a wonderful trip back in time. It’s screening at IFC Center Monday at 2:45 p.m., but you might want to catch the Bow Tie Chelsea screening Friday at 7:30 p.m., so you can walk over to the site of the loft after the flick. Against all odds, Superior Florist is still across the street.