The Jazz Loft Project: W. Eugene Smith in NYC

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Photographs documenting the 1950s jazz scene in New York
on exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center
July 17 – September 19, 2010

W. Eugene Sims, Zoot Sims 1, 1957. gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the W. Eugene Smith Archive, Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona, and © The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith.

The Chicago Cultural Center hosts the exhibition The Jazz Loft Project: W. Eugene Smith in NYC, 1957-1965, an exhibition of photographs and recordings of some of the jazz world’s greatest legends. In the late 1950s W. Eugene Smith lived and worked in a NYC loft building with an amazing list of inhabitants – famous jazz musicians, filmmakers, writers, and artists. In photographs and audio recordings, he documented an era and rare moments with people such as Thelonious Monk, Zoot Simms, Norman Mailer, Diane Arbus, and Salvador Dali, presented here in photographs, work prints, videos, and audio.

The Jazz Loft Project: W. Eugene Smith in NYC, 1957-1965 will be on view in the Sidney R. Yates Gallery on the fourth floor of the Chicago Cultural Center, at 78 E. Washington Street, from July 17 to September 19, 2010. Admission to the exhibition and associated programs is free.

In January 1955 W. Eugene Smith, a celebrated photographer at Life magazine whose quarrels with his editors were legendary, quit his longtime well-paying job at the magazine. He was ambitious, quixotic, and in search of greater freedom and artistic license. He turned his attention to a freelance assignment in Pittsburgh, a three-week job that turned into a four-year obsession and, in the end, remained unfinished. During this trying period, Smith moved into a dilapidated, five-story loft building at 821 Sixth Avenue in New York City’s wholesale flower district.

W. Eugene Smith, Loft Interior, 1964.

821 Sixth Avenue was a late-night haunt of musicians, including some of the biggest names in jazz—Charles Mingus, Zoot Sims, Bill Evans, and Theloious Monk among them—and countless fascinating, underground characters. From 1957 to 1965, Smith exposed 1,447 rolls of film at his loft, making roughly 40,000 pictures, the largest body of work in his career, photographing the nocturnal jazz scene as well as life on the streets of the flower district, 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 Roy Haynes, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Roland Kirk, Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry, and Paul Bley. He recorded, as well, legends such as pianists Eddie Costa, and Sonny Clark, drummers Ronnie Free and Edgar Bateman, saxophonist Lin Halliday, bassist Henry Grimes, and multi-instrumentalist Eddie Listengart. Also dropping in on the nighttime scene were the likes of Doris Duke, Norman Mailer, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Salvidor Dalí, as well as pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts, thieves, photography students, local cops, building inspectors, marijuana dealers, and others.

W. Eugene Smith, 1957.

Writer Sam Stephenson discovered Smith’s jazz loft photographs and tapes eleven years ago, when he was researching another Smith project in the archives at the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography, and he has spent seven years cataloging, archiving, selecting, and editing these materials for a book and, along with other partners, a radio series, an exhibition, and website.

The exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center evokes the jazz loft through images and sounds. Setting the scene are Smith’s gritty photographs of the loft and the flower district below his fourth-floor window. In addition, the exhibition features and incorporates Smith’s jazz recordings as well as parts of WNYC’s radio series on The Jazz Loft Project.

The Jazz Loft Project: W. Eugene Smith in NYC, 1957-1965 was organized by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.

The Jazz Loft Project at the Center for Documentary Studies was made possible through the ongoing generous support of the Reva and David Logan Foundation, with significant additional support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (The Grammy Foundation). www.jazzloftproject.org.

The presentation of this exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center is made possible in part through the generous support of the Reva and David Logan Foundation.

W. Eugene Smith, Thelonious Monk, 1959.

Related Events

Friday, July 23, 6-8 pm: Opening Reception

Sunday, August 8, 1 pm: In My Mind film screening
In My Mind documents jazz pianist Jason Moran’s composition of the same name in its February 2009 premiere at New York City’s Town Hall. Incorporating audio recordings and images made during the 1959 rehearsals by photographer W. Eugene Smith, Moran’s In My Mind brings together an eight-piece band, The Big Bandwagon, for a full-length, multimedia piece inspired by Thelonious Monk’s legendary 1959 concert at Town Hall.

Thursday, August 26, 12:15 pm: Gallery Talk with Sam Stephenson, Jazz Loft Project director and exhibition curator

Friday, September 3, 1 pm: In My Mind film screening

W. Eugene Smith, White Rose Bar Sign, 1957.


The exhibition is accompanied by a book, The Jazz Loft Project: W. Eugene Smith’s Photographs and Tapes from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965, authored by Jazz Loft Project director and exhibition curator Sam Stephenson. A kaleidoscopic, non-linear sequence of photographs, tape box cover imagery, anecdotes, and episodic text drawn from project interview and loft tapes, the book features top-quality reproductions of approximately 175 photographs, made by Smith in the loft building that was the site of now-famous after-hours jazz jam sessions. The book is published by Alfred A. Knopf and DCS books (288 pages, 180 pages, $40).

Also on the fourth floor of the Chicago Cultural Center, the exhibit Stranger in Paradise: The Works of Howard Finster will be on view from July 24 to September 26, 2010, in the Exhibit Hall. On exhibit in the Cultural Center’s first floor Michigan Avenue Galleries are Nicargua: Photographs by Grant Ramsey from July 3 through September 26, 2010, and Expect Nothing: New Works by Jackie Kazarian and Coterminous: An Installation by Jason Peot from July 10 through October 3, 2010. The Project Onward Gallery is showing Blake Lenoir: Backyard Eden from July 16 to September 8, 2010, and the exhibition Louis Sullivan’s Idea continues in the Chicago Rooms through November 28, 2010.

W. Eugene Smith, Sixth Avenue Corner, 1957.

The Chicago Cultural Center is located at 78 E. Washington Street. Viewing hours for The Jazz Loft Project: W. Eugene Smith in NYC, 1957-1965 and other exhibitions at the Chicago Cultural Center are Mondays through Thursdays, 8 am to 7 pm; Fridays, 8 am to 6 pm; Saturdays 9 am to 6 pm; and Sundays, 10 am to 6 pm. The Chicago Cultural Center is closed on holidays. Admission to Chicago Cultural Center exhibitions is free.

Exhibitions and related educational programming presented by the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs at the Chicago Cultural Center are partially supported by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency. Transportation support is provided by United Airlines, the Official Airline of the Chicago Cultural Center. Lawry’s the Prime Rib is the restaurant sponsor of Chicago Cultural Center exhibitions.

The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs is dedicated to promoting an ongoing celebration of the arts and supporting the people who create and sustain them.

For more information about The Jazz Loft Project: W. Eugene Smith in NYC, 1957-1965 and the Chicago Cultural Center, the public can visit www.chicagoculturalcenter.org or call 312.744.6630. (TTY: 312.744.2947).