A ravaged five-story loft at 821 Sixth Avenue in New York City was the scene of a wild creative scene in the late '50s and early '60s, obsessively captured on audiotape and film by the erratic photographer W. Eugene Smith.
The commercial loft in Manhattan'a flower district was the home of post-midnight jam sessions by the city's jazz musicians, who would hear about the gatherings through word of mouth and show up to play. Smith, who lived in a loft room from 1957 through 1965 after leaving his family's suburban home, recorded the sessions on audiotape and by camera. Eventually, he took to recording every aspect of his life, from telephone conversations to TV and radio broadcasts. His archives include 4,000 hours of audiotape and 40,000 photos.
A splendid documentary, "The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith," chronicles those cultural times. The film, written, produced and directed by Sara Fishko, was produced by WYNC Studios, with the assistance of the endangered National Endowment for the Humanities.
Having quit LIFE magazine after frequent conflicts with his editors, Smith moved to Pittsburgh for a freelance assignment to document the city, a project he never completed. He then left his family to move to the loft, where he not only shot photos of the jazz sessions, but street scenes from his window above. The film shows him covering walls, hallways and floor space with his photos.
My favorite part of the documentary, which I caught the other night on the Starz network, was Thelonious Monk working with the arranger Hall Overton, who also lived in the loft, on a big-band performance of Monk's music. The intuitive Monk and classically trained Overton are shown inventing their own musical language to impart Monk's ideas to 10 musicians, who weren't used to the hard rehearsals nor Monk's idiosyncratic chord voicings and style of playing.
Smith comes off as a gentle genius losing control. He was eventually evicted from the loft, which still stands between 28th and 29th streets. His photos and recordings are now at Duke University.
The film documents an era of freedom in American culture when creative frontiers were pushed forward. Art and imagination were valued more than commerce, a situation that ended all too soon. It's romantic to look back at an art hero like Smith, all the while realizing the terrible price he paid.