The Jazz Loft Radio Project
From 1957-65, W. Eugene Smith, who had been one of America’s most successful photojournalists, retreated to a 4th-floor walk-up on 6th Avenue and 28th Street in Manhattan and took pictures from his window—over 1,000 rolls worth—of life’s spontaneous carnival out on the street.
Next door, the composer Hall Overton was running a late-night rehearsal studio for jazz musicians. Smith started photographing them, too. He also wired the whole building for sound, set up several tape machines, and recorded the jam sessions, as well as conversations and even the occasional news and cultural program on TV and radio.
Sam Stephenson became obsessed with Smith over a decade ago, received grant money to restore the tapes—which had long been stored at the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography—and assembled a smattering of transcripts and photos into a wonderful book, published late last year, called The Jazz Loft Project (Knopf).
Along the way, Sara Fishko, an inspired radio journalist, met Stephenson, caught the fever, and embarked on a five-year project of her own. The result is a 10-part series, lasting four hours, that covers Smith, Overton, the various musicians who dropped by (most notably Thelonious Monk, who used the loft to rehearse his big band for his landmark 1959 Town Hall concert), and the whole subterranean scene, a hidden chapter of American socio-cultural history, now discovered like some long-lost archaeological treasure.
It is completely captivating.
Fishko’s series will be spread out in four parts on WNYC-FM, one each Monday in February, at 10 pm. You can listen to the whole thing, any time, on the station’s website.