Review: The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith

As a kind of adjunct local release to Minamata, the controversial feature film treatment about American photographer W. Eugene Smith’s black-and-white record of the first major industrial pollution case to garner global headlines, Sara Fishko’s 2015 documentary The Jazz Loft actually does a much better job of explaining Smith’s unique position in the history of photojournalism, not to mention his prickly, contrarian personality. Between 1957 and 1965, Smith’s illegally occupied home and office was a loft in a broken down old commercial building in New York’s wholesale flower district, at 821 Sixth Avenue, which also contained a kind of makeshift space for jazz musicians to meet and jam and bullshit into the wee hours without drawing complaints or the cops. Smith, seemingly the only other round-the-clock tenant in the building, didn’t mind the racket at all. In fact, he installed his own wiring and microphones and recorded much of the activity there, complementing his own voluminous photographic record of the musicians with taped performances and conversations. As you can imagine, all this material is priceless from the perspective of the history of the New York jazz scene, and Fishko has done an incredible job of assembling it all into a coherent and fascinating chronicle of the times. Dare I say, it’s the perfect companion piece to Todd Haynes’ new documentary about the Velvet Underground, which charts another facet of the New York underground art scene.

The notoriously difficult Smith was perhaps the most famous American photographer at the time and could have made a fortune on commissions, but turned down job after job in order to follow whatever non-lucrative muse caught his fancy, and, as the electrical works proved, he put everything into the jazz loft, though Fishko wisely doesn’t limit her study to him alone. The movie exists because of Smith, because of his photos and tapes, but since it was his desire to record what was happening, whether for posterity or his own artistic obsessions, Fishko is supplied with ample resources to delve into the New York jazz scene. Surviving jazz musicians who frequented the loft remember Smith as a mad workaholic, addicted to amphetamines, constantly taking and developing pictures (the chemicals he used and his peculiar methods in the dark room probably shortened his life), and inserting himself into the lives of musicians who accepted him as a fellow artist. Fishko also goes into the economics; how visiting jazz musicians would usually play gigs elsewhere in Manhattan and then schlep downtown to the loft where they’d spend the night jamming, drinking, and doing drugs. But it wasn’t just hedonism. Connections were made. Another main character in the movie is Hall Overton, the classical composer and teacher at Juilliard who also moved into the loft in 1954 and became a jazz aficionado. In return, he taught many jazz musicians theory on a private basis, including Thelonious Monk, who is considered one of the greatest jazz composers and arrangers of all time. There is also plenty of first-hand testimony speaking to the role, both creative and destructive, that drugs, mainly heroin, played in this milieu. 

The movie also briefly charts Smith’s own life, both before and after he lived in the loft, though this exposition is mainly provided for context. Smith likely suffered from some kind of personality disorder exacerbated by the horrible wounds he received covering the Pacific Theater in World War II (he was one of the first genuinely embedded photojournalists), and the drugs and alcohol he consumed in lieu of food. As a result, he was, by his children’s own estimation, the worst father and husband you could imagine. But he sure knew how to make images, and sounds, too. Those sounds!

Now playing in Tokyo at Bunkamura Le Cinema, Shibuya (03-3477-9264).

The Jazz Loft home page in Japanese

photo by W. Eugene Smith, 1959 (c) 2015 The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith

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