Jazz Loft: The Healing Power of What’s Seldom Told
‘Doctor” and “document” come
from the same Latin root,
“docere,” which means “to heal
and make right.” Sam Stephenson ’ 89 wit-nesses the healing power of documentation
each time he interviews someone about
what life was like at a loft in New York
where jazz musicians congregated after
hours in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
“There’s something about paying attention to someone that’s a healing quality,”
Stephenson said. “That’s what I’ve learned
in this project: the transformative possibilities of really caring about someone’s story.”
Stephenson and Dan Partridge ’ 95 bring
a fly-on-the-wall perspective to the music,
the talent, the culture of the New York jazz
scene from a half-century ago through their
work on the Jazz Loft Project at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies.
Stephenson, while working on a book
about photographer Eugene Smith, discovered a cache of 1,740 audio tapes that comprised a 4,000-hour soundtrack of life in
that time and place. Smith had thoroughly
miked the loft where he lived on Sixth
Avenue and East 28th Street, recording not
only the jazz played by the greats and the
not-so-greats, but the conversations, street
sounds and the occasional police raid.
The Jazz Loft Project plans a book of
Smith’s photographs, a traveling exhibit that
will include clips from the audio tapes, and
a 10-week radio series co-produced with
WNYC public radio.
“The way conventional history works is
the most outstanding things are the ones
that are documented,” Stephenson said. “In
this loft, there are many people who are
mediocre musicians who are documented.
That tells a side of jazz history that isn’t
told a lot.”
Over the past five years, Stephenson and
Partridge have tracked down people they
heard on the tapes, videotaping the individual stories of how folks from all walks of
life, from all parts of the country, came
together in an unassuming building in
Manhattan. Stephenson began with 134
names he took from the sketchy labels on
the tapes when he first found them in a
library at the University of Arizona in 1998.
He determined who was still alive and how
to track them down, one by one. Each find
led him to others, unidentified in the tapes
but who were regulars at the loft. His list
numbers 587, and that won’t be the end.
“The people who are long forgotten
have stories just as compelling as the icons.”
Stephenson wrote an article about the
jazz loft for Double Take magazine in 1999.
David Logan read it, and in 2001, the Reva
& David Logan Foundation in Chicago
gave the project its first grant. Other grants
followed, enabling Stephenson to devote
himself full time to the project, copy the
DAN SEARS ’ 74
Sam Stephenson and Dan Partridge at Duke University.
tapes onto CDs and bring in Partridge.
Partridge, who vets and catalogues the
tapes, is the first to hear them. Even though
he would like to get through as much of the
content as he can before the radio series in
2010,“this very well could be my work for
years to come,” Partridge said.“The tapes are
so rich, you can’t just rush through them.”
The tapes were made during an important time historically in the U.S., he said,
and the culture of the times is reflected in
some of the conversations he hears. Even
though some of the jazz on the tapes is
mediocre compared to the final product
that showed up in record stores, Partridge
finds it fascinating to hear the musicians
learning to play the pieces initially.
Stephen Anderson, assistant professor of
jazz studies and composition at UNC, considers a place like the loft to be a jazz laboratory.
“It’s the same as a chemist who does his
research,” Anderson said. “A lot of the tunes
that are now standard repertoire happened
in these clubs. All the exploration is going to
happen in places like the loft.”
Students of jazz can learn from what
doesn’t make the final cut as much as from
listening to the finished version, said
Anderson, who recently released another
CD by his trio. The jazz loft tapes “would
reveal what [the musicians] were doing in
the laboratory as opposed to the recording
session,” he said.
But for Stephenson, a writer, not a
musician, the stories hold more interest
than the music. He has pulled some quotes
from the oral history interviews he has
done and has come up with more than
20,000 words. There is no room for that in
the book of photographs, a fact that he is
“already torn about,” he said.
“The thing that keeps me going is there
are people Smith documented who would
have been lost to oblivion,” he said. “You
look around you and think, what would be
completely forgotten 50 years from now if
I didn’t record it? What can I do to record
something, to tell people about what
would ordinarily be unknown?
“For every genius, there are 500 others.
This project gives us a chance to see what
the other 500 are like.”