Hot Air: Big Talk’s New Minor Key

Well, whaddya know? Jazz-themed Big Talks two weeks in a row.

We hosted Bloomington’s foremost jazz DJ David Brent Johnson last week and yesterday the Big Talk person-on-the-spot was author and archivist Sam Stephenson. Sam has written a couple of books about the very talented, very unpredictable photo-journalist/photo-essayist Gene Smith.

Sam Stephenson

Smith was an internationally-known photographer for Life magazine during World War II. He stuck with what was then known as America’s premier weekly periodical until the mid-1950s when he unexpectedly chucked it all — great job, big income, wife and kids, palatial home in upstate New York — and moved into a dingy loft in the wholesale flower district of Manhattan.

It just so happened that many of America’s top names in jazz — does Thelonius Monk grab you? — gathered regularly in the loft next door to Smith’s. The peripatetic lensman wired the entire building for sound upon moving in and so was able to record the musicians as well as hours upon hours of ambient building noise, sort of an endless series of audio snapshots. Smith photographed the players as well. One of the regulars next door, BTW, was a young aspiring composer in his early 20s, Steve Reich, now recognized as one of the late 20th Century’s greatest composers.

In any case, while working on a project related to the city of Pittsburgh’s bicentennial a few years back, Stephenson came across Gene Smith’s name. Smith himself had spent months in the Steel City shooting photos of that urban gem for Life. Stephenson was drawn in by Smith’s work and eventually happened upon the tens of thousands of negatives the photog had shot from his Manhattan loft window as well as the pix from the jazz playground next door. Stephenson found thousands of hours of audio tapes, too. For that matter, Stephenson found himself hooked.

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The results of Stephenson’s obsession with Smith were the books The Jazz Loft Project and last year’s Gene Smith’s Sink.

So, if you missed yesterday’s Big Talk, here’s the link to the podcast.

Talk soon.


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