New documentary on the 1956-57 NY jazz scene as documented by W. Eugene Smith

By Matt Micucci

WNYC’s award-winning radio host and producer and Emmy Award winning film editor Sara Fishko makes her film directorial debut with The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith. The documentary is screening at DOC NYC on November 13 and 16.

Produced by WNYC Studios – a top producer of podcasts and public radio programming – in association with Lumiere Productions. It explores the 1957-56 New York jazz scene as documented by former LIFE Magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith in his dilapidated Sixth Avenue loft.

It does so by combining tens of thousand hours of sound recordings, the W. Eugene Smith Archive gave Fishko open access to curate audio and still pictures of jazz musicians including, Thelonious Monk, Hall Overton, Zoot Sims, Freddie Redd and Jimmy Giuffre, to create this stunning time capsule of a fabled moment in New York City history.

Smith left his family and his job, moved into the non-residential (and illegal) living space at 821 Sixth Avenue, wired the building for sound from the ground floor to the top, and began recording on 1/4 inch tape the sounds of jam sessions, rehearsals and bull sessions, as well as the radio and TV programs he listened to most of the day and night. He also shot his largest body of photographic work in and around and out the window of what became known as the Jazz Loft.

The film uses selections from that audio and those photos, along with newly photographed interviews with participants, archival footage and re-creations to tell the story of those years in New York, and allow the viewers on a deep dive into the world Smith had come from before his Loft years.

Some of the participants that were interviewed for the documentary include Sab Stephenson, author of The Jazz Loft Project, who discovered the Jazz Loft tapes piled in a corner of Smith’s photo archive at the Center for Creative Photography, and then set about to untangling, studying and sharing the storied he found inside the boxes.

Other interviewees include Carla Bley, jazz pianist, vocal and composer who went there after her day job as a cigarette girl at Birdland, and the iconic contemporary composer Steve Reich, who had composition lessons there with Hall Overton, the dynamic Juilliard teacher, composer and jazz arranger.

On top of being the first feature film directed by Sara Fishko, this is also the first film to be produced by WNYC Studios. The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith is an outgrowth of the award-winning Jazz Loft Radio Series, a 10-part national series that Fishko herself produced and hosted for WNYC in 2009, which brought many of the recordings to the general public for the first time.

Fishko said “We’re not exactly sure what W. Eugene Smith thought he was doing, but what he did do was capture this place during those years as thoroughly as any one place has been documented over time. What a luxury to be able to sort through Smith’s obsessive work and make it into a film.”

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