Jazz in the Movies: The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith (2016)

You’re walking in a big city and, from somewhere nearby, you hear jazz. You see an anonymous doorway and wonder, “What’s going on in there?”

Step inside.

From 1957 to 1965, a rundown walkup building in Manhattan’s Flower District was the unlikely home of a jazz venue like no other. Following a divorce, Kansas-born Life photojournalist W. Eugene Smith sold his large upstate home and moved into the 6th Avenue building. He wired it for sound and pictures and threw it open to modern jazz musicians who were then, as ever, on the lookout for inexpensive (or better, free) spaces to hang out and make music.

The result was extraordinary and, thanks to Smith’s fly-on-the-wall viewpoint, unforgettable. The musicians weren’t aware they were being recorded or photographed. Smith’s thousands of hours of audio and 40,000 photographs were the raw material used to make a remarkable documentary called The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith, directed by Sara Fishko.

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The loft was no place for a dilettante. Thelonious Monk lived there for weeks, rehearsing with his new big band for a concert at Town Hall. Zoot Sims, Jimmy Giuffre, Sonny Rollins, Alice Coltrane and dozens of other jazz artists came to jam and hang out in all-night sessions. They did so until the police took notice — jazz was decidedly beyond the zoning bylaws — and Smith and the rest were evicted in 1965.

The audio and visual archive of Smith’s years in the loft is massive, and is held today at a university. This documentary is the first dip into this treasure house of sound and image. But it’s not just a jazz documentary. Much of the film deals with Smith’s career as a war photographer and his own personal issues. There’s clearly more material in that archive worthy of a sequel.

I saw this film last year at Hot Docs Cinema, but it won’t suffer on the home screen. Put your isolation thoughts on hold and travel back 60 years to find out what was going on behind that nondescript door.

How to watch it online:

David Basskin is the host of The Nightfly, Saturday at midnight on JAZZ.FM91. You can reach him at nightfly@jazz.fm.