The Sound of Spontaneity

The Jazz Loft Project Radio Series was created using a remarkable archive of thousands of hours of tape recorded by a great photographer, W. Eugene Smith, in his loft building on Sixth Avenue between 28th and 29th Streets in New York. From that tape, certain sounds and stories emerged that became the focus of the series.

But what has become most fascinating element of this material is the cultural difference that has revealed itself along the way: imagine a world in which playing music was sheer pleasure, without any thought of its destination or outcome; where jamming together was the greatest possible joy for hundreds of musicians who worked until 3 AM in clubs and then – looked for a place to play for a few more hours! 

From this moment in 2009, in which everything anyone thinks or says is twittered or blogged or in some way used, it is revealing to go back 50 years and listen, closely, to something that was never intended to be used in any way.  Because of that, it sounds different.  The music is less structured, less self-conscious, more exploratory.  The conversation is uninhibited, frank and sometimes just plain boring.  The creaky steps and squeaky door of the building people describe as ‘smelly’ add to the profile of a place that was simply not ‘for show’ in any way whatsoever.

We’re not sure exactly what gave W. Eugene Smith the idea that recording and photographing life in The Jazz Loft would be of any interest, but he was right:

the spontaneous musical moments and intimate conversations he captured on tape tell us things about the post-World War II cultural world of New York that we could never know otherwise.

It is a trip to another world, that happens to be right down the street.


Sam Stephenson's book, The Jazz Loft Project, will be published by Knopf on November 24, 2009.

Visit The Center for Documentary Studies' Jazz Loft Project page here.



Host/Producer: Sara Fishko

Technical Director: Edward Haber

Consulting Editor: Julie Burstein

Assistants/Associates: Oliver Kramer, Nina Goodby, Noel Black, Alexander Yellen, Laura Mayer

Web Team: Laura Mayer, Valentina Powers, Allison Lichter, Otis Hart, Elizabeth Zagroba

Executive Producer   Dean Cappello


For The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke

Project Director: Sam Stephenson

Research Associate: Dan Partridge

Jazz Loft Project Coordinator: Lauren Hart


The Jazz Loft Project Radio Series was supported in part by a grant from The National Endowment for the Humanities; and by an award from The National Endowment for the Arts.



Produced by WNYC.