The Jazz Loft Project Radio Series


From 1957 to 1965, the master photographer W. Eugene Smith had a studio and darkroom in a dilapidated building on 6th Avenue north of 28th street in Manhattan.  The Jazz Loft, as it became known, had already become a favored spot for jam sessions by hundreds of jazz players of the day.  During his years there, Smith became obsessed with the goings-on in the building, musical and otherwise, and he taped and photographed them with an unimaginable thoroughness, capturing thousands of hours of sound as well as tens of thousands of images.  The sounds and stories that emerged from those years are the basis for The Jazz Loft Anthology, a ten-part radio series now heard across four one-hour programs.

Hear the whole story of the Jazz Loft years in The Jazz Loft Project Radio Series.


You can listen to The Jazz Loft Project Radio Series in two forms: as 10 individual episodes (episodes and descriptions, below), or as four hour-long installments (further down in the post).


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.


Listen to The Jazz Loft Project Radio Series: Episode 1 -- Introduction

An overview of the incredible Loft story: The discovery of the tapes, the research that followed, revelations from members of the Loft community and a sampling of the variety of tape recorded by W. Eugene Smith (his cats meowing; great players jamming; musicians talking).

Listen to The Jazz Loft Project Radio Series: Episode 2 -- Images of the Loft

We learn more about Eugene Smith and his background, experience in WWII, pioneering work as a photo essayist for Life magazine; as well as his later preoccupation with recording life around him.  We hear from his acquaintances, friends and family; photography experts discuss his work. We hear tapes of Smith himself in conversation, as well as a stream of popular culture material he watched and listened to while working in his darkroom.  With John Cohen, author W.T. Lhamon, Steve Swallow, Jimmy Stevenson, Nancy Overton, others.

Listen to The Jazz Loft Project Radio Series: Episode 3 -- The Tapes

This segment explores the tapes themselves in no particular context: we hear rather longer segments of some of the more memorable tapes including a casual meeting between musicians and loft regulars Zoot Sims and Jimmy Stevenson and a subsequent jam session; powerful piano playing by Dave McKenna; a conversation with the young Roland Kirk revealing his aspirations; a lonely night when nothing was happening, tape still rolling!

Listen to The Jazz Loft Project Radio Series -- Episode 4: Hall Overton

The admiration and love for Hall Overton spills out of those who remember him: a portrait emerges of a brilliant, open-minded musician with a modest, self-effacing manner and an ever-present dangling cigarette.  Overton taught countless students in the Loft, where he lived for a time, ignoring musical boundaries to teach both classical and jazz (the classical musicians appreciated his spontaneity; the jazz players admired his training and skill).  He also hosted symposia, arranged the impossible-to-arrange, preached the gospel of jazz on television and played pretty good jazz piano.

Listen to The Jazz Loft Project Radio Series -- Episode 5: Before the Loft

So many of the stories of the people in the Jazz Loft begin the same way: with the musicians arriving in New York after service in World War II.  This episode examines the history of the 1940s as it set the scene for the remarkable Postwar period in which jazz (and all the arts) flourished.  We hear some of the personal stories of the musicians who eked out a living; nursed a Coke for hours so they could hear their colleagues play on 52nd Street; and grew into professionals whose lives were entwined both in and out of the Loft.  Musicians Teddy Charles, Jim Hall, Bill Crow, Dick Katz, Phil Woods, historian Gerald Early, among others.

Listen to The Jazz Loft Project Radio Series -- Episode 6: Ron Free

The focus is on Ron Free, a musician considered the ‘house drummer’ at the Loft.  He tells us how he lived then, barely getting by, staying on Gene Smith’s couch for months at a time, playing jazz every night.  He relates his story of drug addiction and his eventual realization that if he didn’t leave NY he might succumb completely to the addict’s life.  We learn that these tapes are the proof for him that he did play well, that he did live a life aside from drugs — that he did not ‘invent’ his own story.  We hear some of the tapes featuring Free.  With Ron Free, Jim Hall, Steve Swallow, Jimmy Stevenson, Mose Allison, other musicians who knew him and played with him.

Listen to The Jazz Loft Project Radio Series -- Episode 7: The Flower District

In keeping with the memories musicians had of leaving the loft in early morning after all-night jam sessions — and getting hit with the aroma of flowers from the neighboring wholesale shops — we look at the Flower District.  We learn how this non-residential neighborhood bustled furiously during the day and emptied out after 6pm,  leaving the night wide open for music-making of all kinds without complaint.  We hear from people whose businesses were near the Loft, and also from the musicians who came and went.  With neighbor David Rothman, Flower shop owners, musicians Crow, Hall, Brookmeyer, Charles, Swallow, among others.


Listen to The Jazz Loft Project Radio Series -- Episode 8: Monk Town Hall Concert

The “Crown Jewels” of the Smith tapes: the arranging and rehearsal sessions spanning a three-week period in 1959 when Thelonious Monk and Hall Overton were preparing the Monk Big Band for the February Town Hall concert (now celebrated).  We follow their progress, hear their thought processes and rehearsals and learn more about Monk. With original tentet members Phil Woods, Eddie Bert, Robert Northern; as well as Robin Kelley, Jason Moran, Sam Stephenson, Orrin Keepnews, others.

Listen to The Jazz Loft Project Radio Series -- Episode 9: More Tapes

Another ‘non-story’ episode highlighting more extended tape.  Featured are performances by Chick Corea in the Loft, as well as engaging conversations and jam sessions captured by Smith’s recordings.

Listen to The Jazz Loft Project Radio Series -- Episode 10: Times Change

In the early to mid 1960s, the cultural scene is changing in NY, as is the city itself.  Eugene Smith is evicted in ‘71.  Overton dies in ‘72.  Jazz is under increasing pressure from the commercial marketplace that prefers rock ‘n’ roll. The Loft scene is replaced by a very different community culture scene in Harlem and elsewhere.  With Paul Bley, Brookmeyer, Hall, Charles, Moore, Early, Kelley, Stephenson, Swallow, author Sharon Zukin, others


If you'd prefer to hear The Jazz Loft Project Radio series in four hours, as opposed to the 10 individual episodes, listen to The Jazz Loft Project Anthology, below.


Listen to The Jazz Loft Anthology Hour 1

Listen to The Jazz Loft Anthology Hour 2

Listen to The Jazz Loft Anthology Hour 3

Listen to The Jazz Loft Anthology Hour 4

Tape boxes from Smith's loft

Journalist Fred Kaplan applauds the anthology, calling it a depiction of "the whole subterranean scene, a hidden chapter of American socio-cultural history, now discovered like some long-lost archaeological treasure."

The Jazz Loft Anthology was produced by WNYC in association with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.