Sara Fishko is an Executive Producer and Host at WNYC, specializing in culture.
In this, the final web extra for The Jazz Loft Project Radio Series, listen to interview excerpts from David Amram, Bob Brookmeyer, and Nat Hentoff.
In the early to mid 1960s, the cultural scene is changing in NY, as is the city itself. Dave Young (who first ‘renovated’ the Loft and made it habitable) leaves the lost in ‘60; Smith takes over more floors but is evicted in ‘71. Overton dies in ‘72. Jazz is under increasing pressure from the commercial marketplace that prefers rock ‘n’ roll. Changing neighborhoods, politics and economy mean big changes for jazz, too, including the emergence of Free Jazz. 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.
Photos: © 1957 - 1965, 2009 The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith
Audio: Jazz Loft audio clips courtesy Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.
I used to see Eugene. He was very modest. And like a lot of great photographers or people who can do reportage or are visual artists or writers or bashful composers like me, he enjoyed being in the shadow and watching and observing others, and that’s why he took such good pictures because he was interested not in projecting himself and saying: ‘this is my place’ and being an egomaniac landlord, entrepreneur, he loved music, he loved the musicians, he was interested – and he was very, he wasn’t really shy, he was extremely modest. And he wanted the attention when the music was played to be a space of attention where the musicians could interact with one another. And he had enough sensitivity not to ruin that wonderful atmosphere by barging in or doing anything to interfere. And at the same time, he, like Dave Young, appreciated and understood the incredible value of what was happening there.”
Some people don’t acknowledge this. But jazz is competitive. And there’s a brotherhood and all that, but you get on the bandstand, you don’t want to play worse than somebody. I tell my students: you aim is not to go down to the Village Vanguard and play bad for a first set. You want to go down there and kill for the first set, you want to be the best thing in the world, which is of course, an idiotic ambition. But that’s that crazy little light inside that makes us do all this stuff. I don’t get up in the morning and say I’m going to write a piece that will make Stravinsky’s ghost blush. I try to write something that is okay for me and that works and my taste is pretty rough. So I’m a hard listener, and if I can get past all my guards and sensors then maybe I’ve got something worthwhile. I think it’s those guards and sensors you build up playing, when you’re playing with people who are superior. ‘Cause one of the saddest things that happened that can happen when you grow older… when you’re the younger, you’re the youngest on the bandstand and not the best. Attrition, and so on, commercial circumstances, four years later makes you playing the best and you’re the oldest on the bandstand. You’re usually the bandleader. And that’s not so good because you should have somebody always to challenge you and compete with you to play well.
Well it all depends on who you are and what you’re looking for, and, y’know, at the time there was a fair amount of – I guess you could call it reverse racism – ‘cause I remember when Miles hired Bill Evans he got a lot of flack from some black musicians. ‘Y’know…you don’t know any black piano players?’ And that’s when Miles said something that I thought would said (?) for the ages. He said: ‘Look, I don’t care if somebody is green with red polka dots as long as he can play.’ And Miles was what they’d call in the old days a “race man.” And he was very much into, y’know, pro-Crow Jim, etc, and he got into trouble in front of Birdland when a cop asked him to move and he didn’t move quickly enough, but what he said about Evans was, I thought, strikingly valuable.