WNYC Studios Announces its First-Ever Documentary Film “The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith”

WNYC Studios Announces its First-Ever Documentary Film
“The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith”

Tens of Thousands of Archival Recordings and Photos Tell the Story of
New York City’s Popular ‘50s and ‘60s Musicians Hangout Known as the Jazz Loft

Through the Lens of Acclaimed Photographer
Film Screens at DOC NYC November 13 & 16

(New York, NY – November 5, 2015) – 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,” a new documentary film screening at DOC NYC on November 13 & 16.

Produced by WNYC Studios – a top producer of podcasts and public radio programming – in association with Lumiere Productions, the film explores the 1957-65 New York City jazz scene as documented by former LIFE Magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith in his dilapidated Sixth Avenue loft. Combining tens of thousands of photographs with several 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.

“The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith,the first film to be produced by WNYC Studios, takes viewers on a deep dive into the non-residential (and illegal) living space at 821 Sixth Avenue, which had become a hangout for jazz musicians, both known and obscure, who would play and mingle there after hours. Smith left his family and his job, moved into the building, wired it 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 something of the world Smith had come from before his Loft years. 

The documentary is an outgrowth of the award-winning "Jazz Loft Radio Series,” a 10-part national series that Fishko produced and hosted for WNYC in 2009, which brought many of the recordings to the general public for the first time.

“W. Eugene Smith was ahead of his time when he created a treasure trove of photos and recordings for future generations to experience,” said Fishko. “Not only does his work provide a front-row seat to these private jam sessions, but it also gives us a much richer understanding of New York and the art and music scene of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. 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.”

“We love the stories right below the surface of everyday life in New York City, especially as neighborhoods transform so radically,” said Dean Cappello, Executive Vice President and Chief Content Officer at WNYC Studios. “What Sara has created with the Jazz Loft film is contemporary and historical, epic and intimate, and full of characters who are utterly compelling and unique. It’s this kind of work that defines what the WNYC Studios is all about, and it’s especially thrilling to take our first leap from the radio to the big screen.”

A range of voices bring the audience back to that heady time in New York City history including:

  • Sam Stephenson, author of The Jazz Loft Project (Knopf, 2009) who discovered the Jazz Loft tapes piled in a corner of Smith’s photo archive at the Center for Creative Photography, and set about untangling, studying and sharing the stories he found inside the boxes. 
  • Carla Bley, jazz pianist, vocalist and composer, who went there after her day job as the cigarette girl at Birdland.
  • Steve Reich, iconic contemporary composer, who had composition lessons there with Hall Overton, the dynamic Juilliard teacher, composer and jazz arranger.
  • David Amram, film composer, performer, author and raconteur who came to New York and asked the question, “Where’s the jam session?” – and found the answer in this building.
  • Jason Moran, current jazz pianist and composer, who looks back to that time and derives inspiration from it through Smith’s pictures and tapes.
  • Patrick Smith, a young teen when his father, the revered photographer W. Eugene Smith, moved into the beat-up old building in the Flower District.
  • Bill Pierce, photographer, who had the job of greeting his famous boss W. Eugene Smith’s “groupies” at the door of the building each morning.

The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith is funded, in part, by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for Humanities.

WNYC Studios is the premier producer of on-demand and broadcast audio. Born from the team that created some of the most critically acclaimed and popular podcasts of the last decade, WNYC Studios is leading the new golden age in audio with high-quality storytelling that informs, inspires, and delights millions of intellectually curious and highly engaged listeners across digital, mobile, and broadcast platforms. WNYC Studios creates some of the most beloved audio series, including “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin,” “Note to Self,” “On the Media,” “The Takeaway,” and “Studio 360.” Their programs include personal narratives, deep journalism, interviews that reveal, and smart entertainment as varied and intimate as the human voice itself. For more information, visit http://wnycstudios.wnyc.org