A Fly on the Wall: Jazz History on Rediscovered Tapes and the Author Who Pored Over Them

Sam Stephenson at the desk

In 2009, author Sam Stephenson wrote a fascinating book that gave more than a peek into the jazz world from an insider’s view. Titled The Jazz Loft Project, the book was about Stephenson’s special access to countless boxes of 50+ year-old photos, documents and tapes belonging to photographer Gene Smith. The materials revealed the before- and after-hours lives of jazz icons, as well as artists and authors, from mid-century society in NYC’s downtown flower district.

To fully absorb the jazz scene contained in these boxes required serious study, which meant more time and closer inspection. After delving headfirst into a nightmare (dream?) of thousands of pieces of sheet music, handwritten notes, reel-to-reel tapes and other ephemera, Stephenson has found even more gems that reflect a picture of the arts culture in those years, beyond the scope of his first book about the jazz loft project. Hence his newest book, just released this August, Gene Smith’s Sink: A Wide-Angle View.

The title is a reference to the central figure, photographer Gene Smith, whose darkroom sink, where film was submerged into chemicals and developed, was the source of creation of these long-forgotten photos. The sink was ultimately gifted to Sam Stephenson, who, on a friend’s wise suggestion, then had a functional work-desk made from the materials, honoring its dignified past.

Gene Smith’s Sink is more expansive [than Jazz Loft],” explains Stephenson, “both within Smith’s documentary materials made in the loft and those made throughout his career. I’ve had more time to devour and absorb everything.”

Did you find other jazz figures in the current research that did not make it into Jazz Loft?

The new book goes deeper into figures like Hall Overton, Sonny Clark, Ronnie Free, Thelonious Monk, and, yes, one musician not covered in Jazz Loft: the lesser-known pianist Dorrie Woodson.

What do you think was Smith’s motive in letting the tape run even during the mundane background noise? Do you think he was listening for anything in particular?

After all these years, I don’t know the answer to that question. I believe the question gets to angles of compulsion and obsession, and perhaps paranoia, that are difficult if not impossible to explain. 

Describe how you felt when you heard Monk speak and then tap his boot to the rhythm?

Well, as I write in the book, if I had to name one reason why I stuck with the project to preserve and catalog Smith’s tapes for all those years – an enormously difficult task, time-wise and financially – it was seeing Monk’s name on Smith’s chicken-scratched tape labels. Being able to hear those tapes was definitely miraculous. I felt lucky.

Did you learn anything new when you heard Monk?

The main thing that comes through in the tapes of Monk is the discipline and rigor he required of himself, of Overton, and of his band members. He wasn’t messing around. He was dead serious about the dedication and practice required and he expected it of himself and everybody else. That’s clear on the tapes. 

The hardships and personal battles that Sonny Clark faced; do you think he conveyed this pain in his music?

Maybe so. My ears hear a remarkably buoyant blues in his touch on piano, a unique mix of upbeat spirit and doom. Maybe he got the doom from his pain, but I also think it’s from the African-American experience in general. 

Talk about the countless man-hours you put into research. Was it a joyful process or painful or both?

Mostly I marveled and relished it. It was the project of a lifetime. I’d sign up to do it again. What wasn’t joyful, though, were the bureaucratic aspects involving many interests and goals of disparate sources inherently involved. Not easy stuff to navigate.

But by far the most joyful aspect of the work was the people I met along the way. That’s what I hope comes through Gene Smith’s Sink. A famous photographer who is a friend told me that she found the book to be deeply sad, but I hope others find it uplifting, in the same way (if I may) that Sonny Clark’s blues can do both things.

Were there truths you hoped to discover in the thousands of boxes, that you did not find?

Well, we were told by a number of witnesses that Ornette Coleman used to go to the loft to compose on piano by himself in the middle of the night and that Smith recorded it all on his tapes. Coleman more or less confirmed that to me in person.

However, we never found it on the tapes. Smith must have recorded over it, or maybe somebody stole it, or Smith just lost it. The latter is most likely, in my view, probably during one of Smith’s moves. Smith wrote a letter of recommendation for Coleman’s successful Guggenheim grant application, so it would have been nice to develop that story with those tapes of solo piano sessions.

What gave you the notion to re-purpose Gene’s darkroom sink into a work desk?

The original idea wasn’t mine. It was the idea of Leo Gaev, the metal artist who built the frame for the sink-desk. At first, I was talking about making it into a dining room table or a piece of yard art. Leo’s idea was much better. He was concerned about preserving the integrity of the individual piece which was the right concern to have.

What portion of the 20 years of research took you away from home?

Well, I made more than 150 trips to NYC, some of which were as long as two weeks. I visited 26 states and spent a month in Japan and the Pacific following Smith’s footsteps. I didn’t have any kids then. Now I’ve got a delightful toddler aged two and a half. His name is Parker, not named after Bird, although we like the association. I can’t imagine traveling that much again.

What will you be discussing at the NY Public Library on Tuesday, September 19 from 6:30-8:30 p.m.?

The ambiguous overlaps of art and journalism. Smith didn’t see a difference between the two. His inability to reconcile the two ventures tortured him.

People who hired him wanted a journalist who recognized the boundaries of assignments and met deadlines. He called himself a photo-journalist until he died. His epic retrospective of his life’s work, authored and titled by him, was called “Let Truth Be the Prejudice.” Yet, the people he most admired were people like Beethoven and Tennessee Williams.

Plans for the book- readings, signings, other presentations…?

A really ambitious event at National Sawdust in Brooklyn on October 26, 2017, blending my reading passages from the book with music and film inspired by the book. Artists such as a string quartet from Wordless Music (led by violinist Pauline Kim Harris), pianist Orrin Evans and filmmaker Jem Cohen will be participating, some of my favorite artists in the world. I feel very fortunate.

Your personal favorite jazz artists and why?

My first jazz purchase was “Misterioso” by Monk, the 1958 recording from the Five Spot featuring Griffin, Haynes, and Abdul-Malik. It was recommended to me by a shop clerk in Silver Spring, Maryland in the early 90s. At the time, I was listening to a lot of Piedmont blues – Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Boy Fuller, Cephas and Wiggins, and much more. The clerk recognized that I might love Monk. He was right. Monk’s parents, grandparents and ancestors were from the same North Carolina coastal plains where my parents and brothers still live today. Dozens of Monk’s distant relatives still live there today, too. I’ve met many of them.

Another favorite that comes to mind is Zoot Sims. The man’s desire to blow was insatiable. That comes through so clearly on Smith’s tapes. He was also a Pied Piper-type figure. Everybody loved him and his music. The jazz annals don’t give Zoot nearly enough credit because he never cut that iconic record or two that the canon requires. His greatness was of a type that was more fluid, that didn’t translate to the confines of a recording studio and its expectations and strictures.

Don’t get me wrong…I’ve got probably three or four dozen of Zoot’s records. I love them. But there’s something about him that made him transcend those documents. I’m not sure I know how to explain it.

Other comments?

Much gratitude to you for caring about jazz and caring about my work. I appreciate it very much.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of the author.

(c) Debbie Burke 2017

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