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Books

Hanging around the scene

An obsessed photographer, eye-candy for crate diggers and a thousand lyrics

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Published 11/25/2009

The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue 1957-1965
by Sam Stephenson
Alfred A. Knopf, $40, 270 pp. 

Sounds like a novel plot, doesn't it? In the late '50s, a world-famous (and drug-addicted) photographer retreats to a Manhattan building at the artsy intersection of high-life and low-life, a building of artists' and musicians' lofts where the cats hang and jam until the wee hours — and where thieves walking in off the street will, from time to time, steal anything not nailed down. Predictably, the photographer exhaustively shoots the goings-on in the building and out of his window; not so predictably he wires all five floors with microphones to tape the lives of his little world and, as strikes his fancy, the chattering of the day on radio and TV. Over eight years he shoots something like 1,500 rolls of film and records 1,700 reels of tape.

In the novel version, though, something would happen. Events would constitute a plot to be examined Rashomon-style from multiple frames and reels. In the real life of photographer W. Eugene Smith at 821 Sixth Ave., so many things happened — but they hardly congeal into a story. In this massive yet tiny sampling compiled by writer and annotator Sam Stephenson, you don't follow what happened in Smith's world so much as you immerse yourself in the sights. You're there in the middle of a Thelonious Monk big band rehearsal, or alongside the indefatigable jam-session hero Zoot Sims as he blows-man-blows; you watch multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, horns hanging like a necklace, as he becomes a blur of motion, or you catch the slimmest sliver of light tracing the edge of Albert Ayler's enigmatic face in the dark. You're with Smith looking out on the street, snapping away at delivery men and shoppers, bored kids stuck in the back seats of cars, mounted police on a rain-slicked street.

And you listen in on a sampling of the tapes — or at least read the transcriptions. There is TV of a different time, for instance, Edward R. Morrow leading a discussion with Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima, American playwright Tennessee Williams and the British critic Dilys Powell. It gets even better when Morrow breaks for a commercial: Olin-Matheson's new shotgun with a glass-fiber barrel. From another reel, there's the harrowing loft episode when pianist Sonny Clark's just-injected blast of heroin threatens to float him into his final nod. "Sonny, don't lie down. Sit up!" says a friend while Sonny scat sings: "Wooop. Wooooooop. Bop. Whip." Julie Harris reads Edna St. Vincent Millay on a record playing in the background. And another time, there's the humor of fellow musicians trying to convince pianist Mose Allison to play a little bit longer even though his family is waiting at home and it's Christmas Eve — oops, Christmas Day. 

And while there are big names here in both photo or text — for instance, Norman Mailer, Salvador Dalí, Diane Arbus and Steve Reich, as well as the aforementioned — little-known figures like the drummer Ronnie Free and the Detroiters Jimmy and Sandy Stevenson are among the most interesting. (Other Detroiters and Michiganders leaving their traces here include Alice McLeod [later Coltrane], Joe Henderson and Hall Overton, all of whom lived or had studios there, and saxophonists Pepper Adams and Wendell Harrison.) 

Followers of photography will recognize Smith as one of the giants of the midcentury medium, a Life magazine staffer in the magazine's salad days, the virtual inventor of the photo-essay. And the insights into his craft — and not just his compulsiveness — are to be found here as well. "I've learned more about photography from music than I have from anything else," he tapes himself saying at one point. "There's a certain singing going on inside while I'm working," he says at another, clearly meaning inside his head. 

What's missing here is music, of course. You get no closer than tantalizing pictures of some of those thousand-plus tape boxes with such scribbled notations as "Freddie Red + others Sept 1960." But some music from that building and time is available in the box set David X. Young's Jazz Loft; the 2000 release remains in print, featuring Sims, Allison, Gerry Mulligan, Teddy Charles and others, along with paintings from the time by Young and more photos. It's an added dimension, the companion gift to make a perfect package. 


Prestige Records: The Album Cover Collection
Edited by Geoff Gans with an introduction by Ira Gitler
Concord Editions, $49.98, 130 pp. 

Pity the musical stars of today and tomorrow. How can you hope to be a giant of, say, jazz, in the age of the CD and the download? In the good old days, you could count on standing a good 12 inches on the cover of an LP. Maybe frozen in the concentration of creation, like Thelonious Monk of the cover of Work!, his unconventional flat-fingered technique in full display. Or cool like Miles on Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants. Or looming in silhouette like Sonny Rollins in an image appropriate for the title Saxophone Colossus. And if you didn't get your picture on the cover, well, there could be something at least that big and that cool — maybe abstract slabs of colors that reflected the energy of Red Garland's Soul Burnin', or typography that made Gil Melle's Quadrama seem like a zoom shot jumping off the screen. An accompanying nine-track CD suggests both the depth and range of the label's offerings from Miles Davis to Moondog. 


The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer
by Johnny Mercer (Edited by Robert Kimball, Barry Day and Miles Kreuger) 
Alfred A. Knopf, $65, 462 pp. 

Is Johnny Mercer really "by far the best-loved songwriter" in history as co-editor Miles Kreuger claims? Putting aside the lack of an objective public love-o-meter, there's a case to be made. Mercer had a hand in an astonishing number of songs (as lyricist, sometimes for music too), among them "Moon River," "Jeepers Creepers," "Laura," "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)," "Acc-cent-tchu-ate the Positive," "I'm an Old Cowhand," "Satin Doll," "Come Rain or Come Shine," etc., etc. And though his voice hasn't echoed down the years — as have those of Frank Sinatra or Louis Armstrong — he was a top recording artist of the 1940s. Covering 1930 to 1989, this 1,200-song collection even scoops up lyrics whose music has long been lost and Mercer's personal Christmas card verses. The annotations are often enlightening: "Lazybones" was banned by the Nazis (bad message when you've got a world to conquer); Hoagy Carmichael's original draft lyrics for "Skylark" are offered for comparisons with Mercer's fine polishing job; "Moon River" was originally "Blue River"; "That Old Black Magic" was inspired by what Mercer considered an undeveloped Cole Porter line. Mercer, whose centennial is this year, may not have been a straight-up jazz cat, but his contribution to jazz by way of American popular song was, to quote another title, "Too Marvelous for Words." 

W. Kim Heron is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to wkheron@metrotimes.com

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