After leaving a comfortable life with his wife and children in the suburbs behind in the late 1950s, legendary “LIFE Magazine” photographer Eugene Smith decamped to a slovenly 4th floor loft at 821 6th Avenue in the heart of New York City’s commercially zoned flower district. The deeply flawed, but often revered and duplicated photographer used his new space not only as his “proscenium arch to the world,” but also turned it into one of several hubs for the city’s burgeoning jazz scene. Thanks to the commercial zoning of his loft, musical greats working in bluegrass, be-bop, and everything in-between would stop by all hours of the day and night for a chance to play, mess around, and collaborate in Smith’s bohemian home.
Long time editor and cultural reporter Sara Fishko looks at this unique footnote in American musical history with her first documentary feature The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith. Her skills as an editor and storyteller shine through in spades here. Smith isn’t an easy cat to try and pin down, and neither are any of the legendary figures that got pulled into his orbit. His story and the legend of the only briefly used space take places in a very specific amount of amount of time, and yet telling it requires a great deal of backstory to foster a larger appreciation and understanding. Instead of providing viewers with an exhaustive and potentially boring history lesson, Fishko blends her editorial skills with the music at the heart of Smith’s world. Fishko knows precisely where the great stories lie, and she allows each piece to fall as if it were a part of a fast paced jam session.
The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith has plenty to pull from if Fishko wanted to look solely at the photographer’s time spent at his 6th Avenue home. Smith was a relentless documentarian in his own right, amassing not only tens of thousands of snapshots throughout his career, but also keeping an archive of over 4,000 audio recordings from the loft. There wasn’t a single floor, stairwell, or ceiling in his dwelling that wasn’t wired for sound recording. Smith captured so many intimate moments among the likes of Thelonious Monk, Zoot Sims, and Hall Overton that making a motion picture out of the luminaries who jammed there would have been easy for any filmmaker or journalist to piece together. While Fishko spends a lot of time paying homage to the greats and sits down with many of the people who lived through the space’s heyday from 1957 to 1965, she still has the sense to tie these threads into larger personal narratives.
The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith actually takes a fair bit of time to get around to the music and unorthodox living arrangements. Fishko begins by outlining how the space was an extension of Smith’s own eclectic and self-destructive personality. Smith was a brilliant, combative, procrastinating, perpetually insolvent, pill popping, workaholic who lived under messy, tenuous circumstances before he moved to Manhattan. Smith was an artist who seemed to thrive on stress and overkill, creating a place with a certain chaotic vibe that he could spend his life documenting without ever once leaving the house. He recorded what he saw and created a space where everything he wanted to document came to him instead of the other way around. He was the “fly on the wall,” but he also built the wall.
Fishko bounces back and forth deftly between narrative threads that arise from Smith’s property, often leaving her titular subject in the dust if someone else’s story is more interesting. Some of the film’s lengthiest and most poignant asides – a fruitful, frustrating collaboration between Overton and Monk, the story of drummer Ron Free coming straight from the source – are more humane and engaging than watching Smith flounder to make ends meet. Through her fast pace blend of music, archival material, and insightful, honest interviews with musicians, family members, and historians, Fishko paints a picture of not just Smith’s world, but of an entire chaotic scene approaching a breaking point.
Gene Smith’s jazz haven was an improvisational, repurposed space that naturally became a home for improvisational music. It played host to countless egos and temperaments, but perhaps none as large or volatile as Smith’s. An entire movie could be made about Smith and what he meant to the music scene he became a part of, but Fishko wisely reinforces the belief that a scene is bigger than a single figurehead. As such, The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith functions as a wide open window onto a much larger world, and it’s well made enough to approximate the feeling of being there.
Is The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith essential viewing?
You don’t have to like jazz to get caught up in Fishko’s storytelling rhythms. It’s an oral history, but a fast paced and sprawling one at that. There’s a lot of darkness to be found in this history, but it’s also one heck of a ride.
The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith opens Friday, August 4, 2017 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. Check their website for more information.