TIME photography

The Biggest Names in Jazz Came to Jam. One Photographer Captured It All

A new film tells the story

When W. Eugene Smith first received notice for his work with LIFE Magazine, he was a war photographer during World War II. But, wounded on assignment in Okinawa in 1945, he soon turned to more personal stories.

“He didn’t invent the photo essay,” TIME’s Richard Lacayo noted while including Smith in a list of the century’s most influential photographers. “But more than any earlier photographer, Smith saw how it could offer a profound reckoning with the world. His grave narratives proceeded deeply into the lives of his subjects and the memory of his audience.”

He had a way of getting into people’s lives. But nowhere was that more literal than at 821 6th Avenue in New York City, the building he lived in for a time—and where, next door, some of the most prominent jazz musicians and artists of the 1950s would come to jam. Zoned for a commercial space, disguised as an office, it was a legendary jazz locale. Smith began constantly recording the world around him in the building, including audio and photographic records of what went on in that loft.

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A whopping 4,000 hours of that audio and hundreds of those photographs, just a few of which are seen here, are the building blocks of the new documentary The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith, directed by public radio’s Sara Fishko and available on demand on Friday.

“We’re still not sure exactly what Gene Smith was trying to create in the loft,” said Fishko in a statement about the film. “But he did remarkable work there, and his pictures by the tens of thousands and stacks and stacks of audio tape reels tell us things about community, music-making, obsession and art that we couldn’t learn in any other way.”

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