Like all stories about an artistic scene, Sara Fishko’s The Jazz Loft is, by its end, about a crack-up, a fracturing — in this case several, some heartbreaking. Fishko has assembled her documentary from the stills shot and audio recorded by the photographer W. Eugene Smith on several floors of the building at 861 Broadway in the 1950s and ’60s. Before that, though, it’s a succession of glimpses into the everyday drift of extraordinary lives led by musicians and artists who lived in or passed through that space.
Fishko’s film pores over Smith’s contact sheets and the process of developing a photographic print; it marvels at notes scrawled on boxed tape reels and plays back snatches of chatter from sixty years ago; it offers visions, steadily, of the street life Smith shot from the window he called his “proscenium”; it bops along to a likable sampling of the jam sessions that went all night in Smith’s flower-district lofts, plus tall-tale reminiscences from the folks who were there. Zoot Sims, we’re told, once played for two days straight. We hear audio of Sims arriving, with his sax, and saying, “Well, let’s blow one.”
We don’t actually hear Sims blow a full solo, of course. Even documentaries with “jazz” in the title are reluctant to ask audiences to dig deeply into jazz. Here it’s atmosphere and feeling rather than an art to be closely attended to. Smith wired his building for sound, sometimes listening all night to the musicians and the parties upstairs while toiling in the darkroom below. (His home was open to all, but not all of it: “Disturb Only to Announce the Second Coming of Christ,” reads the sign on one door.) The film is a treasury of photographs and anecdotes, of fleeting peeks at the celebrities (Carla Bley, Steve Reich, Jimmy Giuffre, Dalí) who passed through, but it too rarely slows down and really lets us listen — Fishko is always on to the next striking image that will too quickly pass.
Fortunately, that next thing is often a joyous surprise, especially the couple of times The Jazz Loft lets us linger. Former students attest to the warm genius and indefatigable cigarette smoking of Hall Overton, the pianist and arranger, who lived in the loft and sometimes paid Smith’s rent. Overton served as arranger for the ten-piece ensemble accompanying Thelonious Monk at his 1959 Town Hall concert; Fishko’s film’s most thrilling moment comes when we hear Monk himself, on Smith’s recordings, playing through his songbook one phrase at a time. Overton transcribes — and tries to keep up. Smith photographed this encounter, and we see stills of the titan’s fingers, his rings, his smile, as we hear his spare, buoyant playing. Sometimes he has to hold a chord so that Overton can study the fingering.
That sequence plays out leisurely, a sustained high. The film also slows down to consider the fate of Ron Free, a young drummer who crashed at the lofts and, after just a few years, left the city with a debilitating smack habit. That’s the doc’s second crack-up, after Smith’s, who also depended on drugs — pills — to keep up his obsessive work, which wasn’t profitable in these years. Early on, Fishko showcases majestic samples of the 22,000 photos Smith shot of Pittsburgh for an abortive book project in honor of that city’s centennial; how that failed and what that failure meant to him is all left a mystery.
Smith fled Pennsylvania — and his wife and children — for what would become the mad salon of the loft. Life there, too, eventually broke apart, for the usual reasons (Smith got evicted in ’72), as did the music itself: Don Ellis and Rahsaan Roland Kirk pass through in the final scenes, in the 1960s, brilliant musicians representative of a generational shift in jazz. What did Smith — or Zoot — make of them? A film that mostly offers glimpses can’t tell us.
The Jazz Loft
Directed by Sara Fishko
Opens September 23, Metrograph