Friday, January 4, 2013

The Jazz Loft Project at the University of Arizona

Was down in Tucson visiting family last week, and we went to check out the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.  It is, from all available evidence, a pretty awesome thing, a world-class collection of art photography, housed in a big dedicated facility at UA.  The tragedy is that they have no permanent/rotating exhibit of their own stuff.  At least not on-site.  There's a room at the University of Phoenix that always features CCP holdings.  But that's in Phoenix.  An hour and a half away (on desert highways with psychotic drivers).

So at the CCP you're only going to see whatever traveling exhibit they're hosting at the moment.  Right now that's fine, though, because they're hosting a selection of images and sounds from The Jazz Loft Project. 

For those who don't know, the Jazz Loft Project is located at Duke, with UA collaboration.  It's devoted to the work of photographer W. Eugene Smith, who worked for Life before (in true mock-heroic Beatnik fashion) leaving his wife and kids to hole up in a loft on 6th Ave in NYC, where he let jazz musicians jam, artists and other bohemian types hang out, and his own talent flourish.  Between '57 and '65 he shot endless rolls of film (okay, 1447 is the official count), and also recorded, on reel-to-reel, a lot of the jazz. 

(This was all evidently a thing back in 2009, when the project was opened and a book published and a radio series aired and everything.  Being an inveterate non-listener of NPR, I missed it.  So it was pretty awesome to learn all this, as if by accident, last week in Tucson.)

The exhibit in Tucson consists of selections from the photos, with selections from the tapes playing in the background, along with some realia - a tape deck, etc.  It's a very well thought out exhibit, split more or less evenly between what seem to have been the two directions in which Smith's lens was pointed:  in and out. 

"In" was, of course, the scene inside the loft, jazz musicians working on their art, as well as scattered hangers-on who happen to cross into the visual field.  The photos on display are chosen very carefully, it seems;  they mostly focus on Thelonious Monk and a large band he was rehearsing, in the loft, for major concert appearances.  It was a little disappointing not to see a wider variety of musicians, but it was also really interesting to see this band, and Monk in particular, in so many different, often casual, situations.  Making music, getting ready to make music, talking about making music, coming down from making music.  As a jazz lover, this was heaven.

"Out" was the world outside the loft, as seen from its windows.  The idea reminded me of the guy in Smoke who photographed the intersection in front of his shop every day, to track the change;  for all I know this is where Auster got the idea.  Smith gives us street views from above, people crossing the street, getting in and out of cabs, shopping at the florist's across the street, buying cigs at the luncheonette, talking about things the photographer can't hear, aging, playing in snow, pushing racks of dry cleaning, etc.:  totally mundane acts of city life.  If that was all they showed, they'd still be interesting from a documentary (and aesthetic:  some are quite striking compositionally or texturally) perspective.  But perspective is precisely what's fascinating about them:  since they're all shot from the loft windows, looking down, and sometimes are even framed by the windowsill or the fire escape he's looking through, you're constantly reminded of the separation between loft-dweller and community member.  You're forced to inhabit the point of view of the Man Underground (even if in this case he's above street level), experiencing ecstasies and debaucheries beyond society's understanding, gazing with detachment and perhaps muted adoration on the straight world below.  And once in a while he raises his eyes and catches a long shot of twilight traffic in the rain, and it's beautiful.

Really worth seeing.

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