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Home Life With Mikes: A Jazz History

THE cardboard boxes are everywhere, stacked almost to the ceiling, in the Manhattan loft where W. Eugene Smith, the renowned American photojournalist, once shared living space with Hall Overton, an obscure composer and pianist. Inside the boxes are wigs, maybe thousands, the inventory of a Chinese business that now holds the lease. Nothing about this nondescript building in the flower district betrays its decade-long history as a bustling clubhouse for the jazz scene, beginning in the mid-1950s.

So it takes some effort to picture Thelonious Monk, one of jazz’s great composers, pacing these floorboards early in 1959 as he prepares for his momentous large-group debut at Town Hall, which would help lay the groundwork for a career beyond clubs. It takes imagination to place him and Overton at a pair of upright pianos, hashing out chord voicings for one after another of his songs. But these things did happen; that much we know from an extraordinary cache of tape recordings made by Smith, who had wired most of the building with microphones.

The Monk-and-Overton tapes account for just a fragment of some 3,000 hours of material amassed by Smith from 1957 to ’65. Because of the light they shed on both musicians, their value is inestimable. Monk, famous for his cryptic silence and cavalier methods, comes across as exacting, lucid, even voluble — an eccentric genius, yes, but also a diligent one. Overton, enlisted to orchestrate Monk’s knotty compositions, is revealed as a patient amanuensis and a brilliant foil.

“What’s obvious is their mutual respect, and the extent of their precision,” said the pianist Jason Moran, 34. “It’s crazy to hear how specific everything was.”

Mr. Moran is among a handful of people to have listened to the loft recordings at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, which is in the process of cataloging all of Smith’s tapes. On Friday, as part of a 50th anniversary celebration of the Town Hall concert, Mr. Moran will perform a postmodern tribute, complete with excerpts from the tapes. Together with a concert on Thursday — a more literal re-enactment led by the trumpeter Charles Tolliver, which will be broadcast live on WNYC-FM in New York — it’s among the more anticipated jazz events of this year.

The larger story of the loft has been an immersive project for researchers at Duke, who have interviewed 300 people in 19 states. Sam Stephenson, who directs the effort and whose book on the subject, “Rhythm of a Corner: W. Eugene Smith and a New York Jazz Loft 1957-1965,” will be published by Knopf this fall, described a convergence of forces, saved for posterity by the will of one man’s obsession.

Smith moved to 821 Avenue of the Americas, near West 28th Street, in 1957, leaving behind a family in Westchester and a job with Life magazine, where he had perfected the photo-essay form. He fixated on the loft and the street outside, shooting 20,000 photographs while peering out of a fourth-floor window, as if it were the aperture to another camera. “Robert Frank, the photographer, was a friend of Smith’s,” Mr. Stephenson said at that window one recent morning (beside a tower of boxes marked “Jumbo Afro”). “He told me that Smith went from a public journalist to a private artist with this body of work.”

The tapes came out of the same impulse. Smith recorded hours of random noise, broadcasts, the comings and goings of the place. But because his fellow residents included Overton, the pianist Dick Cary and the painter David X. Young, he also got a cross section of jazz culture at a dynamic time. (He and Overton shared an open floor plan divided by a temporary wall; Cary was downstairs, Young upstairs.) The tapes include jam sessions and off-the-cuff interactions among dozens of musicians, famous and unknown. One night in 1961, Mr. Stephenson said, Smith’s microphones caught the drama of a drug overdose by the pianist Sonny Clark, who was squatting in the stairwell at the time.

Monk and Overton turn up together during the weeks leading up to the Town Hall concert, which took place on Feb. 28, 1959. Months earlier Monk had been stripped of his cabaret card, a license to work in New York nightclubs. So the concert idea may have been born partly out of desperation: it was another way to earn money. A friend in the business, Jules Colomby, organized the event, and Orrin Keepnews produced a live recording for his label Riverside.

“I don’t know anybody alive today who can tell me how Hall Overton came into that picture,” Mr. Keepnews has said. The loft tapes don’t answer that question exactly, but a journal kept by Cary bears relevance, according to Mr. Stephenson’s research. One entry reads: “Thelonious Monk and gang upstairs at Hall’s.” The date is April 21, 1955, about four years before Town Hall.

If the loft materials reveal fascinating new glimpses of Monk, they throw the door wide open on Overton, about as overlooked a figure as they come. He had a master’s degree from Juilliard, where he would join the faculty in the 1960s. He composed classical music and taught a diverse array of students, including Doris Duke and Steve Reich. “He was a wonderful teacher,” said Mr. Reich, the pioneering Minimalist composer, describing his lessons at the loft in 1957 and ’58. “Hall made things clear to me that have served me well for the rest of my life.”

Overton, who had no gift for self-promotion, was also a capable jazz pianist with a manner that endeared him to musicians. “He always had a cigarette in his mouth, and the ash was always three-quarters of an inch long,” Mr. Reich said. “He was very relaxed and had a dry sense of humor, and he got along with jazz musicians because he accepted them as they were.”

Which partly explains the trust Overton earned with Monk. On the tapes they spend hours discussing the mechanics of harmony and rhythm. After an especially grueling dissection of a tune called “Thelonious,” Monk can be heard walking away from the piano, losing interest or steam. “What you have there is fine,” he says.

“Well, the point is, I’ll do it,” Overton says after a pause, sounding resolute. “But I want to do it with you. I want to check every sound with you. And also what instruments you want to hear in certain places, you know?”

During a later session Overton puts on a recording of Monk’s “Locomotive.” “I don’t know how that goes,” Monk says, fumbling at the piano; it’s no surprise the tune didn’t make it onto the bill.

Hearing the original recording of “Little Rootie Tootie,” by contrast, provoked at least one important decision. “Let the band play that,” Monk says during his piano solo, meaning he wants it arranged for the horns. The resulting stretch of orchestration, a corkscrew-and-pinball plunge, is the most elaborate flourish of the concert.

Had Monk been meeting with Overton someplace other than the loft, it’s doubtful he would have opened up as readily. And the casual vibe carried over to the band when it finally convened.

“Rehearsals always started at the bar,” the alto saxophonist Phil Woods said. “Monk would say, ‘O.K., let’s get a taste.’ Then we’d go to work. It was thrilling. It was also hard as hell.”

The effort paid off: the concert was a musical success.

“It was the first time that Monk was truly recognized in a setting other than a nightclub,” said the jazz historian Dan Morgenstern, who was there. (During his prior appearances at both Town Hall and Carnegie Hall, Monk had been part of a larger bill.)

Mr. Reich, who was also in the audience, said: “The arrangements could have been a real pretentious flop, and they weren’t at all. They were another way of looking at Monk’s music. I got a feeling that it was all Monk in terms of the notes and rhythms and all Hall in terms of the timbres.”

One of the only sour notes was a review in The New York Times by John S. Wilson, who wrote that the arrangements offered “a pipe-and-slippers version of music that is naturally querulous.” Mr. Woods and others, including the baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, recalled that a scheduled tour for the tentet was canceled as a result.

Monk was vindicated in time; the concert recording is now regarded as a classic. And that first headlining appearance in a major concert hall only helped his stature. His cabaret card was restored; within a few years, he was on Columbia Records. In 1964, five years to the day after Town Hall, he made the cover of Time.

That year the scene at the loft fizzled, as Overton, Cary and Young all moved out. Smith took over the building and kept shooting and developing film there, until he was evicted in 1971. (He died in 1978.) Mr. Stephenson’s work will fulfill part of Smith’s ambitions to publish a book about the building. So will a 10-part series due for broadcast next year on WNYC-FM.

Both of this week’s tributes had their premieres in 2007 at Duke, which is also presenting the New York performances. Recordings of the Duke shows confirm that Mr. Tolliver, who attended the original Town Hall concert as a teenager, is aiming for a true reflection of it, while Mr. Moran has designs conceptual and personal.

The touches of reinvention in both concerts are in keeping with the spirit of the music, as the tapes illustrate. “We don’t have to do it like the record,” Overton says, as he puts on “Little Rootie Tootie.”

Monk shoots back: “Oh, no, of course not. We might hear something else that sounds better.”
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