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A Duke historian unearths a motherlode of forgotten jazz recordings

The Jazz Loft: A rare find

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Mr. Ho is actually very pleasant when we find him, as Sam Stephenson promised, next-door and up the stairs, in a room full of wigs. There are no customers, but a group of Chinese women sits on boxes, eating lunch. The midtown traffic is far away. Mr. Ho goes to find the keys.

Mid-century, this block in Manhattan—Sixth Avenue just above 28th Street, the Empire State Building towering just to the northeast—was part of the wholesale flower district. There's a wicker store that still makes the street smell of pine. But it's also a good place to go, these days, if one needs some fake hair. And Mr. Ho has a rainbow of that, some imported.

Normally, it seems, he's a little reluctant to let anyone see the upstairs of 821 Sixth Ave. "They really don't quite get it," Stephenson explains. "They're a little bit suspicious." Not that the place probably has too many visitors—besides Sam Stephenson, that is.

Mr. Ho offers no trouble at all: "Lots of boxes," he says as we climb the five flights. And, indeed, when we get to the top, there are lots and lots of boxes. They block the light, destroy sightlines and create barely passable aisles, sometimes tipping onto one another to create miniature archways.

Figuring out the room's contours is nearly impossible. Like, say, where the pianos went, or where the darkroom might have been. But we do find a hole in the floor, several inches wide, probably hacked with a handsaw, intended for a microphone for jazz musicians. They passed through in droves, and now hover like ghosts: Thelonious Monk, Roland Kirk, Bill Evans, some 300 others. They came night and day, but mostly by night.

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