Sam Stephenson's career has been a wandering path punctuated by serendipity, leading him from a degree in economics at UNC-Chapel Hill to jobs in economic policy in Washington, D.C., from the Duke Center for Documentary Studies to the archives of the University of Arizona library, where he found the tapes and photographs that would become The Jazz Loft Project.
"I've been puzzled by value for a long time, and I still am. It's no clearer now than it was 20 years ago. I think the people that are studying value in the most interesting way are artists and documentarians," said Stephenson, a tall man in his mid-40s with short black hair and flecks of gray in the stubble on his chin. "So that's how I ended up doing what I'm doing. I sort of meandered my way to being a writer and documentarian."
Stephenson is the director of The Jazz Loft Project, a multimedia project based on photographs and recordings made by W. Eugene Smith, a well-known photographer for Life magazine, in a New York City loft from 1957 to 1965. The loft was a hangout for jazz musicians and artists, and during his time there, Smith took roughly 40,000 pictures and recorded 4,000 hours of audio that captured music performances, conversations and day-to-day life at 821 Sixth Ave. More than 300 musicians were identified on the tapes, including jazz legends such as Charles Mingus, Zoot Sims, Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk. And Smith's photos provide a remarkable look into the underground jazz culture of the late '50s and early '60s.
But Stephenson had no clue who Eugene Smith was until January 1997. He was planning to write a book about Pittsburgh, the hometown of his wife, Laurie Cochenour, when he went to a camera shop in Raleigh. He told the man working there that he was planning on taking pictures of Pittsburgh, and the man, who had happened to see a PBS documentary on Smith the night before, asked Stephenson if he was familiar with Smith's unfinished Pittsburgh project. Stephenson left the shop and went to the public library at Cameron Village, where he checked out a biography of Smith written by Jim Hughes. He's been researching Smith ever since.
"I never planned it. I do have heroes that I would sign up to spend 14 and a half years researching, and he wouldn't be on the list. It wasn't anything I planned or even necessarily wanted to happen," Stephenson said.
It was while he was working on his first book, Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh Project, that he stumbled across the Jazz Loft archives at the University of Arizona. In 1999, he wrote a piece for DoubleTake magazine about the photographs, which caught the eye of David Logan, co-founder of the Reva and David Logan Foundation, a grant organization in Chicago. Logan contacted Stephenson about the project and donated $65,000. Over time, the Reva and David Logan Foundation has donated $700,000 to the project.
Stephenson said that the donation from David Logan is what made the project a reality, and that the Duke Center for Documentary Studies, where Stephenson is now a part-time consultant, was the perfect place to organize everything because it "is a place where there aren't many obstacles or barriers conceptually."
"CDS was a place where we could treat all three of those components equally," Stephenson said. "If it had been a jazz place, the jazz music would have been stressed. If it had been an art museum, the wonderful photographs would have been stressed. If it had been somewhere else, maybe the oral histories would have been stressed. The CDS is a place where everything could be done."
But although Stephenson had an ideal place to organize the archives, The Jazz Loft Project is much more than the product of sheer luck and coincidence.
"Sam has, with his work on the Jazz Loft, pioneered a new kind of historical research—one that layers meticulously cataloged archival recordings and photographs, extensive interviews with participants, accidental anecdotes, whiz-bam theorizing and formal scholarship into a nervy multidimensional narrative," said Aaron Greenwald, director of Duke Performances, who worked with Stephenson to organize a series of performances based on The Jazz Loft Project. "His work would make Studs Terkel snap his suspenders with glee and John Dos Passos light up a victory cigar."
Under Stephenson's direction, and with the help of organizations across the country, The Jazz Loft Project has become a massive force. First, Stephenson whittled the archives down to about 200 photos and interviewed 315 people across the country to learn the stories behind the faces and voices for his book, The Jazz Loft Project. Then he directed a touring art exhibition organized by the Duke Center for Documentary Studies and the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona. The exhibition opened in 2010 at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts, traveled to the Chicago Cultural Center, then to the Nasher Museum at Duke University (it just finished it's five-month run on July 10), is now on its way to the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego and will conclude its three-year tour at the University of Arizona in 2013.
In addition to the book and exhibition, and the performances and lectures organized around the exhibition, a website also shares a selection of the images and recordings. A radio series produced by WNYC in New York aired on NPR in 2009, and Chaos Manor, a "45-minute sonic and visual performance," will open at the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn in September. Stephenson is also co-writing a script for a more traditional play with Chaos Manor's director, Christopher McElroen.
"There were a large number of very big and successful organizations, and I was the conduit between all of them," Stephenson said. "And there were definitely moments where I thought I had created something too big and it was going to break down and collapse. But somehow we made it."
Sara Fishko, producer and host of The Jazz Loft Project radio series, said that Stephenson's passion for the project is what kept it all together. She said, "The thing about Sam is that he takes these things personally, in the best meaning of that phrase. He applies every bit of instinct, insight and experience he has to the work he does, and that is especially true of his long journey with W. Eugene Smith and The Jazz Loft Project."
For Stephenson, that passion stems from his constant pursuit of value and desire to see another side of history.
"Jazz history is really one of the worst histories that we have in terms of hardcore iconography. The whole history is told from the point of view of about 18 icons. But for every one of those icons there are about 5,000 other musicians. The Jazz Loft Project has some icons in it, but it was a great vehicle for telling a story of the other 5,000 musicians who aren't well known, and I just dig that. That gets back to my whole original puzzle about value. Why are people obscure? Why are certain people valued by history more than others?"
The question now is where Stephenson's search for value is going to take him next. He is working on a biography of Smith, but once he has finished, it will be the end of his decade and a half researching Smith's life and work.
"The funny thing is that I'm kind of back to where I started," Stephenson said. "I'm really trying to figure out, after this book and after this play, what comes next."
Among the ideas he's been considering are a literary nonprofit based in the Triangle and a documentary on the Durham Bulls. But whatever he does, he wants to stay local.
"I've been incredibly fortunate to stumble onto this and have a place to do it and to find funding. I'm very lucky ... I believe that if I keep working as passionately as I have and as honestly as I have, I'll get lucky again."