Jazz for the soul: Blue Note records, the “Jazz Loft”, and “Eric in the Evening”

The Sounds of Jimmy Smith, Blue Note Records, 1957
Design and photo: Harold Feinstein

It was 1954 and I was 23 when I became one of New York City’s first loft-dwellers. I moved into 821 Sixth Avenue in New York with painter David Young and musicians Hall Overton and Dick Carey. I hadn’t been back from Korea for too long, my marriage had ended and I was out of Brooklyn and into the big city. I could never have known that this humble, dingy and down-right rat-infested place would later become known as the “Jazz Loft”. It took on that name after I turned my portion of the loft over to my good friend W. Eugene Smith in 1957 who wired up the place and taped hundreds of hours of hot steaming jazz.

Not too long ago, Duke University’s Sam Stephenson published his research on that era in the wonderful book, The Jazz Loft, which is accompanied by a travelling exhibit, an on-going blog and oral history research partnered by NPR and The Jazz Loft Project. Sam visited me in my Merrimac, MA home during the time of his research and hooked me into the project at a variety of levels.

Life in the loft was a heady scene. Hall Overton was a great composer, arranger and teacher, who attracted an array of students and seasoned greats eager to study composition with him and get a whiff of his brilliance. Soon, all night jazz sessions became the norm and people flocked to the loft from all over the country eager to be a part of the creative incubator brewing at 821 6th Ave.

My earliest memories are of Thelonius Monk who collaborated closely with Overton, but Charlie Mingus, Teddy Charles, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Art Blakey, Duke Jordan, and Pee Wee Russell were just a few of the hundreds of other jazz greats who came to the loft for all night jazz sessions. The place was always cooking and the walls were paper thin, so sleeping at night was out of the question.

On my first exposure to jazz I remember calling my old friend Bob Gill and asking: “Is this really music?” to which he responded simply — “yes Harold.” Soon I was steeped in the culture with all its acoutrements and was never the same again.

Among the great memories and opportunities that came my way was hooking up with Alfred Lion, founder of Blue Note records, who frequented the loft. He’d seen a couple of record covers I’d designed for Signal Records (a short-lived jazz label) in 1955 and asked me if I would be interested in being a designer of Blue Note record covers. I jumped in.

He was a photographer in his own right and wanted to use his own photos, so I mostly did the design work and became one of the three people to really get associated with the label’s 1500 jazz series. The others were Andy Warhol and Reid Miles. However, among the dozen or so covers I designed, here are four (including the above) that did use my photographs that I particularly loved.

Gigi Gryce, Signal Records, 1955
Design and Photo: Harold Feinstein
Duke Jordan and Quintet, Signal Records, 1955
Design and Photo: Harold Feinstein

One evening in the spring of 1957, Anais Nin came for dinner at my place. She wrote about it in her diary, summing up the sense and meaning of the jazz scene at the time — at least for many of us.

“That night crystallized my vision of jazz music linked to a way of life, another vision of life. It has passed into the bloodstream and separated people from material ambition. It is the only rebellion against conformity, automatism, commerce, middle-class values and death of the spirit… [J]azz is the expression of America’s romantic self, its sensual potency, its lyrical force. Big Business and Politics are twins, they are the monsters who kill everything, corrupt everything. Why not pay attention to the artists who humanize, keep the sources of feeling alive, keep us alive?”

Johnny Griffin: A Blowing Session, Blue Note records, 1957, Design: Harold Feinstein Photos: Harold Feinstein, Francis Wolff
I thought of her words recently when I heard that the best jazz programming in Boston — WGBH’s “Eric in the Evening” — has been cut back from its nightly position to week-ends only in favor of more talk radio. I realized that the guys in charge of NPR decision making have lost their bearings — calculating that more information will attract more money from listeners. I’m sure they’ve done their homework on this, but first they cancelled the classical music, now the jazz. And, with the arts being slashed in the schools, I hate to think of what it all means for the future to be producing more info addicted consumers out of touch with their souls.

If I know one thing about jazz, it’s about freedom and experimentation, creative group magic that lifts up individual brilliance all at the same time. I’m a teacher, and jazz is one of the metaphors for my educational philosophy. Jazz musicians respond to their own intuitive inclinations. They take risks and trust the process. This is the creative process.

But now jazz is being sacrified in order to get more hours of talk radio and “Marketplace”. The so-called information age may leave us with a head full of “news” and “facts”, but what about imagination and soul? Turn off the news, turn on Miles Davis.