Jazz Loft Project brings legend Ronnie Free up from the underground

by Ryan Snyder

Jazz great Ronnie Free plays before a packed room at the Underground Cafe. (photo by Ryan Snyder)

Never underestimate the possibilities created between a tuned piano, a sturdy drum kit and cheap downtown rent. Life magazine photographer W.

Eugene Smith didn’t, and they garnered him around 4,000 hours of reel-to-reel recordings and nearly 40,000 photographs of some the most famous figures of the New York City jazz scene between 1957 and 1965. What would become known as the Jazz Loft saw the like of greats Charles Mingus, Thelonius Monk, Roland Kirk and Bill Evans intermingle with underground legends Henry Grimes and Eddie Listengart and countless relative obscurities of the time in years’ worth of rare moments. On Thursday, Jan. 6, around a hundred jazz enthusiasts and a handful of local players spilled out of every entrance of the tiny Underground Caf’ in Winston- Salem’s Community Arts Center for not only a peek at some of Smith’s best material, but a chance to jam alongside a man who was actually lived it.

Known as the Jazz Loft Project, the effort to preserve and catalog that immense library of material captured at 821 Sixth Ave. is spearheaded by the evening’s primary presenter, Sam Stephenson, a tall, soft-spoken man with an intimate knowledge of seemingly the loft’s most esoteric detail. He ran through slide after slide of grainy black-andwhite shots, pointing out hazy images of players who would be identified as Norman Mailer or Mingus, all standing around in the most candid of moments, creating genius that wouldn’t touch other ears until decades later. Others portended to moments of greatness that had yet to occur, such as shots of

Monk and Hall Overton preparing for their now-famous Lincoln Center performances.

Of all the topics poured through in the hourlong presentation, Stephenson spoke little on the drug scene at the time, but did outline the loft’s rather strident decorum regarding soft drugs versus hard. He noted that while bassist Jimmy Stevenson was dealing marijuana out of the loft, those known to be carrying harder drugs — primarily heroin — were intercepted before ever stepping foot inside. Its penetration into the circle of players was inevitable, however, and the evening’s star, free-jazz legend Ronnie Free, was one of its casualties.

Cool jazz flowed from Moran’s fingertips while Free panned out a soft, but complex textures on classics like Cedar Walton’s “Clockwise.” He was equally inspirited in his fills for Bud Walton’s “Bouncing with Bud” and darkly urgent on his own “Drumhead,” where the rigid framework provided by his accompaniment left room for the Free of old to emerge.

The second set began with an expanded repertory, as noted local bassist Matt Kendrick spelled Campbell with the addition of hand drums and a three-man wind and horn section, spearheaded by trumpeter Al Neese. Neese called out staples like “Body and Soul” and Monk’s version of “Just You, Just Me” to give the players waiting in the wings a chance to easily step in. Among them was Neese sideman Pete Dennis on drums, who took every opportunity to assert his flair for the extravagant, and a young School of the Arts flute student with a voice inspired by Eric Dolphy. By the time the open jam had started, however, the room had dwindled from dozens seeking insight into some of the ultimate jazz curio, down to only the most strident bop hounds. Like the Jazz Loft Project proved though, greatness in music happens everywhere, just not everyone is around to see it