Jazzed about jazz images|Stephenson to appear Friday on NBC’s ‘Today’

Published 3:25 am Sunday, November 8, 2009

Staff Writer

Sam Stephenson sees and hears one jazz photographer’s blue notes in memory, and he’s sharing those visions with the world.
Stephenson, a Washington native, is scheduled to appear on the “Today” show to promote his book, “The Jazz Loft Project.”
Stephenson is the director of the Jazz Loft Project and an instructor with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, according to the project’s Web site.
The Jazz Loft Project is an effort to preserve vital images and sounds linked to America’s only original art form.
In a recent telephone interview, Stephenson said he’s scheduled to appear on NBC’s internationally televised morning program Friday.
Stephenson said he will be interviewed, in a four-minute segment, by Ann Curry, the show’s news anchor and occasional co-host.
“She’s going to interview me live,” Stephenson said. “But it’ll be great. It’s the kind of publicity you can’t pay for.”
Stephenson’s book features the jazz photography of W. Eugene Smith, a chronicler of the urban music scene and other slices of life in mid-20th-century New York and elsewhere.
“History is told from the point of view of what’s documented,” Stephenson said, “and this body of work is a rare glimpse of what normally goes undocumented, and that’s the offstage lives of these musicians.”
The Jazz Loft collection, from which the book is drawn, contains about 4,000 hours of videotape and around 40,000 photos recorded by Smith, according to Stephenson.
The book focuses largely on 225 of Smith’s behind-the-scenes snapshots, along with an accompanying text penned by Stephenson.
The book, due out Nov. 24, retails for $40, Stephenson said. The book will be available online and in stores through major chains like Barnes &Noble, he said.
The biggest names covered in the Jazz Loft archives should be recognizable to fans of the music genre.
Stephenson said the files include pianist-composer Thelonius Monk, tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims and bassist-composer Charles Mingus.
Also included are some swing-era musicians, such as clarinetist Pee Wee Russell and trombonist Vic Dickenson.
“I think the power of the story is that, for every one of those superstars there are about 20 people who are forgotten,” Stephenson commented. “I think that’s what makes this (project) so unusual. It’s really a story about the offstage lives of these musicians.”
In addition to the book and the “Today” appearance, Stephenson is working on a Jazz Loft-related radio series co-produced through WNYC in New York.
The series will begin airing Thanksgiving weekend on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition,” he said.
“I feel really fortunate,” Stephenson noted. “Extremely fortunate.”
A 1985 Washington High School graduate, Stephenson grew up in Washington.
He majored in economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, graduating in 1989.
His first book, titled “Dream Street,” was published in 2001. Smith and his work also were the subjects of that book.
Stephenson is married to Laurie Cochenour, formerly of Pittsburgh, Pa.
His brothers are Hale, an obstetrician-gynecologist; and Steve, an attorney, both Greenville residents.
“Sam is far too humble to toot his horn, but Steve and I are more than … willing to do so,” Hale Stephenson said in an e-mail to the Daily News.
The author’s parents are Fran and Dr. Hank Stephenson of Washington.
Hank Stephenson, who retired from Pamlico Internal Medicine, indicated his son is more than a wordsmith.
He said Sam Stephenson participated in several sports during his school career, even playing baseball for a year at UNC. The son is also well-versed in sports trivia, the father said.
“I think the boy has done a good job with what he’s doing, and we’re real proud of him,” he said.
Though he lives elsewhere now, the son suggested, without apparent irony, that the Pamlico River and the Pamlico Sound are still on his mind.
“My dream job is to work on the Swan Quarter ferry,” he said. “I’ve just always loved ferries, for some reason. There’s a certain serenity to taking that ride across the sound.”