Downtown Manhattan in the 1980s became the epicenter of a vital American improvised music scene. Some of the musicians had come to free improvisation through a background in jazz, but even if their recordings are found in the jazz sections of record stores and libraries much of the music, in actuality, bore only a tenuous relationship to jazz. For the most part there was not the melodic, harmonic or rhythmic foundation of even the freest of free jazz. Musicians performed in varying combinations, sometimes without any set parameters, and sometimes within a relatively open framework of instructions or cues ("structured improvisation"). While there were some similarities in intent and execution with the music of the post-Cagean or Fluxus composers, these downtown improvisers often performed in ad hoc formations without a designated leader or "composer." For the musicians, as well as the audience, much of the musical interest lay in the sonic surprises that arose out of the interplay of empathetic, adventurous musicians. Musicians utilized extended techniques on standard instruments as well as playing prepared and homemade ones. Listeners as well as players had to be on their musical toes.
Perhaps the most significant model for this group of musicians was the work of a number of musicians in Europe who, over the course of the 'sixties and 'seventies, developed the genre that has ultimately become known as "European Free Improvisation." The most important of these musicians, at least from the standpoint of theory and proselytism, was British guitarist Derek Bailey, who referred to the form of improvisation he espoused as "non-idiomatic."
By far the best-known musician to emerge from the downtown improv scene was John Zorn. Zorn garnered much attention in the 'eighties for his "game pieces," structured group improvisations based on enigmatic diagrams and cues, and often named for sports (e.g. "Hockey" and "Archery"). Zorn, as nominal composer and "prompter," would bring together many of the top downtown improvisers for performances and recordings of these collaborative works. Zorn himself played down any Cagean connections, expressing instead his preference for the work of European composers such as Stockhausen and Kagel as models. A saxophonist by training, Zorn was as likely to play duck calls in his game pieces. Zorn's voracious musical appetites found him in a wide variety of musical settings, including avant-garde jazz and rock-oriented groups (Locus Solus in the 'eighties, and later Naked City and Painkiller). Zorn broke through to a wider audience with his major label release, in 1985, of The Big Gundown, eclectic rearrangements of the film music of Ennio Morricone. Zorn's high-profile recordings for Nonesuch brought wider attention to the downtown scene in general.
Lawrence "Butch" Morris is a bridge between loft jazz and downtown improv. Morris arrived in New York from California in the 'seventies and played jazz cornet at the lofts, but he soon developed a personal form of structured improvisation he calls "conduction," which utilizes a language of physical cues to shape pieces in real-time by groups of improvisers.
Jim Staley, in addition to his work as a trombonist, provided one of the most important venues for improvised music at his Tribeca loft, Roulette.
Pianist Wayne Horvitz was involved in a range of musical projects during the 'eighties, but his role as a bootstrap impresario is much less known. In 1979, Horvitz and a group of musicians who had recently arrived with him from Santa Cruz rented a rehearsal space in the West Village that they named "Studio Henry." They began presenting concerts there, and it became the most reliable venue for downtown improvisers for several years. After a time, drummer M.E. Miller, a member of the original Studio Henry group, took over the space and kept it going until 1982. In 1987 Horvitz became the first music curator for the Knitting Factory, leaving his imprint on the club's programming direction. A number of the downtown improvisers were simultaneously active in the alternative rock scene, among them Tom Cora, Fred Frith, and Elliott Sharp (who all, incidentally, moved to New York in 1979). There were no fixed borders between improv, rock, "new music" and jazz in the downtown musical world of the 'eighties.
Though free and structured improv were particularly fertile areas of pursuit for these musicians, many of the improvisers had strong jazz credentials and played in groups that were more specifically jazz-oriented. Among the most important downtown jazz figures of the period were saxophonist Tim Berne and drummer/composer Bobby Previte. Zorn, Horvitz and Previte even recorded an album of tunes by hard-bop pianist Sonny Clark for an Italian jazz label. The Microscopic Septet, co-led by saxophonist Philip Johnston and pianist Joel Forrester, played pure jazz with a downtown, postmodernist sense of humor and irony. The advent of the Knitting Factory in 1987 was an important catalyst for a revitalized downtown jazz scene, as younger players with sensibilities that went beyond jazz orthodoxies were welcomed and cultivated by the club. In the late 'nineties, another venue, Tonic, began presenting a similar range of music to the Knit (originally programmed by John Zorn). Zorn opened his own alternative music space, The Stone, in 2005. As of 2007 Tonic has closed and the Knitting Factory presents mostly rock acts.
From 1979-82, Studio Henry was the center of activity for most of these musicians, and beginning in 1987 the Knitting Factory served that function. In the intervening years there was no single spot that represented the heart of the scene, and musicians were as likely to perform in the mostly rock or music & performance art venues listed in the section on downtown rock after punk. One of the most supportive of these clubs for a time was Chandelier, run by performance artists Uzi Parnes and Ela Troyano. In 1985, the experimental music loft Roulette presented a festival of improvisers that included most of the important musicians on the scene; a recording of highlights was issued by the cassette magazine Tellus. Among the other venues that presented many of these musicians were Neither/Nor, an alternative bookstore, and Inroads, a performance space and gallery in Soho.
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