Downtown Music IV: Loft Jazz, 1972-79

The 1970s was a decade of crisis in jazz, at least according to the conventional wisdom as represented by Ken Burns' television documentary "Jazz." But the musical activity at a number of downtown Manhattan lofts tells a different story. While mainstream jazz found itself losing the support system of American nightclubs and record labels, largely the result of the increasing dominance of rock and youth-culture marketing, a number of musicians already marginal to the jazz mainstream actually ended up forging, as a matter of artistic and financial self-preservation, one of the most vital jazz scenes New York has ever known.

This do-it-yourself mode certainly precedes the 'seventies, especially among the jazz avant garde. Amiri Baraka, in 1963, wrote of musicians outside the mainstream who, unable to find work in the major clubs, played gigs at downtown lofts and coffee shops. For a loft presentation, Baraka wrote, "one small ad is placed in the Village Voice, and a few hand-painted signs are posted in important places all over the downtown area." [1]  The most significant precursor to the loft scene was the series of concerts organized by trumpeter Bill Dixon in the Fall of 1964 called "The October Revolution in Jazz." Though the concerts took place at an Upper West Side venue, the Cellar Café, the series had an impetus based on artists' self-determination that would become central to downtown music scenes. Free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman hosted concerts at his Prince Street loft beginning in the late 'sixties, but the beginning of a jazz loft scene as a full-blown cultural phenomenon came in 1972, when saxophonist Sam Rivers hosted, at his Bond Street loft, a counter-festival to George Wein's mainstream Newport in New York Festival. Shortly afterward, Rivers received funding from the New York State Council on the Arts for an ongoing series of concerts.

Jazz critic Gary Giddins denies that there is any style of music that one could call "loft jazz," stating that "Loft jazz is any jazz played in a loft."[2]  For practical purposes, however, one can identify certain elements that characterize a great deal of the music performed at the lofts in the 'seventies. It was clearly music that fell outside the jazz mainstream, carrying forward the legacy of 'sixties free jazz but informed by other strains. The musicians continued to eschew the popular-song harmonic foundation of bebop while often foregrounding the blues elements that were somewhat more subliminal in much of free jazz. Rhythmically, some of the music began to incorporate influences of funk, African and Afro-Caribbean music, alongside the more abstract free-jazz foundation. Most important, however, was the infusion of a critical mass of new blood. In the first half of the decade a number of extremely talented musicians arrived in New York from vital scenes in the Midwest and on the West Coast: Chicago's A.A.C.M. (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), the Black Artists Group (B.A.G.) of St. Louis, and the circle of the charismatic and influential Los Angeles pianist-composer Horace Tapscott. Many of these musicians would become major forces both in the downtown lofts and the international jazz scene in years to come, among them Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill and Hamiet Bluiett (St. Louis), Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins and Henry Threadgill (Chicago), and David Murray and Arthur Blythe (Los Angeles). These musicians brought, among other things, an interest in incorporating free playing within more complex compositional structures.

In addition to Sam Rivers' Studio Rivbea, other key Soho and Noho venues included: Ali's Alley, run by drummer Rashied Ali, a veteran of the John Coltrane quartet; pianist John Fischer's Environ; and The Ladies' Fort, run by singer Joe Lee Wilson, just down the street from Studio Rivbea. Studio We was on Eldridge Street, on the Lower East Side, and percussionist Warren Smith's Studio WIS and The Brook were located in Chelsea. Other venues that occasionally featured the same musicians included the Tin Palace, a club at Bowery and 2nd Street, Jazzmania Society, a loft in the East 20s, and La Mama theatre on East 4th.

By 1975 most of the lofts mentioned above were in operation, but most were gone by the end of the decade. It's not clear what led to their demise. Rising rents due to gentrification may have played a small part, though full-scale gentrification was still several years away. Some point to rivalries among the various lofts (see Eugene Chadbourne's account, linked in Web Resources). Some of the factors, however, were more positive. The Jazz at the Public Theater series gave the musicians a higher-profile venue and better pay. Verna Gillis's alternative space Soundscape, in midtown, provided other performance opportunities. Trombonist/composer George Lewis's tenure (1980-82) as music curator of the Kitchen brought more musicians with roots in the jazz tradition into that institution. A renewed interest in jazz, among audiences and in the media, brought more recording and performance opportunities for many of the musicians, both in the United States and abroad.

Still, the do-it-yourself spirit persisted, especially among musicians whose music was less adaptable to mainstream tastes. Bassist William Parker, a younger musician of the loft era, became a prime mover in the ongoing presentation of this music, especially with the advent of the Vision Festival in 1997.

The music of the lofts also left its imprint on musicians who became central to other downtown music circles. James Chance, a key player in the brief but influential "no wave" scene, attended shows at the lofts regularly, as did John Zorn, who would become the most prominent figure in downtown improvised music of the 'eighties.

Footnotes
[1] Baraka, Imamu Amiri (LeRoi Jones), Black Music (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998), 96.
[2] Giddins, Gary, Riding on a Blue Note: Jazz and American Pop (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 190.

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