Musician and Gallatin professor Kwami Coleman loved hearing his late father’s stories of Lower Manhattan’s music scene in the 1960s and 70s, when musicians and artists opened their loft spaces for performances, including saxophonist Sam Rivers and his wife Bea, who hosted concerts at Studio Rivbea on Bond Street, and drummer Rashied Ali, who used his loft on Greene Street for a venue nicknamed Ali’s Alley.
The loft jazz era, as it became known, created space for musicians, including Coleman’s pianist father, to experiment with their peers and for audiences to witness their creativity up close. Coleman is celebrating the era—which he describes as “a moment of great revolution” in music—with an immersive performance art exhibition, Kwami Coleman’s 13TEENTH FL: A Place Made By Playing, running February 3—25 at The Gallatin Galleries.
“I remember my father telling me of the 60s and 70s and 80s and his friend Rashied Ali, who worked with John Coltrane, and how Rashied was taking him all around,” Coleman says, referring to lofts just blocks from his recreated exhibition. “It was like a temple for a kind of community building. And these were previously industrial spaces that were being repurposed for maybe the least industrious thing: creativity.”
As experimental as the music it spotlights, 13TEENTH FL. is a love letter wrapped up in a call to action.
“What if we could have more spaces like this for artists? What if we could become patrons, visitors, of this kind of space and interact with artmaking in that direct way,” Coleman asks. “Not ‘Why don’t we?’ because we can answer that historically and economically, and they are all very interesting answers. But I think, for this show, I want to ask, ‘Why not have more?’”
The exhibition is an extension of his work at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where his research and teaching focus on experimental music history, jazz history, improvisation, and the political economy of music. A pianist, composer, and producer, Coleman premiered a new soundscape, Echoes | Gestures | Abolition, last week.
Coleman will lead a sextet in concert on February 8 and 22. Doors open at 6 p.m. and admission is free but guests must RSVP.. He will perform “unofficial” concerts with other NYU musicians whenever possible during the exhibit’s three-week run. He plans to use social media to announce them.
“Maybe it will be a 45 minute lunch set, maybe it will be 10:30 on a Tuesday morning,” he says. “There’s no set time because I have to be flexible with people’s schedules.”
Coleman collaborated with the design firm, Sensitive Research, to create the space, which includes listening stations, videos, and artifacts. Visitors will learn about the era and can contemplate the value of music and its transformative qualities.
“The (late) drummer Art Blakey has this great line: ‘Music washes away the dust of life,’” Coleman says.
Music’s otherworldly quality is emphasized in the show’s title, a reference to the fact that many tall buildings don’t have a 13th floor.
“It’s highly superstitious,” he says. “Not spooky, but dazzling, mystical, out of the ordinary. It’s a space for something more transcendental."
NYU News spoke to Coleman about the exhibition, the influences behind it and the cultural questions it raises.
You are a third-generation New York musician, following your late father and his father. Tell me about them and how they influenced this exhibition.
My father was Earl Coleman, a pianist and teacher, and his father, my grandfather Earl Coleman Sr., was a saxophonist who had a big band in the 1960s and 1970s. My father would tell me all these stories about going to these loft spaces and meeting these incredible musicians and visual artists, being in an incredible kind of space where you never know who's going to be there. And more importantly, especially on the musician side of things, where musicians could work something out.
Why is it important to remember this moment in the musical history of Lower Manhattan and the Village?
Lower Manhattan was once the epicenter of all things art. My father was a young man in the 1960s and saw for himself this moment of great revolution. A moment of great potential that never gets fully realized. There was something about those music ensembles that were so varied and weird sometimes. There might be a flutist and a bassist but they made some incredible music. For improvising musicians, it was not about who’s playing what but the spirit and the objective. The goal was to play 45 minutes and explore these ideas, these sounds, these textures. That’s what I want to go for, getting some part of this sense, this community building. That’s part of this history lesson.
This show explores the loss of a vibrant club scene, too.
You could go straight down Seventh Avenue and you would hear so much music just spilling out into the street. You could walk in, grab a drink, or just like, put your ear to the door. I remember a time as a younger person where you could see an amazing musician and maybe you were not old enough to walk in, but you could stand by the door and see it through the window. And we don't have that at all in New York anymore.
You are also concerned about the loss of those spaces for the musicians who relied on them to experiment. Is that personal, too?
NYU is this immense space where it's so hard for people to meet each other sometimes. There are musicians teaching classes in different schools and we can’t find each other. All the folks I meet say the same thing. It would be great if we could not only meet and talk but have moments to play with each other. So I’m having a bunch of small, unofficial performances with musicians and faculty members from around NYU.
The exhibition examines changes in the music industry and the way audiences consume music.
Most of us listen on our devices, right? Like streaming, which is great, is incredibly convenient. But maybe only some of us are also aware of the other side to it, which is that artists really don't get paid well when their music streams. They get a fraction of a fraction of a cent, literally. It's really sad. And when everything is at our fingertips, do we find ourselves going out to engage with the making of the thing? Maybe we might go to a big concert at Madison Square Garden or at the Brooklyn Academy of Music every once in a while, but how many of us spend time, if we have the time to spend, in an artist's studio or in a more intimate kind of setting, seeing the thing that we love being made? The show tries to maybe comment, touch on those kinds of things.
Rather than a nostalgic look back, this exhibition asks music lovers to think about the future. Why?
It’s a celebration, but also a little elbow in the side, like “Hey, they don’t have to be gone.” Maybe we can build it into designing our city, because this city always redesigns itself. It’s never satisfied to stay still.