New York’s Lofty Intentions

New York City has served as the primary locus for jazz’s evolution for 80 years, without quite engendering the mythological resonance of the cities that enjoyed intense associations with specific periods: New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City and even, during its brief flirtation with coolness, Los Angeles. Yet no matter where they came from or how much hometown renown they had achieved, most great American jazz musicians had to conquer New York City to cement a genuine, enduring success.

The business of entertainment had taken root in NYC in the late 19th century, creating an infrastructure that involved night clubs and saloons, concert halls and theaters, radio and television, newspapers and magazines, monolithic record labels, music publishers, songwriter unions, managers, agents, bookers and publicists. In luring the best and brightest, New York innovated, honed and facilitated an alliance with Tin Pan Alley (the first fusion), stride piano, ballroom dancing and orchestrated jazz, bebop, hard bop, Afro-Cuban and avant-garde.

Yet one of the most important and long-lived of New York City’s jazz eras has hardly been documented: the “loft era” of the 1970s and 1980s. Well, that’s not entirely true. A musical anthropologist could collate a hefty volume from newspaper reviews, magazine articles and liner notes of the period. No books or documentaries exist, however, though I know of two films that were started and sidetracked by lack of funds. Ken Burns’s Jazz ignored the loft era, describing its banner years as dark and baleful. Many key recordings are out of print. I can’t recall the last time anyone mounted a concert retrospective.

For a fledgling critic coming along in the genuinely dark days of the early ’70s, when jazz had receded from view, the sudden burgeoning of loft jazz was a lifeline and marvel. Just about every week, new blood drained into the city as a new music took root, one that seemed to spring from the avant-garde while embracing everything that came before it.

The music was challenging without being ideological. It merged and fused jazz, pop, free improvisation, fastidious and “conductionist” scores (not since the 1950s had so many big bands sprung up) with instruments from around the world, employing swing, funk and rubato rhythms in a music of extraordinary range, seasoned with humor, irony, nostalgia, sarcasm and stubborn independence. Beaver Harris, a professional baseball player in the black leagues who turned drummer, summed it up with the names of his band, the 360 Degree Music Experience, and a celebrated recording, From Ragtime to No Time. Those phrases may not, however, suggest how much fun it was—Lester Bowie, in his lab coat, conducting the 59-piece Sho’ Nuff Orchestra; Julius Hemphill, in gold lamé, introducing his alter ego, Roi Boye; Henry Threadgill with his hubcaphone and tangos; David Murray showing up with a new band every other day; Arthur Blythe bounding over tuba bass lines; trumpeter Olu Dara reinventing himself as a Delta bluesman; Anthony Braxton never stepping into the same river twice.

The era got its name from its venues, though few were, in fact, lofts. More remarkable than their locations was the fact that, at least initially, these spaces were owned and operated by musicians. You knew that wasn’t going to last. These entrepreneurial artists had taken large, neglected spaces in the Bowery and warehouse districts, for which landlords had little use, and created wondrous performance spaces: pianist John Fischer’s white Environ, where Hamiet Bluiett led a band more populous than the audience and where Steve Lacy played alone; singer Joe Lee Wilson’s Ladies Fort; Sam and Bea Rivers’ Studio Rivbea; clarinetist Mike Morgenstern’s Jazzmania. Some places were temporarily converted living rooms: When Stanley Crouch introduced, in 1975, two bands built around 20-year-old David Murray, he called his Bowery home Sunrise Studio. Murray brought with him Blythe, Mark Dresser, Ray Anderson and music by James Newton and Butch Morris, all unknown.

How did it begin? A configuration of events started with a long migration of musicians, most of them a decade older than Murray, arriving from California, St. Louis and mainly Chicago. For several years, we had heard about the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music and the Experimental Music Band. Delmark and Nessa had released records by Braxton, Bowie, Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Yet we had to see these musicians to appreciate the diversity of their music. I don’t think you can overstate the impact of Abrams, who could play anything and did, keeping everyone guessing from one performance to the next, in venues that ranged from churches to art galleries.

Air, the Revolutionary Ensemble and Leo Smith, among many others, offered not only bands but also solo performances by each member—no one has crafted a more compelling evening of solo drums than the RE’s Jerome Cooper. The whole issue of instrumentation was reinvented nightly. Ted Curson’s 1976 extended engagement at the Tin Palace was a turning point, the nightly crowds assuring the room’s transition to a jazz menu—where Murray, Bluiett, Hemphill and Oliver Lake created the World Saxophone Quartet, filling time with one piece fittingly called “Scared Sheetless.”

Soon there were new record labels to document a growing tribe of new New York City musicians. They ranged in size from Lake’s Passin’ Thru and Bob Cummins’s influential India Navigation to the Steve Backer-directed Arista Freedom and, most important of all, Italy’s Black Saint/Soul Note, as well as hundreds of labels huddled under the umbrella of New Music Distribution Service, which had grown out of the 1960s Jazz Composers Orchestra Association. The movement edged toward the, uh, “big time” in increments, as when Joe Papp produced Murray’s first big band at the Public Theater and Bruce Lundvall signed Blythe to Columbia.

The lofts helped to reconfigure neighborhoods, increasing tenement value and guaranteeing their own expulsion. As the lofts folded and the smaller labels were swallowed up, the Knitting Factory arrived with a new template for adventurous music, and loft-era musicians routinely appeared at mainstream clubs and international festivals, recording everywhere. Most of them, however, never really caught on with the mainstream.

Reagan-era conservatism, symbolized in jazz by the arrival of Wynton Marsalis, along with the return from fusion of Miles and the Milesians, portended a new era, placing the lofts in historical perspective—sometimes characterized by long naturals, dashikis and wood flutes of every size. If the loft era seems like a transitional decade, roughly 1974 to ’84, credit it with keeping jazz alive and vigorous through its most parlous years. Return to the records to hear how imaginatively it was done.

Originally published in September 2006

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