Last fall, standing in the Philadelphia construction site that would soon be transformed into the latest of his City Winery franchises, Michael Dorf reflected on the distance he’d traveled since cobbling together his first music venue more than three decades earlier. When he arrived in New York City in the mid-1980s, Dorf was a law-school dropout from Wisconsin who’d never heard of John Zorn, the Jazz Passengers, the M-Base collective, or any of the converging strands that made up the eclectic, stream-crossing downtown scene.
By the end of the ’80s the Knitting Factory had become synonymous with that scene, which needed a laboratory for its experiments to flourish. Over the seven years that the Knit remained in its tiny space on Houston Street before decamping for Tribeca, Dorf built the club into an avant-scaled empire, complete with a major-label record deal and a European touring arm. None of it came without contention, as those who were there recall.
Michael Dorf (owner): I did one year of law school at the University of Wisconsin, 1985-86. [At the same time] I was managing my friend Bob Appel’s band, Swamp Thing. I started the Flaming Pie record label for them and made a compilation called The Mad Scene with bands from Madison like Phil Gnarly and the Tough Guys and Honor Among Thieves. I decided I would have to move to New York if I wanted to become a record mogul, so I borrowed some money from my grandparents and used some bar mitzvah savings. I was not successful at all.
Bob Appel (co-owner/manager): Michael and I met in Milwaukee when we were eight, but we didn’t become close friends until we went to summer camp and high school together. Even at a young age, Michael had a very entrepreneurial spirit. His father owned a food distributorship, and Mike would take the damaged cookie boxes to this fair and sell them. When he decided he didn’t want to finish law school he said, “You should let me manage your band.” That’s how the music-biz relationship started.
Dorf: After three or four months in New York, I was defeated. I was very close to moving back to Wisconsin when I stumbled on a [former] Avon Products office at 47 East Houston Street. I knew I had to sell stuff and I wasn’t selling records, so I thought maybe I could open a café/art space and eventually get a liquor license. I convinced my friend Louis Spitzer, who’d always wanted to have an art gallery, to help me build the space. Swamp Thing was going to call their second album Mr. Bludstein’s Knitting Factory, after a sweatshop in Wisconsin, so [when they changed it] I asked if I could borrow the name Knitting Factory. We opened in February of 1987.
Joe Gallant (bassist, Illuminati Orchestra): I remember Michael Dorf as a fresh-faced Midwesterner. He got into town with the means to open a little spot, but I don’t think he realized what he was about to stumble into.
Bobby Previte (drummer): Bob and Michael didn’t know anything about the scene. Zero.
Dorf: My jazz was more Pat Metheny and Spyro Gyra. Of course I knew about Miles Davis and the hard bop cats, but I didn’t know the avant-garde scene at all. But I had this idea of a Jack Kerouac, New York jazz club thing, and from a Village Voice ad I contacted Wayne Horvitz. It was complete serendipity.
Wayne Horvitz (keyboardist): We played two very different types of gigs in those days: gigs where you’d make every effort to have people come hear your music, and gigs you played because a restaurant wanted background music. My assumption was that this was just a restaurant gig, so I made absolutely no effort to publicize it. I put together a group with [guitarist] Dave Tronzo, Joe Gallant, and [maybe Bobby Previte on drums]. I was surprised by the place because they had no alcohol and they sold tea and muffins. Big surprise, there was nobody there.
Gallant: Michael ended up paying us in dessert vouchers. It was that innocent. At the end [of the gig] Wayne took him into the back, sat him down and said, “There’s this scene happening and this should be where it develops.”
Horvitz: I asked him if he knew who Bill Frisell was. He said no. I said, “Do you know who Butch Morris is? David Murray? John Zorn?” He said no. So I said, “Give me a budget of 150 dollars a night for eight weeks and I’ll book a series of duos. We’ll see how it goes.” I don’t know what got into me; it wasn’t like I was asking him to pay me. But there was always a shortage of places to play.
Bill Frisell (guitarist): Wayne is an incredible instigator who has a talent for bringing people together from different scenes. That happens in his music a lot, and it became the template for the Knitting Factory.
Fred Frith (multi-instrumentalist): Butch Morris and I were the first official Knitting Factory concert. They hadn’t heard of either of us, they had no idea about this kind of music, but they saw that there was an audience out there for it and they seized the opportunity.
Greg Osby (saxophonist): Michael didn’t look like a go-getter; he just looked like a dude kicking a hacky sack.
Horvitz: Marty Ehrlich called me up five weeks in and said, “This guy Michael Dorf tried to stiff us last night!” I guess not many people came. It was the beginning of a longstanding, fond friendship I had with Michael Dorf mixed with acrimonious bullshit about money over and over again.
Tim Berne (saxophonist): Anybody that’s trying to do that shit gets points because it’s not exactly a corporate move. He was young, self-confident, and trying to figure things out.
Roy Nathanson (saxophonist, founder of the Jazz Passengers): I lived in the East Village, and all of a sudden these flyers went up on the lampposts all over 2nd Avenue advertising John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, every famous jazz musician in history, playing at this club. I thought it was kind of funny, and within a week or two I heard from other people that they were looking for downtown musicians to play.
Appel: Within two to three months it went from a café with art on the walls to a music and performance venue seven nights a week. The whole vision had shifted and Louis didn’t want to be in the nightclub business, so it made sense for Mike and I to widen our partnership.
Dorf: Bob was critical to our success. Being a musician, he had a more laid-back personality, less hyper than mine, so he provided a nice contrast.
Frith: They had a huge amount of enthusiasm but absolutely no idea what they were doing. If you read the programs from the early days of the Knitting Factory, it was a running gag that more than half the names would be misspelled.
William Parker (bassist): When Michael first opened up he would call [legendary NYC avant-garde scenesters] Stephanie and Irving Stone or me and say, “A guy named Clifford Jordan’s down here, should I give him a gig?” Or “Dewey Redman’s here—who is he?” I said, “Listen, if they come down there and they look like a musician, give ’em a gig. Especially if they’re older.”
Previte: Good on them for being humble enough to listen to someone who knew. They needed an identity, and Wayne gave them an identity.