CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Remembering the Original Knitting Factory

Owners and musicians tell the story of the New York jazz club that defined "downtown"

James Blood Ulmer on stage, March 1993
James Blood Ulmer on stage at the Knitting Factory, December 1993 (photo: Jack Vartoogian)

MIXING COLORS

Horvitz: The Knitting Factory wasn’t a white club or a black club, and I don’t just mean that racially, I mean that in terms of the music. Early on the booking leaned more toward the improvised-music white-kid stuff, but very quickly that changed. It covered the creative side of the Great Black Music scene, the post-AACM energy, and it covered Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor and William Parker.

Dorf: Most of that East Village, mostly white, Berklee-trained type of player came from Wayne. Within a few weeks word got out that there was this club that was booking blue-chip avant-garde players. I was a sponge. There were many scenes looking for a place to play: a very healthy rock scene going on at CBGB, the classic jazz-club world with Sweet Basil and the Village Vanguard, M-Base in Brooklyn. The loft scene had just finished, and Jazz at Lincoln Center was just starting to take off. But then you had all these artists like Cecil Taylor, Henry Threadgill, Ornette Coleman, and even Max Roach who were on the periphery.

Don Byron (clarinetist/saxophonist): The Knitting Factory was less white-centric. The other more rock-y, downtown-y venues weren’t having jazz-based improvised music. They weren’t having black people, essentially, unless they had no jazz connection. You could play rock in there, but you couldn’t go in there and play some standards. The difference with the Knitting Factory was it didn’t really matter what you did stylistically.

Osby: It was a come-as-you-are kind of place. The clientele ranged from surly types to intellectuals to Upper East Side privileged folk to Village types. It allowed me the opportunity to straddle the fence, because along with my peers like Steve Coleman and Geri Allen, I started to work with people who more firmly defined that whole downtown thing: Tim Berne, Mark Helias, Gerry Hemingway, Mike Formanek, Bobby Previte, people who cut their teeth on extended composition or classical music or even stuff that didn’t have a definition. For me to play with white dudes who I probably never would’ve played with otherwise extended my reputation for being open-minded enough to step into another arena.

Frith: Although rereading history later you might be forgiven for thinking that the Knitting Factory started the whole thing, they really exploited the fact that the scene had been narrowed down because the venues were closing. We had been playing all over town since ’78 in all kinds of venues, and they were disappearing.

Anthony Coleman (pianist): You could do a gig at Roulette or the Kitchen once a year if you were lucky. We didn’t know we needed a club, since we’d never had a club. We’d had performance spaces, but we’d never had a club. It filled a void that we weren’t even aware was a void.

Byron: In the ’80s, a lot of the old cats were still alive and playing the major clubs. I was playing at Sweet Basil with Illinois Jacquet. To a jazz critic of that time, none of the people I was playing with would be considered serious jazz unless they were playing with some old guy. For a young musician, the jazz venues were not really an option.

Frisell: Stuff was going on all over the East Village, in some basement or tiny room. The Knitting Factory certainly wasn’t a fancy place, but you weren’t lifting up the metal grate on the sidewalk and climbing down into a basement; you could actually step onto a stage and play. There was something about it that made you feel like you could do stuff that you didn’t [try elsewhere]. I would play with my band but play only 12-string guitar while Joey [Baron] would play on a cardboard box, stuff like that.

Joey Baron (drummer): It wasn’t about trying to prove anything. It was a place to experiment and just try things. Sometimes it worked and often it didn’t, but just to be able to bring an audience along to witness that was exciting. That place really was kind of a laboratory. I played my first solo concert in New York there. I was so scared about it that I programmed it at like 1:00 in the morning, the last set they could possibly have, hoping that nobody was going to be there. There were only about five or six people in the audience, but of course they were five or six of the most scrutinizing musicians that I could imagine. The pressure felt the same as if I was in Carnegie Hall for a packed house.

Appel: It was a scream, man. One weekend we’d have Sun Ra with 17 musicians pouring off of the stage into the audience, and the next weekend we’d have Sonic Youth. The Indigo Girls, one of their first gigs in New York was at our joint. To our credit, I think we were pretty open kids.

Frisell: People talk about the fact that Paul Motian, Joe Lovano, and I played a lot at the Village Vanguard, but a long time before that trio went into the Vanguard we played at the Knitting Factory.

Don Byron at the club, February 1992
Don Byron at the club, February 1992 (photo: Enid Farber)

A FEW YARNS

Baron: I played a lot of one-offs there: a duo with Bill Frisell or Don Byron, thrown-together nights with Marc Ribot. We played a version of John Lennon’s “Don’t Let Me Down” with Ribot singing. He didn’t know the words, so he was listening to my cassette tape of the song through headphones while we were playing. I don’t know how great the music was, but it was fun.

Marilyn Crispell (pianist): I remember hearing Don Pullen and Hamiet Bluiett play a duo, which completely blew me away. I was playing after them, and Don came over and apologized for the blood on the keys. It had been that intense.

Coleman: I got called by Arto Lindsay for this really shitty gig. We were accompanying this singer, Kazu [Makino], who later became the leader of the band Blonde Redhead. She was singing Billie Holiday songs at the time. That’s where I played with Roy Nathanson and Marc Ribot for the first time, and Roy and Ribot are two of the most important collaborations I’ve had in my life. That’s the kind of thing that happened at the Knit on a regular basis.

Steven Bernstein (trumpeter): The Lounge Lizards would do crazy sold-out shows at the Knitting Factory. It was a big band by the time I got in, so we were stuffed in there. The place would be packed to the gills, there would always be a few celebrities and people hanging from every little corner.

John Lurie (saxophonist, founder of the Lounge Lizards): The place smelled like an old carpet. They had no air conditioner. We played there for a week one August when it was like 110 degrees in there, so we brought a canary on stage to see if it died, like coal miners do. The canary didn’t die. That’s about as positive a thing as I have to say about the Knitting Factory—the canary didn’t die.

Byron: The old Knit was like a neighborhood bar for creative musicians. It was grungy.

Horvitz: If you arrived late there’d always be three of your friends standing at the back. People definitely went there just to see what was happening, which is unusual. Maybe the Vanguard was that way in 1958, but those days are long gone for most clubs.

Elliott Sharp (guitarist): The sound was not very good, the equipment was not very good, there was a big glass wall facing onto Houston Street so you had a lot of reflection from the sound. But you work with what you have. It’s the people who make the scene, not the venue.

Bernstein: They had a house amp by the window that would pick up the taxis as they came by. You’d be playing some quiet improvisation and suddenly you’d hear [distorted voice] “Car 64, pick up at 54th Street and 6th Avenue, who’s available?” That was part of the charm.

Nick Didkovsky (guitarist, Doctor Nerve): Just like with CBGB and the punk scene, it’s a feedback loop. It’s a scene in search of a home, and then the home nurtures the scene. I came up with ideas of things to do there that I wouldn’t have done in other contexts.

Baron: When people talk about that “scene,” I don’t really understand the term. For me it was a place to play that seemed to be open to experimentation. You didn’t have to be a diehard bebopper or a diehard avant-gardist.

Coleman: There was a huge difference between the scene around, say, the Lounge Lizards, the scene around John Zorn, and the scene around Glenn Branca. There wasn’t that much spillover between the older black avant-garde scene around James Blood Ulmer and Henry Threadgill and the scene around Alvin Curran and Musica Elettronica Viva. At the Knitting Factory people started collaborating with each other in a way that felt very natural.

Osby: It was the incubator for a lot of genre mixing, or devoid-of-genre mixing. I would go on nights even when I wasn’t playing, because it was highly experimental. I played there with Elliott Sharp. He had a stage full of instruments that he’d made: an old metal skate from the ’50s, with metal wheels and a leather strap, that he’d move around an old train track with pickups, so it would trigger samples. He had a two-headed guitar that he would slap like a bass, and a hubcap with guitar strings instead of spokes.

Thurston Moore (guitarist, Sonic Youth): I was living around the corner from the Knitting Factory on Lafayette Street, and it came at a time when I was really beginning to get fascinated with the lineage of free music. I needed to immerse myself completely in this music, and I remember coming home and looking at the Knitting Factory ad in the Village Voice, and everybody I had read about was performing that week. That changed everything for me.

Dorf: The great jazz photographer Raymond Ross lived on the third floor. He was a complete, crazy nut with two or three inches of photos and negatives on the ground, with 20 cats peeing all over these great negatives of Hank Mobley he’d shot at the Five Spot a decade before.

Appel: Sonic Youth was so loud one night that Ray Ross busted in, screaming that he was going to call the cops. But we just saw this man who looked like Rumpelstiltskin, like a crazy street person that didn’t have all his marbles, screaming—but it was so unbelievably loud that it was just his mouth moving. Mike and I stood next to each other not wanting to laugh, but it really was some Dr. Strangelove shit.

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.