CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Remembering the Original Knitting Factory

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

Left to right: Bern Nix, Billy Bang, and Warren Smith on the Knit stage, October 1994
Left to right: Bern Nix, Billy Bang, and Warren Smith on the Knit stage, October 1994 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

TALES OF THE NAKED CITY

Dorf: Zorn became hugely connected to the Knit early on. He fell in love with the space, we became close friends, and he also loved the deal. The first thing we did together was his project “Hu Die,” which we did at midnight and the place was jam-packed. It became a very symbiotic relationship.

Coleman: John had his own crazy love-hate relationship with Michael in those days. He was already a big star in the downtown scene. A huge draw.

Dorf: There was a Peruvian restaurant downstairs called Estella’s, and basically the noise ran her out of business. I took over her lease on a Friday afternoon in time for Zorn to do his first five-night Naked City run [in 1989]. It was an all-star downtown avant-garde band [with Horvitz, Frith, Frisell, and Baron].

Frith: He formed the band and we had no material, so we spent the whole afternoon rehearsing, then we did two sets playing this stuff. We thought, “Okay, now we’ve got the material.” Then the next day we went through the whole thing again with completely different material. By the end of four days we had a repertoire of about 80 pieces.

Dorf: It was basically a rehearsal for a European tour. The band was so talented that they could nail these things and he went on tour with a songbook. To me, that shows the incredible genius of this guy and the caliber of the musicians.

Frisell: That was the very beginning of Naked City. It was tons of music to learn. Later we’d play upstairs in the main room and the place was just absolutely mobbed, and the volume level was incredibly loud.

Marty Ehrlich (multi-instrumentalist): Michael began to stack all the [demo] cassettes that he got up the stairs. He’d probably never listened to them all. How could he? But I remember saying, “Michael, [imagine] you didn’t get the gig and you walk in and see your cassette there—is this compassionate?” I don’t think Michael is a bad person, but I think part of why he’s an amazing businessman is that to him it was an interesting idea because it showed abundance.

Dorf: I was so stuck on it being alternative and fresh and new that when Harry Connick, Jr. came to me with a demo I listened to it, gave it back to him, and said, “It’s a little too New Orleans, we’re not doing that here. Good luck.” I also did that with Phish; Trey Anastasio gave me a tape and I handed it back and said, “It sounds a lot like the Grateful Dead. We’re doing much more original music here.” What a schmuck I am.

Sharp: I had a falling out with Michael after he said in an interview that there was nothing going on in New York before he started the Knitting Factory, that he was responsible for the creation of the downtown scene. But I like Michael. That was always one of the problems about doing business with him: He was a shady businessman but he’s a nice guy. You run into him and you enjoy talking with him, even when you’re fighting with him.

EXPANDING EMPIRE

Dorf: We were diving fairly deeply into the recorded music business, which I’d always wanted to do. I was still trying to sell Flaming Pie Records, but college indie radio wasn’t interested in these Wisconsin bands—they asked if we had recordings of the bands playing the Knitting Factory. So I started a radio series called Live at the Knitting Factory using cassette dubs of the live shows. It started to get real traction and I got a recording deal with A&M to do a Live at the Knitting Factory series.

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Byron: There was this feeling in the air that A&M was gonna sign somebody. It was palpable, kind of a competition like Star Search. The groups that were on Live at the Knitting Factory [released in four volumes in 1989 and 1990] were throwing their hats in the ring for this serious record deal that never surfaced.

Sharp: The albums were always about the Knitting Factory. You really had to dig down deep to see who the artists were.

Nathanson: The Jazz Passengers did the first Knitting Factory tour [of Europe in 1990]. It was fun but also crazy and fucked up, as many of the Knitting Factory things were, business-wise. Totally chaotic.

Coleman: The tours were everything from abject to glorious and everything in between. In the beginning, you could chalk a lot of it up to inexperience. I don’t know if there was a European promoter who would have brought me and Roy to Europe, so at first it felt like this shambolic opportunity, and even when there were a lot of screwups it felt very charming. But as time went on it felt much more willful.

Horvitz: I remember going to the Pori Jazz Festival in Finland where I had played before, and suddenly we were playing in the Knitting Factory tent. There was a feeling that the Knitting Factory brand was getting to be above the identity of the artist. It’s not like we were wildly exploited; let’s face it, I don’t think anybody made a lot of money.

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Byron: I never went on any of those tours. They were notorious. People not getting paid, bad conditions, being on a bus with crazy motherfuckers. Nobody liked those tours.

Frank Lowe at the Knitting Factory, May 1990
Frank Lowe at the Knitting Factory, May 1990 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

AFTER HOUSTON STREET

Dorf: The old Knit was built with no money. I wouldn’t call it dangerous, but it was a real fly-by-night contraption. I was looking forward to finding a new space that would be very safe, very kosher. In 1994 I was able to borrow some money to get a new space in Tribeca where we built a much safer, more legitimate club.

Baron: It seemed less personable and less inviting. I played that space often but it became more and more anonymous, more like a factory—of sorts.

Ehrlich: When it moved to Leonard Street, there became this issue of upstairs/downstairs. It was a bit like Downton Abbey, in that they started to ask who was big enough to fill the upstairs room. I began to perform much more in the [downstairs] Alterknit [Theater], which held 50 people and took the pressure off. When [Dorf] got the big space he had his ambitions. Suddenly he could get Charles Lloyd with Billy Higgins and he could get Laurie Anderson. He could get rock stars, because they wanted street cred. 

Byron: They had little spaces that kind of imitated the old, fucked-up, dirty, nasty Knitting Factory. But the main stage became yet another rock venue. It became half a creative music venue and half the Mercury Lounge.

Coleman: The turning point was the Bell Atlantic festival [produced by Dorf in 1999]. They were clearly operating on a star system, and the people who’d made the Knitting Factory were offered a woefully small [fee], which was really insulting. Ribot really stepped up. I don’t always agree with Marc’s textbook unionism, but that was a place where he did the right thing, and also put a big nail in the coffin. Once Michael was faced with unionism, the writing was on the wall for the dream that it was some kind of communal space.

Dorf: It became so big that the players misunderstood the numbers, got upset, and held protests to get higher wages. That was a painful moment for me, because here were people that I’d been friends with for 10 years who didn’t think I was paying them enough.

Ehrlich: At some point it became a brand. [The term “Knitting Factory”] almost replaced “downtown music.” It’s impossible to look at creative music in New York City without seeing the key role that Michael Dorf and his compatriots played in running that place. It’s intrinsic to the history of the growth of this music—not without a lot of tensions.

Dorf: In 2002 I was starting to be very challenged with my role as founder and CEO. I had some disagreements with investors over the running of the record company [Knitting Factory Works/Records, founded in 1991 after the demise of the A&M deal] and the direction we were going. But I didn’t control the company anymore. I brought on investors and lost control. So in 2003 I was done. It was the hardest decision, because it was my baby. [The Leonard Street location closed in 2009, and the Dorf-less Knitting Factory moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where it remains.]

Frisell: Like a lot of things, you don’t know what you got till it’s gone. I don’t remember ever not wanting to play there. It was something you always looked forward to. I guess there’s still a Knitting Factory in Williamsburg, but I don’t have the slightest idea what it is. It’s just a name, like CBGB at Disneyland.

Nathanson: There’s a reason why that shit is mythical, and it really is true. I have no trepidation saying that at all. It really was a special thing, and almost impossible to replicate at this point, especially in New York. 

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.