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JazzTimes 10: Great Albums of the Loft-Jazz Era

An extended taste of NYC in the 1970s, featuring Sam Rivers, Henry Threadgill, Rashied Ali, and many more

The Loft Era was one of the most fertile periods in jazz lore … that hasn’t actually entered jazz lore to speak of. Lasting from about 1969 to 1979 but reaching its peak in the mid-’70s, it was exactly what it sounds like: In the era of New York City’s economic crisis, when work in jazz clubs and other performance venues was hard to come by, musicians created their own venues in their low-rent dwellings—run-down former industrial loft spaces in lower Manhattan. In theory, any form of jazz could be performed within this network of. In practice, though, it trended toward experimental and avant-garde jazz, whose artists were the hardest pressed for establishment gigs.

Critic Gary Giddins, who documented the scene for The Village Voice, describes it as a de facto aesthetic movement. “The loft jazz era took the free jazz decade into a rapprochement with traditional jazz, rock, classical, Third World, etc., the point at times being to obliterate genre lines,” he says. “But the fascinating thing is that the jazz element ended up subsuming all others, leaving a genuinely new if fragile jazz idiom that influenced everyone else.”

It also influenced the recordings made during the period, and not simply the many live albums that naturally came out of the lofts. Indeed, there is a box set of recordings from a 1976 festival at saxophonist Sam Rivers’ Studio Rivbea—and it’s not included in the list below. That would be too easy. Instead, these are 10 studio recordings that offer a flavor of the music you could hear at places like Rivbea, Ali’s Alley, Environ, Ladies’ Fort, and the Tin Palace (among many others) in those days now nearly 50 years behind us.

1. Beaver Harris: From Ragtime to No Time (360, 1975)

1. Beaver Harris: <i>From Ragtime to No Time</i> (360, 1975)

Set the needle at the start of side one on this now largely forgotten 1975 gem, and you might immediately wonder if someone at the pressing plant made a mistake. Beaver Harris’ unaccompanied drums wind up to a New Orleans Big Four beat, shift into a shuffle, and then bass and piano enter, doing the Charleston. There’s no mistake; the pianist is free-jazz stalwart Dave Burrell, and the bassist is the great Ron Carter. This is simply the “ragtime” part of the album’s title, and trad-jazz greats Doc Cheatham (trumpet), Marshall Brown (trombone), Herb Hall (clarinet), and Maxine Sullivan (vocal) join for the kicky remainder of the side. Flip it over, and time fast forwards a half-century. The sidelong “Round Trip” suite features sitar, baritone sax, flute, balafon (by Burrell), two basses (Cecil McBee joins Carter), and five percussionists who join Harris in a multi-part, multi-textural jam. Sometimes it is tonal and formal, and sometimes it is neither. Here Harris, best known at the time for his work with Archie Shepp, set the parameters for the era’s creative spirit—and let a generation representing one extreme of those parameters join with another at the opposite extreme in expressing that spirit.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.