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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.

10. World Saxophone Quartet: Revue (Black Saint, 1982)

10. World Saxophone Quartet: <i>Revue</i> (Black Saint, 1982)

The loft-jazz scene had ended by the early 1980s. New York was recovering, the cost of living was rising, and mainstream jazz was resurging, thanks to Dexter Gordon’s much-discussed repatriation and the new stars who had taken over (or broken out from) Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. The clearest example of the lofts’ influence and legacy, though, might be the World Saxophone Quartet. The four members—altoists Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake, tenorist David Murray, baritonist Hamiet Bluiett—had met and worked together in various configurations on the downtown scene. A Louisiana booking of all four saxophonists in 1977 solidified the concept, and the WSQ became one of the most acclaimed and against-all-odds successful ensembles of the 1980s. Revue, their fourth album, contains music that was unquestionably avant-garde but also remarkably accessible. Hemphill’s title track and Bluiett’s “I Heard That” offer sly (rhythm and) blues grooves; “Slide” swings as hard as anything can without a rhythm section; and even meditations like Murray’s “Ming” and Lake’s “Hymn for the Old Year” have surprising hooks in them. If loft jazz remains something of an obscurity, its aftermath is indelible.

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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.