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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.

2. Sam Rivers: Crystals (Impulse!, 1974)

2.  Sam Rivers: <i>Crystals</i> (Impulse!, 1974)

Considering the DIY aesthetic that was part and parcel of the Loft Era, it was also a time of remarkable ambition. Studio Rivbea, the most famous and emblematic of the jazz lofts, was at 24 Bond Street just above Houston—Sam Rivers’ self-run place. (Writer Robert Palmer called Rivers “the unofficial mayor of the lofts.”) A tenor saxophonist, flutist, and composer of tremendous scope, Rivers often led large ensembles aptly styled “The Rivbea Orchestra.” Crystals, though not officially billed to the band, nonetheless provides a window into their world. The ensemble includes 14 pieces (though with various personnel—there are 63 players total) whose atonal shouts on “Exultation” obscure the painstaking detail of Rivers’ arrangements; whose contagious grooves on “Tranquility,” “Orb,” and “Earth Song” can make one forget how complex and difficult are the forms being played over them; whose wild bursts on, well, “Bursts” are like a massive revisiting of Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz. With Crystals, moreover, Rivers answers that age-old question: “What would funk sound like played on electric bass and tuba?”

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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.