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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.

3. David Murray: Interboogieology (Black Saint, 1978)

3. David Murray: <i>Interboogieology</i> (Black Saint, 1978)

Although Rivbea was the iconic venue of the period, Rivers wasn’t necessarily the iconic musician. That distinction goes to tenor saxophonist David Murray, the Oakland native who washed up on eastern shores in 1975 and was by 1980 crowned as “jazz musician of the decade” by the Voice. He was also the decade’s most prolific recorder: Interboogieology, made only 21 months after his recording debut, was nevertheless Murray’s 11th album. That requires tremendous range, of which Interboogieology offers a number of hints. This hip 23-year-old was remarkably enamored with older generations of saxophonists—specifically, Ellington sidemen like Harry Carney (in his deep tone), Ben Webster (in his impossible swagger), and Paul Gonsalves (in his ravenous blues). He was also just as ready to take on modal jazz (witness “Home,” one of his key compositions) and tight arrangements (“Interboogieology”) as he was shrieking free jazz (“Namthini’s Shadow”), all of it delivered in his unmistakably huge, vibrato-laden sound. Working with cornetist Butch Morris—with whom he would enjoy a long collaborative relationship—and vocalist Marta Contreras, along with Dollar Brand bassist Johnny Dyani and drummer Oliver Scott, Murray actually made Interboogieology in Milan, Italy. Don’t be fooled: The breadth and sheer radiance of its ideas can only have come out of the lofts.

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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.