CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

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.

4. Air: Air Raid (Why Not, 1976)

4. Air: <i>Air Raid</i> (Why Not, 1976)
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Like David Murray, Henry Threadgill also arrived in New York in 1975. He was noted almost immediately for his compositional ability (though it would take 40 years for the Pulitzer Prize committee to catch on). But while he is credited as the author of all four tracks on Air Raid—the second album by the collective trio Air—the writing here takes a back seat to the band’s interactive improvisations. Bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall share equal footing with Threadgill, especially on the lightly structured long pieces “Air Raid” and “Release,” although the shorter “Midnight Sun” and “Through a Keyhole Darkly” are notably fair-trade as well. (While Threadgill’s voice on his four reeds is the most prominent, it’s the stunning dialogue between himself—on his unique “hubkaphone” percussive rig—McCall, and Hopkins on “Release” that is the album’s most effective moment.) Air’s raw yet sophisticated three-way meeting of the minds remains as impressive today as it did in their mid-1970s heyday, when they were a fixture on the loft scene.

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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.