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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.

5. Rashied Ali featuring Royal Blue: “N.Y. Ain’t So Bad”: Ali Plays the Blues (Survival, 1976)

5. Rashied Ali featuring Royal Blue: <i>“N.Y. Ain’t So Bad”: Ali Plays the Blues</i> (Survival, 1976)

John Coltrane’s last drummer ran his own loft as well, Ali’s Alley on Greene Street in SoHo. He was still as experimental as he sounded on those Trane records—but of course, experimental doesn’t always mean freeform, as the sublimely loose, even ramshackle, blues performances on “N.Y. Ain’t So Bad” illustrate. If Ali is the leader of this jam, vocalist Royal Blue is its real star, a joyful baritone in the Jimmy Rushing tradition. (It’s his only recording.) There’s a bit of messiness when it comes to key, and some hints of contemporary jazz language, especially in Jimmy Vass’ alto playing (on “Moontipping,” he isn’t credited with soprano but sounds very like Coltrane’s sheets-of-sound on that instrument) and Ali’s surprising, often incongruous figures. (On B.B. King’s “Everyday,” he doesn’t keep time so much as pummel it.) More often, though, they—along with otherwise avant-garde loft regulars tenor saxophonist Marvin Blackman, pianist Charles Eubanks, and bassist Benny Wilson—play straight and deep into the gutbucket. In an earlier era of jazz, the “New Thing” players were often accused of abandoning or indeed never properly learning the tradition; “N.Y. Ain’t So Bad” is as deeply immersed in it as any mainstream jazz record.

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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.