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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.

6. Julius Hemphill: Dogon A.D. (Freedom, 1977 [originally recorded and released in 1972])

6. Julius Hemphill: <i>Dogon A.D.</i> (Freedom, 1977 [originally recorded and released in 1972])

Dogon A.D. was actually an important precursor to the loft era, not the thing itself; Hemphill recorded it in 1972 in St. Louis, where he was a member of that city’s Black Artists Group. (Shortly afterward, he was part of a cohort from that group who migrated to New York and became a mainstay of the lofts.) However, the album was rediscovered and re-released in light of the Lower Manhattan movement, showing its importance to the aesthetic that had since developed there. Hemphill, an alto saxophonist and composer, leads an unconventional quartet with trumpeter Baikida Carroll, cellist Abdul Wadud, and drummer Phillip Wilson that drenches avant-garde jazz in the folk blues of the Midwestern Plains. (In particular, one can hear the honk of the roadhouses in Hemphill’s playing, and the prairie fiddling tradition in Wadud’s.) There’s also evidence of the West African tribe that gives the album its name, for example in the 11/8 rhythm of the title track and the ritual incantations of the closing “The Painter.” Almost 50 years later, Dogon A.D. still sounds ahead of its time; its influence on the New York artists of the ’70s was profound.

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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.