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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.

7. Ted Curson & Company: Jubilant Power (Inner City, 1976)

7. Ted Curson & Company: <i>Jubilant Power</i> (Inner City, 1976)

Jubilant Power is so unstintingly straight-ahead—influenced by the modal, pre-A Love Supreme Coltrane and by Mingus, with whom trumpeter Curson worked extensively—that it doesn’t seem to belong on this list at all. However, it bears repeating that even though the loft scene encouraged an experimental aesthetic, it had no set genre or sound. This album also has an historical importance. One of the catalysts for the lofts’ success came when the Tin Palace, a club on the Bowery that was regarded as “a haven for loft musicians,” booked Curson’s septet for an extended run in early 1976, immediately after they were the last act scheduled to play at the fabled Five Spot. Jubilant Power is the only official recording of that septet. If it isn’t a terrifically avant-garde combo, it nonetheless nods toward the outside with some ragged arrangements and loosely structured harmony—especially on “Airi’s Tune,” with percussionist Sam Jacobs belting out Afro-Latin rhythms under supercharged solos by altoist Chris Woods, Curson, baritonist Nick Brignola, and pianist Jim McNeely. (Incidentally, the man then booking the Tin Palace, an outspoken jazz critic and sometime drummer named Stanley Crouch, lived upstairs with his roommate David Murray.)

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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.