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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.

8. Ornette Coleman: Dancing in Your Head (Horizon/A&M, 1977)

8. Ornette Coleman: <i>Dancing in Your Head</i> (Horizon/A&M, 1977)

Free-jazz patriarch Ornette Coleman had been one of the early adopters of the loft aesthetic, moving into his space on SoHo’s Prince Street (eventually called Artist House) in 1968. Most often he rehearsed there, but there were also concerts presented on its first floor, letting Coleman engage more fully with the avant-garde jazz musicians congregating in New York. Inspired by that engagement and the new fusion sound that Miles Davis and others had developed, Coleman formulated his new electric Prime Time band in 1975. They premiered that year at the Public Theater, a loft-adjacent venue in the East Village, again giving a charge of publicity and coverage to the scene developing in those environs; Dancing in Your Head is a memento of that important moment. The music is both a louder and wilder (the two are not unrelated) revision of Coleman’s acoustic free jazz, as assertive funk grooves collide with unconventional melodies and frequent departures from any sense of understood time or harmony. (Most of the music, anyway—a small segment of it comes from an unfettered, field-like recording the saxophonist made in 1973 with Morocco’s Master Musicians of Jajouka.) Coleman would work with Prime Time for the rest of his life, a permanent direction that would have been unthinkable without the context of the downtown 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.