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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.

9. Arthur Blythe: Lenox Avenue Breakdown (Columbia, 1979)

9. Arthur Blythe: <i>Lenox Avenue Breakdown</i> (Columbia, 1979)

It’s odd that “Black Arthur” Blythe (a nickname he hated but was nonetheless tagged with) titled Lenox Avenue Breakdown after the main drag in Harlem, uptown, because he was one of the key ’70s figures playing downtown—and the first whose creativity was able to allure the major record labels. Blythe’s ensemble had an enormous sound that featured guitar (James “Blood” Ulmer, also briefly the guitarist in Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time), flute (James Newton), tuba (Bob Stewart), and his own salty alto saxophone along with Cecil McBee’s bass, Jack DeJohnette’s drums, and Guillermo Franco’s percussion. The unconventional-in-any-context instrumentation refused to confine itself to one corner of the jazz spectrum: it swung like the big bands, shuffled off time and key like the free groups, mixed bebop language with blues wails and angular, unique phrasing. Furthermore, Blythe was a West Coast native, bringing that region’s Mexican and Latin edges to tracks like “Down San Diego Way.” “Rather than choose between old and new jazz, tradition and ‘free,’” wrote critic Will Hermes, “they treated the music as an ongoing conversation.” That quality in Blythe and company’s work may be the essence of the entire era.

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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.