March 6, 2017
Loft Jazz: Improvising New York in the 1970s
By Michael C. Heller (University of California Press)
By Ken Waxman
Unlike earlier styles named for locations (Kansas City, West Coast) or sounds (Bop, Stride), New York’s so-called Loft Jazz movement of the ‘70s was defined by real estate. The result of policies that allowed large swathes of the southern part of the city to be neglected waiting for potential redevelopment, large, often unoccupied and un-serviced industrial lofts in Soho were soon legally or not occupied by artists drawn by expansive spaces and minimal costs. Many lofts housed experimental jazz musicians, who hosted sessions that eventually became regular concert spaces. Soon not only were locals like drummer Juma Sultan, saxophonist Sam Rivers and trumpeter James DuBois presenting door gigs; but adventurous players from the Mid-West with more business savvy and California music emigrants were sharing the spotlight. Using first-person interviews and archival researchm including reproductions of posters, flyers and LP covers, Michael C. Heller examines the scene’s rise and eventual fall from historical, pedagogical and sociological perspectives.
In the spirit of musician self-sufficiency and African-American empowerment of the time, one galvanizing factor was the NYC arrival of the 1972 Newport Jazz Festival without local musician input. A multi-borough counter festival then legitimatized spaces that became Studio Rivbea, Ladies Fort, Ali’s Alley and Studio We among others. Discovered by the jazz media, the novement’s zenith was probably the acceptance of 1976’s multi-LPs, Wildflowers, The New York Loft Jazz Sessions. But even at that point impetus was bring lost, Schisms over music industry cooperation and the idea of fair wages emerged, as did competition among lofts. Plus as multi-instrumentalist Cooper Moore notes, often these community ideas didn’t stretch past the musicians’ peers. Eventually though, rising rents and new development gentrified the area out of artists’ reach at the same time as mainstream clubs and European festivals welcomed more adventurous players,
Avoiding jargon for the most part, Heller itemizes what differentiated Loft Jazz from other styles and how its creation, dissemination and demise affected innovative jazz. One crucial aspect is the designation itself. As saxophonist Hamiett Bluiett notes: “remember what we were playing was ‘musician’s jazz’, not ‘building jazz’.”
—For The New York City Jazz Record March 2017