These '70s Avant-Garde Jazz Musicians Blew Freely, Fiercely, and Reverently
These cats blew all night and day a new, astonishing page into the jazz lexicon. What they couldn't do was get gigs in jazz clubs.
Charles “Bobo” Shaw’s passing was the kind that snaps you back to a special time, reminding you how special it was.
Shaw, a drummer and activist who joined the ancestors in January at 69, was a foundational figure of an era that still gets the short shrift, despite its continuing importance and influence. He was part of the post-John Coltrane wave of avant-garde jazz in the late ‘60s and ‘70s and a member of one of the key artist-driven collectives that fueled the movement.
In 1968, he co-founded Black Artists Group (BAG) in St. Louis, a collective of avant-garde musicians and other artists styled after Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). After BAG, Shaw and other BAG musicians toured Europe and eventually made their way to New York City by the mid-‘70s.
There, they became part of the city’s avant-jazz scene. The music happening there took its influences from the previous decade, both artistically (Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman and other forward thinkers) and culturally (an extension of the Black Arts Movement that flourished parallel to the Black Power era). But it sounded nothing quite like what came before it. These musicians were respectful of the jazz lineage, but not beholden to it.
They blew free, unencumbered by song structures or chord changes. They blew fiercely, reeling off long passages of sound and fury. They blew reverently, with copious use of African percussion, wardrobe, and nomenclature. They blew with whomever was available, thus creating new possibilities for how jazz ensembles could be configured -- or ended up giving solo performances if that’s what the moment dictated. They blew all night and day a new, astonishing page into the jazz lexicon.
What they weren’t able to do was get gigs in jazz clubs. Many of those venues were drying up, as jazz’s receding from mass awareness was in full swing (save for the electric work of Miles Davis and bands formed by members of his various aggregations, and popular jazz-funk hits), and those that were hanging on weren’t having all that caterwauling in their establishments. So the avant-jazzers made their own infrastructure, using vacant buildings in Manhattan as rehearsal, performance and, for some, living spaces.
These spaces, with their wide-open floor plans, were repurposed from their former lives as factories and warehouses. Sometimes the actual owners knew about it, but that doesn’t seem to have always been the case. From this turf, musicians staged their own concerts, held their own jam sessions, and forged their own micro-economy. Eventually, word got out, and as is often the case, someone felt inspired to label this new thing. As is also often the case, the people being labeled weren’t all that happy with the label that stuck: "loft jazz".
Now 40 years later, the label still sticks, and not only to the loft scene but also to all of ‘70s avant-garde jazz, loft-related or otherwise. So does the era’s rep for producing some of the most extreme and polarizing jazz ever made. The lot of it was famously excluded from Ken Burns’ 2001 documentary Jazz (along with, to be fair, just about all the jazz of the previous 30 years). The proclaimed face of jazz in the early ‘80s, Wynton Marsalis -- an artist at the polar opposite of everything the avant-garde crowd was about -- treated the ‘70s vanguard with disdain for not sticking to jazz’s established orthodoxy, which rapturous media coverage ceaselessly informed us he was steadfastly maintaining. Many still hold their noses at loft-era avant-garde jazz, preferring sounds far less complicated and knotty. The CD reissue boom mostly passed the movement by, in large part because major record labels recorded so little of it in the first place.
But that moment in jazz’s life still resonates, as two new books document. Loft Jazz: Improvising New York in the 1970s and Message to Our Folks: The Art Ensemble of Chicago recall some of the era’s artistic and structural vitality, shedding new light on how jazz, in fact, didn’t die on the abrasive edge of the ‘70s after all. In fact, much of today’s jazz traces back to those edgy days, and often in subtle and surprising fashions.
Both books explore how creative musicians forged opportunities for themselves on their own artistic and economic terms, building upon previous attempts at self-determination among jazz musicians. In their own ways, they tell the stories of what would become models for future musician-driven communities and ventures working outside traditional commercial infrastructures.
Michael Heller was part of one such venture. In the early ‘00s, he worked for the Vision Festival, an annual New York concert series showcasing improvising musicians. Heller heard many stories about loft life from musicians playing at the festival, whose roots lie in the efforts of a loft-era musician, bassist-composer William Parker, to bring improvisers together for concerts and collective ventures.
Heller’s curiosity led him to conduct formal interviews with loft-era musicians, and eventually to a motherlode: one of them had kept an archive. Percussionist Juma Sultan had extensive records of the loft scene’s activity, including performances at Studio We, one of the first lofts of the period. His archive, from funding proposals to manifestos to hand-drawn flyers, had not been accessed by a researcher until Heller came along. The result is Loft Jazz:, the first book covering ‘70s avant-garde jazz focused on how the lofts operated and a community flourished for a brief few years.
The flourishing began in earnest in 1972, when Sultan, Studio We founder James DuBoise, saxophonists Sam Rivers (who also had a loft, Studio Rivbea) and Noah Howard, percussionists Rashied Ali and Milford Graves, and others formed a collective to respond to the lack of black involvement in bringing the Newport Jazz Festival to the city. All the events were to be at expensive venues, none in the black community. Its proposed lineup was heavy on well-known players, with no opportunities for emerging or avant-garde talent. The musicians, no strangers to collective organizing, sent the festival producers a ten-point list of demands (one of the many fascinating documents of Sultan’s archive).
With no response to the demands, the musicians did for self and organized a counter-festival, the New York Musicians Jazz Festival, to run opposite Newport. Events were held throughout the city, including at some of the early lofts, and many of them were free. The counter-event was so successful that the group, now formally the New York Musicians Organization, received state and city funding for future events. Although the group would soon splinter, Heller asserts it set much of the tone for the collective nature of the evolving loft community.
In time, several lofts would be operating, and performances were often overlapping with each other. Lofts competed with each other for prime flyer space on telephone poles, the primary mode of publicity. Studios We and Rivbea were among the most ambitious spaces, building stages and small recording stations for capturing live performances. Ali’s Studio 77 loft eventually became Ali’s Alley, a full-blown nightclub.
Word soon spread about this now-music scene happening in a neglected part of Manhattan. In 1976, producer Alan Douglas persuaded an upstart record label called Casablanca, flush with revenue from top sellers KISS and Donna Summer, to cash in on the scene by recording performances at Studio Rivbea during its annual festival (Rivers, reports Heller, had by far the most successful loft operation). With minimal fanfare, the label released the five-album series Wildflowers: The New York Loft Jazz Sessions. Hearing it now, it’s a fascinating time capsule of styles and musicians: high-octane blowing, abstract mood pieces, percussion-driven Afro-grooves, a solo sax cover of “Over the Rainbow”. Rivers and Randy Weston were the best-known performers included in the series; most of the others had recorded only for small indie or foreign labels, if at all.
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While New York media were warming to the scene, Wildflowers did little to spread the news any further. Its music was unfamiliar to most folks (and at times stridently so), and it was released with no contextual information about the scene and a similar amount of promotion. Not surprisingly, it headed straight to the cutout bins. It’s still the most evocative document available commercially of how the loft scene sounded. But no other label ventured there to capture it.
The lofts weren’t around much longer anyway. Foreshadowing a pattern cities have seen time and again since then, the avant-garde jazz artists popularized the spaces they turned into centers of arts, and developers swooped in to make them centers of lifestyle living, thus pricing out the people who had created their potential in the first place. Also, musicians began to question the loft model’s economic viability, especially since many were beginning to make real money on club gigs (at last) and European tours. Rivers closed Studio Rivbea in 1978, and the loft scene was essentially over by the turn of the decade.
It’s not that the loft story hasn’t been told before. Rivers is a central character in Will Hermes’ Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York that Changed Music Forever (2011), taking his place alongside Patti Smith, Meredith Monk, Hector Lavoe, Kool Herc and many others -- but no one else from the lofts -- in a breathless rundown of the music scene across the five boroughs in the mid-‘70s. Jazz journalist Bill Shoemaker discussed Studio Rivbea and the Wildflowers sessions in a
two-article series on Rivers in 2016 for his Point of Departure website. But the access to Sultan’s rich archive allows Heller to tell a more insightful story about the life of the loft moment than just its basic chronology. Clearly, it was more than just one person.
The lofts became spaces where musicians could reconstruct their artistic and cultural identities. Heller notes how many musicians of the era took on African- and Arabic-influenced names (although this trend wasn’t confined to the loft folks) and explored alternate religions. They established not only a community within themselves, but also ties with the broader community through free concerts and clinics. Because many lofts were also living spaces, Heller brings family dynamics and the role of wives and mothers into the discussion, making Loft Jazz one of the few places in jazz studies to explore such matters.
But while musicians report warm memories of the loft era after the passage of time, all wasn’t completely rosy back then. Heller talks with many musicians who became quite resourceful at living off-the-grid and/or devoted their time and energy to running their lofts, which wasn’t ideal for concentrating on their art. There were significant tensions when the AACM and BAG musicians arrived on the scene, and discovered their ideas weren’t always welcome (even though, writes Heller, AACM was an early inspiration for the loft scene’s model). The defiant stance of the original loft crowd towards the mainstream jazz world didn’t help them make their case within it; it’s not an accident that the scene’s profile grew when the better-known musicians from Chicago, St. Louis and elsewhere came east. And no one was getting rich by playing in the lofts, a point further underscored by the sense of professionalism and organization the newcomers brought with them.