AMN Reviews: Michael C. Heller – Loft Jazz: Improvising New York in the 1970s [U of California Press]

In the late 1960s, Ornette Coleman’s Lower Manhattan loft on Prince Street became a locus of activity, as well as a place to stay, for creative musicians in or passing through New York. When Anthony Braxton returned to the US from Paris in late 1969, he moved in, as did Leroy Jenkins, also back from Europe. Eventually Artists House, as it came to be known, became a performance venue as well as a space for crashing, socializing and rehearsing.

Artists House was one of many artists’ spaces that had been carved out of Lower Manhattan’s deindustrialized factories and warehouses in the 1960s and 1970s. Among the artists moving into these abandoned buildings—sometimes legally, and sometimes not—were some of the most innovative and exploratory players to come out of the jazz tradition. During this particularly fecund period they established an alternative infrastructure for creative music that, for both better and for worse, came to be known as the loft jazz scene. How this infrastructure came to be and how it worked is the subject of Michael C. Heller’s Loft Jazz: Improvising New York in the 1970s.

Heller, an ethnomusicologist and historian of music at University of Pittsburgh, traces the history of Lower Manhattan’s avant-garde jazz community through interviews with the people involved and research in the audio and paper archives some of them amassed. Among the latter is the extensive archive of sound recordings, films, photographs and other documentary material put together by percussionist and multi-instrumentalist Juma Sultan.

The story Heller tells is of a kind of collective agency in which an aggregation of individuals—a “locus of interaction,” as he terms it–worked together to organize concerts, stage festivals and otherwise take creative and economic control of music that established, commercial avenues of distribution largely ignored. Heller situates this activity in the larger context of efforts at self-reliance and cultural preservation among the African American musical avant-garde. In this regard New York musicians were doing something that creative musicians had begun doing in other cities. Heller cites as precedents the Black Artists Group of St. Louis and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago; many of these artists relocated to New York and became influential participants in the loft scene. But New York also had its own precursors in the mid-1960s musicians’ associations formed by Charles Mingus and Max Roach—the Jazz Artists’ Guild—and by Bill Dixon, whose Jazz Composers’ Guild was established following the “October Revolution in Jazz” concerts of 1964.

To an extent, the institutions and coalitions New York creative musicians formed represented a response to external pressures. One of these was the 1972 move of the Newport Jazz Festival to New York City. Objecting to festival producer George Wein’s neglect of the local avant-garde and lack of community outreach in general, a group of New York musicians, including Sultan, James Du Boise, Sam Rivers, Ali Abuwi, Noah Howard and Rhashied Ali, formed the New York Musicians Organization and instituted the New York Musicians Jazz Festival as a counter to the Newport Jazz Festival. The NYMJF featured cutting-edge performances in some twenty or so locations around New York, including Rivers’ Studio Rivbea, Du Boise’s Studio We, Coleman’s Artists House, and the space run by the Free Life Communication, a group gathered around Dave Liebman, Bob Moses, Richie Beirach and others.

The success of the NYMJF proved to be something of an inflection point in the way the music was organized and presented, and in the attention the New York creative music community obtained. Partly as a result of its counter-festival the NYMO was able to secure funding from state and municipal governments. And it wasn’t long afterward that avant-garde improvisers like Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill, David Murray, Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill and others came to New York from the Midwest and elsewhere, adding further creative impetus to the scene.

But coalitions like the NYMO could be brittle. Competition for limited audiences and a finite funding pool—and an offer of collaboration from Wein—led to fissures within the group, and its eventual dissolution. In addition, the release of the five-LP Wildflowers series, recorded during the 1976 Spring Festival at Rivers’ Studio Rivbea, seemed to some long-time New York musicians to feature artists from Chicago and St. Louis disproportionately. In any event, whatever hopes Wildflowers’ release may have raised were diminished by its commercial failure.

By 1979, the loft era was effectively over. A number of factors came into play, among them an increase in rents, the closure of venues, and the at least partial absorption of the music into more mainstream clubs. But if the era had been short-lived, it also was full of creative tension and the occasion for much powerful music to be made; all the more lamentable, then, that neo-traditionalist accounts of jazz history dismissed it or ignored it altogether.

Heller’s analysis is primarily concerned with the goals and practices, the alliances and antagonisms that were the day-to-day reality of the personal and institutional networks that helped make New York’s 1970s jazz avant-garde what it was. He is less concerned with musical analysis, of which there is little. In addition, his is very much an academic book, with an emphasis on theoretical models and discourses that many readers will find abstruse. Part One does provide a good narrative account of the period, though, and the quotations from the musicians Heller interviewed add an essential, first-person perspective.

Daniel Barbiero

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