Loft Jazz: Improvising New York in the 1970s

Loft Jazz: Improvising New York in the 1970s

by Michael C. Heller

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The New York loft jazz scene of the 1970s was a pivotal period for uncompromising, artist-produced work. Faced with a flagging jazz economy, a group of young avant-garde improvisers chose to eschew the commercial sphere and develop alternative venues in the abandoned factories and warehouses of Lower Manhattan. Loft Jazz provides the first book-length study of this period, tracing its history amid a series of overlapping discourses surrounding collectivism, urban renewal, experimentalist aesthetics, underground archives, and the radical politics of self-determination.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520285415
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 12/13/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 588,586
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Michael C. Heller is an ethnomusicologist, music historian, and Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Pittsburgh.

Read an Excerpt

Loft Jazz

Improvising New York in the 1970s

By Michael C. Heller


Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96089-3



Archives do not simply reconnect us with what we have lost. Instead, they remind us ... of what we have never possessed in the first place. If that is a paradox, it is perhaps the paradox of modernism itself.


The date was November 19, 1975. We know this because the document is dated. It is the first page of a letter addressed to the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, a nonprofit group providing free legal services to artists and organizations. The remainder of the letter has not been found. Though the signature is absent, it appears to be written by bassist and percussionist Juma Sultan, director of the New York Musicians Organization (NYMO) and concert organizer at a small, lower Manhattan loft called Studio We. The page provides a general introduction to the goals and current activities of NYMO. We can speculate that subsequent pages outlined the reasons why Sultan was contacting the Volunteer Lawyers — reasons that, in 2009, Sultan could not recall. It begins with a basic mission statement:

The New York Musicians Organization (N.Y.M.O.) is a non-profit corporation established in 1972, to provide New York and elsewhere in the United States:

(1) A jazz complex housing auditoriums, concert halls, seminar rooms, archives and other facilities enabling the fullest communication of the jazz medium to the public.

(2) Employment for the jazz musicians for whom there are insufficient professional engagements, because of the restrictions in the commercial market.

(3) To improve the quality of jazz and the public knowledge thereof.

(4) To preserve the cultural heritage of all forms of jazz music, which will disappear unless the traditions of the music are passed along from one generation to another through sheet music, recording and other mechanical devices, training and listening.

It is a mission that is striking in both ambition and range, combining aspects of commercial production, cultural promotion, job creation, historic preservation, and artistic training. Jazz fans will recognize, however, that NYMO was hardly the first musician-run organization to pursue such goals amid the heightened social and political consciousness of the 1960s-70s. Collectives like Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), St. Louis's Black Artists Group (BAG), and Los Angeles's Union of God's Musicians and Artists Ascension (UGMAA) all used similar language to advance their own grassroots efforts. Closer to home in New York, NYMO emerged within a crucible of small-scale organizing activity that spread throughout lower Manhattan beginning in the 1960s. In warehouses and tenements, in parks and on street corners, in churches and community centers, New York artists were developing a broad array of alternative spaces and strategies to promote their work. But their activities eventually became most closely associated with the abandoned factory spaces that littered the neighborhood and provided frequent settings for concerts. In time, the movement would be known throughout the world as the "loft scene."

If NYMO's primary mission centered upon empowerment, it is striking how the creation of a historical archive figures prominently in items (1) and (4) of these early goals. Alongside plans to produce, promote, and educate, the impetus to preserve a yet unwritten legacy and to facilitate the writing of history is much more than an afterthought. The archive is not merely a thin residue of the past to be combed over by future historians — it is positioned as a central, active agent within the group's vision of musical and social change. If this seems like overstatement, it is worth noting that, forty years later, the archive is the last remnant of the NYMO enterprise, and it is still maintained by its original organizer. Through the physical materials of the archive, the goal of re / constructing a new musical history, marked by particular ideals of beauty, progress, and development, becomes possible. In fact, it is only through the archive that this early document — fragile, fragmented, and forgotten — reaches us in the first place.

But perhaps I'm getting ahead of the story. After all, many readers have never even heard of the New York loft scene, much less NYMO's short-lived role within it. A more conventional approach would start by relating the background of the organization itself, using strategically positioned documents to sketch out a noble musical legacy. But the key to an archival project like NYMO's goes beyond merely corroborating dates and details — it provides more than just documentary proof that "we were here" Rather, to place the archive at the center of a broader campaign for musical and social empowerment is to recognize its generative force in the construction of narratives. It constitutes a vital facet of the artists' efforts to reclaim control over their work, their finances, their legacy. It appears not as a scrap from the past that falls to us in the present, but the vision of a possible future conceived at / as the group's inception.

The goal of this book is to examine histories and discourses surrounding New York's so-called "loft jazz era," one of the least-understood periods in jazz history. Spanning from the mid-1960s until about 1980, the jazz lofts were a dense network of musician-run performance venues established (mostly) in and around the former industrial buildings of lower Manhattan. The majority of these spaces were also musicians' homes, a factor that allowed them to operate with minimal overhead costs (though also with some sacrifice of privacy). In various contexts, lofts acted as rehearsal halls, classrooms, art galleries, living quarters, and meeting spaces. Their most visible role, however, was as public performance venues, especially for younger members of the jazz avant garde. At a time when few commercial nightclubs were interested in experimental styles, the lofts became a bustling base of operations for a growing community of young improvisers. When musicians couldn't find gigs in the city's shrinking club scene, they could often arrange a performance at a loft — though performance conditions were sometimes less than ideal.

The loft years were nothing if not divisive. To those who remember them fondly, the scene was vibrant and fertile, effervescing with musical and social activity. For players and listeners alike, lofts provided no shortage of sounds to hear, places to play, people to meet, and things to do. The settings were generally casual — sometimes literally inside of living rooms — and young musicians had endless opportunities to interact with veteran players. The proceedings overflowed from day into night, from night into day: jam sessions, rehearsals, performances, workshops, conversations, gatherings. With few commercial restrictions, artists were free to explore their most adventurous visions. Free-blowing affairs could last for hours, as players grappled with extended techniques, extreme volumes, group interaction, and long-form improvisation. And when one marathon session finally ended, the close proximity of the spaces meant that another was always waiting a few blocks away.

But the period was not without its detractors. By the end of the 1970s many musicians voiced pointed critiques of the lofts. The spaces were often small, had shoddy acoustics, and were sometimes poorly managed. Most gigs only paid musicians from the meager ticket sales earned at the door, rather than offering a guaranteed fee. Since loft spaces generally had little to no budget for advertising and promotion, audiences were often scanty, further limiting the potential to earn a livable wage. Loft performances could be sloppily planned and sloppily executed. In an atmosphere of complete freedom, some players lacked discipline, leading to endless blowing with little evident musical direction. Perhaps the most infuriating development came when some writers began to use the term "loft jazz" to denote a particular musical style, one that seemed to pejoratively imply that experimental improvisation was best suited to meager circumstances. In short, critics argued that on every level (economics, acoustics, respectability) the lofts failed to do justice to the seriousness of the music.

There is, of course, truth in both perspectives. At various points the loft scene could be both vibrant and messy. Unfettered and undisciplined. Filled with promise and devoid of direction. It soared toward unexplored heights and crashed headlong into glass ceilings of its own creation. To understand such an environment requires grappling with a range of complex and conflicting stories, memories, and perspectives on a deeply fragmented musical moment. It is such an effort that this book attempts to undertake.


Since the mid-1990s, scholars of the "new jazz studies" have increasingly worked to problematize canonical narratives of jazz history. Instead of presenting the music as a linear progression of influence from one legendary figure to the next, musical practices have been reimagined in terms of the elaborate interactions among aesthetic, social, and historical discourses. This perspective has reconceived the function of music as a living entity that emerges not merely at historic moments or through "great works," but as a tradition residing in the everyday lives of artists, listeners, and the culture at large. It has been especially productive for considering the music through a variety of interpretive lenses, including critical race and gender theory, twentieth-century political history, and postmodernism.

A particularly fruitful approach is the crafting of studies that focus on jazz communities rather than on individual artists or recordings. Community-based approaches allow scholars to examine a broad swath of musical meanings that spill over into other spheres. They challenge us to traverse paths of musical circulation other than solely commercial recordings, which tended to dominate much earlier scholarship in the field. As Jed Rasula has argued, jazz records — though a seductive starting point — fail to account for the more ephemeral movements, exchanges and social networks that generate music's changing meanings over time. By shifting attention away from the musical product (records) and toward the music-king practices that emerge among social groups, it becomes possible to construct histories that use the essential information found on recordings without overstating their role within the broader context of musical culture.

Perhaps no period has benefited more from this methodological shift than the 1970s, an era of jazz that has never fit easily into linear narratives. Where earlier decades are commonly — though reductively — linked to the rise of particular subgenres (swing in the '30s, bebop in the '40s, hard bop and cool jazz in the '50s, free jazz in the '60s), the surfeit of styles in circulation by the 1970s makes any such characterization insufficient and problematic. At the same time that fusion artists experimented with rock rhythms and electric instruments, bebop and mainstream styles underwent a revival that rejuvenated the careers of many older musicians. The nascent jazz repertory movement also gained steam through groups like the New York Jazz Repertory Company and the adoption of jazz curricula at several universities. Meanwhile, avant gardists continued to develop the language of free jazz in new directions, often supporting their work through European touring and collective organizing.

This diversity — some might call it fractioning — of the jazz scene makes it difficult to fit the decade into the types of evolutionary frameworks that remain common in survey texts. Authors have attempted innumerable ways of getting around this, each of which is fraught with issues. Some concentrate exclusively on just one subgenre in order to preserve the narrative structure, the most common candidate being fusion. Others depict a battle pitched between advocates of old and new styles, a discursive echo of the 1940s conflicts between modernists and "moldy figs" Still others gloss over the new stylistic developments completely, focusing instead on the ongoing careers of earlier legends as they navigated a rapidly changing musical landscape.

More nuanced approaches avoid lumping the decade into a particular category, instead choosing to acknowledge the decade's deep fragmentation. A refreshingly confessional example can be seen in a chapter introduction written by Joachim-Ernst Berendt and Günther Huesmann:

Up to this point, we have been able to match each decade with a particular style — certainly at the cost of some fine distinctions, but with greater clarity as a result. With the beginning of the seventies, we have to drop this principle. This decade showed at least seven distinct tendencies:

1. Fusion or jazz-rock ...

2. A trend toward European romanticist chamber music ...

3. The music of the new free jazz generation ...

4. An astonishing comeback for swing ...

5. An even more amazing and widespread comeback for bebop ...

6. European jazz found itself ...

7. The gradual development of a new kind of musician who moved between jazz and world music.

As the authors imply, fragmentation did not originate in the 1970s and can be noted in earlier periods as well. Still, the decade's explosion of stylistic diversity creates narrative complications that historians are forced to confront.

The movement toward community-based approaches has been a powerful tool in addressing this challenge, and has led to some of the most nuanced work on the period. Especially impressive are several excellent studies of musician-run collectives that sprang up in cities throughout the United States, including George Lewis's seminal research on Chicago's AACM, Benjamin Lookers examination of St. Louis's BAG, and Steven Isoardi's chronicling of Los Angeles's UGMAA. In all three examples, a transition away from individual biography and toward a communal and / or organizational emphasis has allowed these authors to articulate more precise questions, and to employ a wider variety of source materials. Furthermore, by concentrating on particular cities, these studies are capable of addressing national discourses of music and politics while retaining a sharp focus on the way musicians work within and / or confront their own unique local environments.

If a standard tendency among survey texts is to portray the 1970s as a time of dissent and contentiousness, community-based studies act as a corrective by foregrounding solidarity, organization-building, self-sufficiency, collaboration, and friendship. This is no small point, as it implicitly argues for the musical / cultural relevance of the decade by acknowledging that it was more than a series of petty squabbles. Such studies are far more effective than discographical or magazine-centric accounts at conveying the perspectives of musicians who worked in these communities and found meaning within them. I argue that such work therefore constitutes a reconstructive project aimed at unearthing layers of musical significance as remembered and cherished by musicians, despite being overlooked in other secondary sources. The approach does not dispute the role of fragmentation — indeed, it relies on it — but adds clarity by demonstrating how the music continued developing within various types of (often hidden) sociomusical networks.

While the lofts shared a great deal with these previously mentioned jazz collectives, they differed starkly in that they were not governed by any centralized organization. Instead, a downturn in the lower Manhattan real estate market (discussed in chapter 2) allowed hundreds of artists to obtain and develop their own spaces, mutually independent from one another. Such independence led to a more diffuse set of activities than manifested elsewhere — further fragmentation in an already fragmented time. Loft organizers pursued a diverse range of artistic and social priorities that were not always evident to the listening public. Some spaces featured mostly straight-ahead styles, others spotlighted free jazz, and still others interfaced with contemporary European music. Some participants envisioned themselves as champions of black solidarity, while others employed language emphasizing racial universality and multiculturalism. Some attempted to position themselves within national and global discourses, while others saw their work as primarily connected to neighborhood concerns. Contradictory impulses could even manifest within a single venue, with attitudes and strategies shifting set-by-set and night-by-night. Although these varied activities were, and often still are, referred to as a cohesive "loft movement," "loft era" or "loft scene" their disjointed nature presents endless complications for scholars and enthusiasts approaching the period as a whole.


Excerpted from Loft Jazz by Michael C. Heller. Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations and Table ix

1 Fragmented Memories and Activist Archives 1

Part 1 Histories

2 Influences, Antecedents, Early Engagements 19

3 The Jazz Loft Era 34

Part 2 Trajectories

4 Freedom 65

5 Community 94

6 Space 127

7 Archive 145

8 Aftermaths and Legacies 179

Acknowledgments 191

Notes 195

Bibliography 229

Index 245

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