Loft Jazz

The loft jazz scene, as its name indicates, was as much about economics (and the New York real estate market) as music; the two evolved side by side. Two deaths marked major transition points for the avant-garde jazz community. In July 1967, John Coltrane died of liver cancer, and in November 1970, Albert Ayler’s body was found in the East River. Coltrane’s wholehearted embrace of free jazz in his final years, which included getting Ayler, Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders signed to Impulse! Records, had brought a great deal of attention to the music, but also solidified its image in many minds: to the average person, it was all about assaulting the listener with endless screaming horn solos, angry poetry, and oceans of percussion. Ayler had embraced rock and gospel in his final years, alienating some listeners but never losing the intensity that had marked his work since the beginning.

With these two tenor titans gone, the music seemed to draw in on itself, becoming more introspective and experimental, just as the overall economy of New York City took a tumble. (By the middle of the decade, the city was on the brink of bankruptcy.) Real estate was dirt cheap, and actual jazz clubs didn’t like booking free/avant-garde players, so some musicians took matters into their own hands. Drummer Rashied Ali opened Ali’s Alley on Greene Street, while saxophonist Sam Rivers and his wife Beatrice named their Bond Street loft Studio Rivbea. Ornette Coleman purchased a building on Prince Street which he called Artist House, and jazz singer Joe Lee Wilson opened the Ladies’ Fort, also on Bond Street. Other, less well-known players opened similar spaces: saxophonists David S. Ware and Alan Braufman, along with pianist Cooper-Moore, had a loft on Canal Street where David Murray may have made his New York debut.

Murray, originally from Oakland, California, was just one of a whole school of new players to arrive in the early ’70s, bringing different ideas about the forms the music should take. Saxophonist and composer Anthony Braxton, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, and several members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago migrated east, as did St. Louis’s Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, and Hamiet Bluiett. Alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe came from Los Angeles. Cecil Taylor, meanwhile, returned to New York in 1974 after teaching at the University of Wisconsin and Ohio’s Antioch College. 

While expanding the music’s parameters through unorthodox instrumentation, extended solo recitals, blends of jazz and poetry, and other ideas, the artists on the loft scene also fostered self-determination and small-scale collectivism. Independent labels like India Navigation, Flying Dutchman, and Strata-East documented some of the music, and producer Alan Douglas talked the Casablanca label (yes, the home of Parliament, Donna Summer, the Village People and Kiss) into releasing five LPs’ worth of live recordings from Studio Rivbea as Wildflowers, but Hemphill, Smith, Taylor, and Ali released their own work on their own Mbari, Kabell, Unit Core, and Survival imprints. 

Ultimately, the loft scene was an interregnum between the free jazz era and the more conservative jazz scene of the early 1980s. Gentrification and rising rents, which forced many musicians out of the spaces that had hosted so many performances and recordings, coincided with the arrival of the Marsalis brothers, Branford and Wynton, and the hard bop-oriented classicism of the so-called “young lions.” Still, the best music made in mid to late ’70s New York is as vibrant and creative as any in jazz history and planted seeds which flowered in the Downtown scene of the ’80s and ’90s, and the 21st century jazz avant-garde, which continues to exist and push the music forward to this day.

Lenox Avenue Breakdown cover

California-born alto saxophonist Blythe put together a killer band for his Columbia Records debut: James Newton on flute, James “Blood” Ulmer on guitar, Bob Stewart on tuba, Cecil McBee on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums, and Guilherme Franco on percussion. The opening “Down San Diego Way” is a pulsing, jumpy, almost Latin number; the title track is a fierce New York streetscape. Blythe’s alto sound is massive throughout, and the flute and tuba play off each other beautifully.

Science Fiction cover

One of Coleman’s most ambitious and multifaceted releases, this 1971 album features Indian vocalist Asha Puthli on two tracks; multiple ensembles ranging from a quartet to a septet; poetry; musique concrète sound effects; and some stunningly high-energy performances. “Street Woman” and “The Jungle is a Skyscraper” fly by at Bad Brains tempos, and Charlie Haden in particular is in sonic attack mode throughout, playing through a wah-wah pedal on “Rock The Clock” that turns his bass into a hair-raising growl.

New York, Fall 1974 cover

Few discographies are as intimidatingly vast as Anthony Braxton’s. His first release for Arista Records is as good a starting point as you could ask for. Most of it features speedy, free-bopping quartet performances with trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer Jerome Cooper; one track is a duet between Braxton and synth player Richard Teitelbaum; and one other features Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, and Hamiet Bluiett in a kind of chamber work for a modified World Saxophone Quartet. Head-spinning in the best way, it can be the beginning of a lifelong journey or just a singular, brilliant album.

Raw Materials and Residuals cover

Julius Hemphill came to New York from St. Louis, where he’d co-founded the Black Artists Group (BAG) in the late ’60s. His stark, post-Ornette Coleman alto saxophone style and ambitious compositional palette made him an immediate standout on the loft jazz scene. This invigorating 1978 album features his longtime creative foil, cellist Abdul Wadud, and Art Ensemble of Chicago drummer Don Moye strutting, squalling and storming through five pieces that throw bebop, free jazz, and the deep blues against the wall until they all stick to each other.

Steppin' with the World Saxophone Quartet cover

Julius Hemphill formed the WSQ in 1976 with himself and Oliver Lake on alto, David Murray on tenor, and Hamiet Bluiett on baritone. Despite the lack of bass or drums, their music was intensely rhythmic, with Bluiett’s baritone providing a deep pulse and doo-wop style harmonies. This 1979 release was the group’s second album, and their first studio recording; Hemphill wrote four of the six compositions, with Lake and Murray contributing one each.

Crystals cover

This big band disc from 1974 featured an ensemble of 15 players: three trumpets, two trombones, tuba, five reeds (including Rivers), two basses, and two drummers. The compositions have structure, but they’re also very open and give a lot of space for solos, which are bracketed by group fanfares in the manner of John Coltrane’s Ascension. One of the most fascinating aspects of it is its extremely wide sonic field — it was originally issued in a quadraphonic mix, and horns seem to come at you from all parts of the room.

Friends and Neighbors: Live at Prince Street cover

This album was recorded at Coleman’s loft on Valentine’s Day 1970 and released in 1972 on the independent Flying Dutchman label, which is why it often falls through the cracks of his discography. It’s a loose, energetic set featuring tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Ed Blackwell, and it often has the feel of a jam or a party, especially when a group of “friends and neighbors” erupt into a rough singalong on the title piece.

Black Beings cover

Tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe, originally from Memphis, moved to New York at Ornette Coleman’s behest, where he met Alice Coltrane and Sun Ra. He played on Coltrane’s World Galaxy in 1972, and one year later made this hurricane of an album. Notable as William Parker’s recorded debut, it also features Joseph Jarman on alto and soprano saxes, Raymond Lee Cheng (billed as “The Wizard”) on violin, and Rashid Sinan on drums. Its three long tracks are unrelenting and electric, drawing a straight line from ’60s “fire music” to the loft scene.

Air Lore cover

Air was a radical concept: a collective trio featuring Henry Threadgill on alto and tenor saxophones and flute, Fred Hopkins on bass, and Steve McCall on drums. On some releases, Threadgill would also play the hubkaphone, a series of tuned hubcaps hanging from a rack. This disc, their sixth overall, featured their versions of two compositions each by Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton, and one short Threadgill piece. They turn ragtime and early jazz tunes into utterly modern, outward-bound explorations, proving unequivocally that “past” and “future” are highly relative concepts.

Wildflowers: The New York Loft Jazz Sessions cover

Perhaps the essential document of the loft jazz era, this 5LP set (later reissued on 3 CDs) was recorded in May 1976 at Sam Rivers’ Studio Rivbea. It features brilliant performances by a broad range of players including Rivers, Anthony Braxton, David Murray, Henry Threadgill (with Air), Roscoe Mitchell, Randy Weston, Sunny Murray, Wadada Leo Smith… anyone who wants to get an idea of the many forms avant-garde jazz took in the mid to late ’70s must start here.