Saturday, July 16, 2011

"Even so, the music is yet to come" (Lester Bowie)

Introducing the Loft Era - Pt. 1
Words: Gian Paolo Galasi

Sam Rivers at Studio Rivbea, 1976

One of the great misses in developing a written history of jazz is the so-called 'loft era', and the developing of his heritage through his many rivers. People like Rick Lopez and Ben Young are still making an important effort to organize a solid mass of documents, using the internet and the radio to share a well organized archival storage; but a complete, written, detailed and documented history of that 1972-1986 period is yet to come.

Some aspects of that history have come to the surface, though referred to music beyond avant jazz, thanks to books like "Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-92" (Tim Lawrence, Duke University Press, 2009), Arcana: Musicians on Music. (John Zorn, New York: Granary Books, 2000) or Sonora. Itinerari Oltre il Suono (Carla Chiti - Walter Rovere, Materiali Sonori Italia - 1998), published with Italian/English text. But an extended analysis of the loft-jazz related scene has yet to be made. There is a section specifically referred to that issue in Fire Music: a Bibliography of the New Jazz, 1959-1990. (Gray, John; New York: Greenwood Press, 1991) and many information about its roots are detailed in As Serious as Your Life: John Coltrane and Beyond (Valerie Wilmer;  London: Serpent's Tail, 1977). This last couple of books are currently out of print, and available only through public libraries, or through remainders bookstores.

In 1972, " saxophonist Sam Rivers hosted, at his Bond Street loft, a counter-festival to George Wein's mainstream Newport in New York Festival. Shortly afterward, Rivers received funding from the New York State Council on the Arts for an ongoing series of concerts" (Peter Cherches). Before Rivers', there were the Bill Dixon experience called 'The October Revolution in Jazz' in 1964, but the 'loft era' was something different from the attempt to give life and shape to an entire movement out of a single's mind will. In fact, there were more than one subject actively involved, the spaces in which to rehearse, make gigs and record together were related to more than one person, and all of them were working together.

Lester Bowie's Sho Nuff Orchestra
Rivers' was one of the many places in which a musician could rehearse virtually day and night, and also get in contact with his fellows. So there were "Ali's Alley, run by drummer Rashied Ali; pianist John Fischer's Environ, Joe Lee Wilson's The Ladies' Fort, Studio We on Eldridge Street, on the Lower East Side, Warren Smith's Studio WIS and The Brook in Chelsea. Not to mention the Tin Palace, a club at Bowery and 2nd Street, Jazzmania Society, a loft in the East 20s, and La Mama theatre on East 4th." (Gary Giddins)

In the middle, as both Peter Cherches and Gary Giddins ("Riding on a Blue Note: Jazz and American Pop", New York, Oxford University Press, 1981) recall, there were both AACM and BAG experiences, the many records issued by Nessa and Delmark, as long as Henry Threadgill's Air and Leroy Jenkins' Revolutionary Ensemble attempts to share the bill with other media as theater, dance, cinema.

In the loft-era, well up-to-date labels were "Lake’s Passin’ Thru and Bob Cummins’ India Navigation, the Steve Backer-directed Arista Freedom and, most important of all, Italy’s Black Saint/Soul Note, as well as hundreds of labels huddled under the umbrella of New Music Distribution Service, which had grown out of the 1960s Jazz Composers Orchestra Association". (Gary Giddins)

Unluckily, almost all the records are now unavailable. Passin' Thru, the label founded by Oliver  Lake, is still active and working on new material, but none of the old Lps were reissued. Gilles Peterson, BBC Radio 1 broadcaster, talks about some of the labels aforementioned and the records they produced for his "Freedom, Rhythm and Sound", a beautiful collection of covers of the era spanning through Strata East to India Navigation, from Delmark to Impulse!, from Flying Dutchman to BYG/Actuel. Companion of the book, a double CD was published by SoulJazz records, including music by Archie Shepp, Sun Ra, Mtume, Joe McPhee, Phil Corhan, Gary Bartz, and many more. Not all of those artists were in close relationship with NY lofts, but they all come from the same era and their aesthetics and attempts to make new music out of jazz, soul and black consciousness is very similar.

Henry Threadgill

In "Wildflowers: Loft Jazz New York 1976", re-issued in 2009 on a 3 CD set, producer Alan Douglas put, originally on 5 LP all published in 1976, an important selection of the sessions that took place in Studio Rivbea. Artists featured are the likes of Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, Anthony Davis, Randy Weston, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Dave Burrell, Ahmed Abdullah, Andrew Cyrille, Jimmy  Lyons, Hamiett Bluiett, Julius Hemphill, and Oliver Lake. Others good records to start with, Sam Rivers' "Crystals" (Impulse!, 1974), in which 64 musicians are playing compositions written between 1959 and 1972. This in fact wasn't the only effort in realizing a complex orchestral work (only Sam Rivers wrote more than 300 scores): think also about Lester Bowie's Sho Nuff Orchestra. Lots of critics point out at Dave Holland's "Conference of the Birds" (ECM, 1973) as the most important of the time.

What does this music sound like? Is the 'loft-music' different from previous and forthcoming free or avant jazz music done or to come? There are common references? According to Gary Giddins, "music was challenging without being ideological. It merged and fused jazz, pop, free improvisation, fastidious and “conductionist” scores (not since the 1950s had so many big bands sprung up) with instruments from around the world, employing swing, funk and rubato rhythms in a music of extraordinary range, seasoned with humor, irony, nostalgia, sarcasm and stubborn independence."

But, as Sam Rivers himself pointed out to Mark Minsker in 2005, "Leroy Jenkins, [Henry] Threadgill and Hamiett Bluiett […] like myself, we were already complete musicians. In the past, that didn't happen. Most of the musicians who came in were like Miles and Wynton - they learned on the job. […] And we were all playing our own music all the time. Not just a concert every once and awhile. That's what started us having concerts on Bond Street - being able to play anytime we wanted." So, more than a stylistic endeavour (that anyway exists and can be filed under 'synthesizing experiences coming from different sides'), the whole scene is marked first and foremost by the need to take control over shows and records and to manage an independent career, experimenting with structures and scores as much as with the gaining of a mastery on their instruments without the need to expatriate, as almost all musicians involved in the scene had previously done in order to have gigs or make recording sessions.

Downbeat, Nov. 1978
Another important effect, in order to understand the future development of experimental music in the famous 'downtown' scene, was well described by Rivers himself on an interview originally issued in 1978 on Downbeat: "there is no avant garde. There is no avant garde in European classical music, and there is no avant garde in jazz. There are modernists and there are traditionalists. […] We have reached a total access to all musical elements. I can't imagine another fundamental change in the music, unless we consider the electronic - and then how can we think of music more as an engineer than musician?".

Modernism is here a key word. To make it better clear, think that the producer of the Wildflower record series was Alan Douglas, who was also Jimi Hendrix mentor. It seems that Rivers and Hendrix had to make a record together, and were scheduled to have a rehearsal. Lots of musicians outside of the jazz community were also playing in lofts in order to reach full creative expression, survive and being accepted in artists' communities, and share their proposals with them.

So, as far as the end of the 1970s is near, the 'loft' scene starts to expand including musicians as Eugene Chadbourne, Arto Lindsay, Ikue Mori, Arthur Russell. A melting between avant jazz, no wave, minimalism and so on. Probably the most complete musicians and composers to come out of this melting pot were John Zorn, Kip Anrahan, and Lawrence D. "Butch" Morris. Postmodern thinking starts to take the place of post-punk and afro-american communities efforts to enlarge musical and ethnic boundaries, reflecting the change that reaganomics imposed definitely on economy and politics in the United States since 1984.

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