a column by
[This is the conclusion of the article begun in Issue 56.]
If there ever was a year that avant-garde jazz could gain a sustainably larger market share of record sales in the US, it would have been 1976. Major labels like Arista and Atlantic were having success with, respectively, Anthony Braxton and Art Ensemble of Chicago, aided in no small part by sympathetic critics writing not only in jazz magazines, but general interest periodicals and daily newspapers. Braxton, the AEC and their contemporaries crisscrossed the US on tour, playing commercial and university-affiliated concert halls and rock venues in addition to established jazz clubs. Granted: this uptick was dependent upon the excellent general health of the record and concert industries, which, while aided by the increased cross-marketing of LPs with tours, was fundamentally attributable to relatively cheap oil. The price of oil factored into every aspect of record production, distribution and retail sales, be it the cost of raw vinyl, air freight, or utilities; it also kept touring costs down considerably, whether the musicians were packed into a station wagon or in a convoy of tour buses and gear-hauling rigs.
In a strange way, these market conditions were a validation of trickle-down economics. Enough money sloshed around in the coffers of major record labels that putting out a record like AEC’s Baptizm that began with twelve minutes of riotous percussion and fearsome vocalizations was possible, even if the label lost money on first year’s sales. After all, jazz was catalog; if a label was lucky, a jazz title could annually sell a thousand copies or more for decades – think Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. The fact that record companies were initially making profits from artists like Braxton reinforced the notion that avant-garde jazz could become an entrenched plurality in jazz’s sub-10% slice of the record sales pie chart.
However, any successfully marketed musical movement needs a label – and “avant-garde jazz” is about as off-putting a label that has ever been devised. Historically, movements in jazz have been named for a descriptor like cool or its place of origin. New York’s lofts emblemized a cultural context fueled by scrappy resilience and the prioritizing of community over commerce. The Village Voice and The Soho Weekly News were already using “loft jazz” in its coverage, more as an indicator of grassroots bona fides than as a specific aesthetic marker, given the diversity of music presented in lofts precluded an umbrella-like descriptor. The real benefit of loft jazz as a label in the New York marker was the emergent trendiness of loft living mid-decade, and the attendant ascent of a wide spectrum of lofts-associated visual and performing artists, which gave loft jazz a semblance of radical chic attractive to a whiter, more upscale audience than it might have otherwise.
Taking the loft jazz brand national, however, required a record label. Had the movement germinated a few years before, Impulse would have been the logical label to market loft jazz nationally and internationally. However, the departures of Backer and Michel, and Backer’s engagement of Cuscuna at Arista, left no one at Impulse with neither the necessary strategic vision nor the pull to secure the necessary budget. Impulse’s commitment to the avant-garde had evaporated, with Rivers’ tenure coming to the end with the release of Sizzle. A quintet date with guitarist Ted Dunbar (who came up in Indianapolis in the shadow of Wes Montgomery), Holland (playing bass and cello), Altschul, and Warren Smith (playing vibes and tympani in addition to drums), Sizzle was brimming with buoyant rhythms and robust solos by Rivers, supported by a bright ensemble palette, particularly when Smith’s vibes complemented Holland’s soaring bowed cello and Dunbar’s clean hollow-body electric sound. Sizzle presented Rivers in a manner that was both undiluted and inviting; in a coordinated marketing campaign, the album would have made Rivers the rallying figure of the nascent loft jazz movement.
With Impulse incapable of leading the charge, and Arista launching its crucially important collaborative series with the British Freedom imprint, a new player was indicated to elevate loft jazz’s profile. Enter Alan Douglas, a controversially hands-on producer. On the one hand, Douglas was heralded as a visionary for several United Artists albums he produced in the early 1960s; chief among them was Money Jungle, his inspired pairing of Duke Ellington with Charles Mingus and Max Roach that resulted in an album so influential that it spawned tributes more than 50 years after its release in 1962. On the other, he was vilified by Jimi Hendrix devotees for his alterations to tracks posthumously released as Crash Landing and Midnight Lightning in ‘75. Not only did Douglas replace bass and drum tracks, added guitars and female vocals, and edited Hendrix’s own parts – all considered to be cardinal sins by Hendrix purists – he audaciously claimed co-author credit for his efforts. Still, few producers had their own labels, let alone imprints that issued formidable albums like John McLaughlin’s My Goal’s Beyond, a 1971 disc featuring a side of now-classic acoustic guitar solos; and fewer had the industry clout to partner with a label that was cashing in on disco diva Donna Summer and makeup-intensive KISS – Casablanca. There’s no anecdotal evidence that Douglas’ interest in loft jazz was anything other than opportunism; likewise with Casablanca founder Neil Bogart, already renowned for his role in the rise of bubblegum pop during his tenures with Cameo-Parkway and Buddah in the 1960s. That speaks to the ripeness of the moment.
Heavy-hitting producers make things happen with a single phone call, usually because they know who to call. Douglas rang Cuscuna, knowing he was already working with many of the better-known musicians playing in the lofts. However, Cuscuna found Douglas’ initial concept of placing a tape machine in several lofts for weeks at a time – and subsequently sifting through hours and hours of tape – to be unwieldy and cost-inefficient. Instead, Cuscuna persuaded Douglas to collaborate with Rivers, then in the process of programming Studio Rivbea’s Spring Festival. Additionally, it was decided that the best performances would be gleamed for a multi-volume anthology and the tapes that failed to make the cut would be returned to the artists. Douglas decided to name the series “Wildflowers” after consulting a dictionary, and to issue the series as five separately sold LPs, not as a box set.
Douglas then engaged former Hendrix engineer Ron Saint-Germain, who, upon seeing the bare bones ground-floor performance space, convinced the producers that a recording booth was needed; with the festival beginning in a matter of days, Saint-Germain, Rivers and others built a loft over the bandstand. Coda reviewer Vladimir Simosko described the loft being “occupied by a master control board, tape recorders and recording technicians, while the recessed, box-like bandstand became a maze of wires, microphones and (between sets) technicians adjusting microphones and levels for the next group.” Even though the logistics were simplified by using a single venue with a dedicated loft for recording, the task for the production team remained daunting; as 28 ensembles were scheduled to play over the course of two weekends, there were 28 opportunities for everything to go wrong in front of a paying audience.
Programming the festival took on an added dimension, as Douglas’ recording project had the potential for branding loft jazz for years to come. Branding an individual jazz artist is a process of reinforcement, with performances, press coverage and recordings mutually supporting the artist’s merit and relevance; branding a movement requires mapping a constellation of artists who, in reality, may only have a passing relationship with others with whom they are grouped. Cuscuna was already assembling such a constellation with the Arista-Freedom series. The first 15 titles included albums by artists who first made their mark in the late 1950s like pianists Cecil Taylor and Randy Weston, New Thing exponents like saxophonists Albert Ayler and Marion Brown, and emergent scene-shapers like saxophonists Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake. It was not a mixing of old and new, but of new, newer and newest.
In addition to Braxton, there was a significant overlap between the leaders of the already-issued, first Arista-Freedom albums and the line-up of the Rivbea festival, with Brown, pianist Dave Burrell, Hemphill, Lake, trombonist Roswell Rudd and Weston leading ensembles (others, like Air, the trio of saxophonist Henry Threadgill, bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall, would have albums released on Arista subsidiaries later in the ‘70s). Arguably, this overlap, particularly when matched with the artists being championed in the local papers, fueled the perception that the media and record companies were cherry-picking the scene. This was particularly irksome for factions of local musicians; many of the anointed musicians lived elsewhere – including Chicago, New Haven, Philadelphia and Woodstock, or had just blown in from St. Louis and California – and were not viewed as stakeholders in the loft movement. Certainly, the inclusion of the Douglas Records and Casablanca logos in Voice advertisements leading up to the festival reinforced the notion that the industry was moving in.
“Some conversation with Michael Cuscuna, who was in charge of the recording,” reported Simosko, “revealed the music was not intended to be released intact, but rather, a series of albums were planned which would contain the best of the performances by most of the groups appearing.” What was omitted by either Cuscuna or Simosko was that the unused tapes would be given to the musicians. Such was the case with the gritty, rousing 40-minute suite by alto saxophonist Charles Tyler’s Ensemble that was issued in its entirety two years later as Saga of the Outlaws by Nessa Records, the grassroots Chicago label that documented early formations of Art Ensemble of Chicago prior to their departure for Paris in 1969. By ‘76, Tyler had an impressive resume, contributing to two Ayler albums (including Bells, which is as iconic for it being one-sided and pressed on clear and colored vinyl as for the music), leading two dates on ESP, and operating his own Akba imprint, which issued the durable Voyage from Jericho, a ‘74 quintet session with “Black Arthur” (then the nom de guerre of alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe). At a time of creeping factionalism, Tyler freely shuttled between lofts: Voyage from Jericho was recorded at Studio We by Juma Sultan, and Tyler himself curated performances at The Brook on West 17th Street, making his performances at Rivbea all the more notable. Tyler quit New York for Europe in ‘82, dying in France in ‘92 at 51; had the producers excerpted Saga of the Outlaws as they did with the extended performances of several other artists, this minor classic, Tyler’s crowning work, would not have been released in its entirety.
Simosko’s set-by-set account revealed several truisms about loft jazz: strong bassists like Hopkins seemingly played every other set; with the exception of Michael Gregory Jackson, electric guitarists tended to drown out their bandmates; and ensembles performing notated materials frequently suffered from lack of rehearsal. Generally, ensembles that Simosko praised made the cut; those he panned didn’t. The intriguing exception was the quartet led by Makanda Ken McIntyre, a colleague of Eric Dolphy, who, in Simosko’s opinion, “played much better on LP,” and who “seemed merely a pale reflection of Dolphy on bass clarinet and sounded not fully confident on the double reeds.” Simosko had an informed opinion, being the co-author of Eric Dolphy: A Musical Biography and Discography, published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1971. However, so too did Douglas, who not only produced McIntyre’s forward-leaning Year of the Iron Sheep, a 1962 quartet date featuring pianist Jaki Byard, but also sessions by Dolphy in 1963 that have been issued in several configurations and contained such gems as his modernization of Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz,” a performance that inspired late-‘70s versions by Braxton and Blythe. Additionally, during the course of the festival, Douglas told Cuscuna of his realization that Dolphy, not Coltrane, was then exerting more influence on the bulk of the artists they were recording. This explains why McIntyre is one of only two leaders (“sound of breaking glass” drummer Sunny Murray being the other) to be represented by two tracks on Wildflowers – “New Times,” an alto saxophone vehicle which shares Dolphy’s penchant for swinging angular lines, and “Naomi,” a lilting paean for flute (coincidentally, both compositions were recorded by Douglas in ‘62, but went unreleased until McIntyre’s The Complete United Artists Sessions was issued in 1997 by Blue Note).
Weston is also a somewhat anomalous presence in the five-LP series, seemingly of a prior generation (unlike Rivers, who was less than three years older than the pianist), having been voted New Star Pianist in Down Beat’s Critics Poll in 1955, the year Charlie Parker died. However, the impact of Weston’s repeated journeys to Africa throughout the ‘60s and early ‘70s on his music aligned him with younger Afrocentric musicians. Additionally, at a time when Duke Ellington’s legacy was being reexamined, Weston’s connections to Ellington and his alter ego, composer-arranger Billy Strayhorn, had renewed relevance. Ellington published many Weston compositions through his Tempo Music, and had produced Weston’s Berkshire Blues for his stillborn Piano Records in 1965 – the album was finally released on Arista-Freedom in ‘77. Weston also had the high honor of playing at Strayhorn’s funeral in ‘67. However, the best evidence of Weston’s relevancy to loft jazz, generally, is “Portrait of Frank Edward Weston,” performed with bassist Alex Blake and Weston’s son Azzedin on congas, a performance that is comparable to Ellington’s on Money Jungle in that it places a familiar stylist in an unsparing light, revealing the radicalism of his methods and materials.
When the entire Rivbea festival lineup is considered, McIntyre and Weston are not the odd men out that they appear to be on the finished Wildflowers series. Weston’s diasporic sensibility is shared by Burrell, who blended Latin and Afro-Caribbean flavors on “Black Robert.” The festival also included Rudd and Grachan Moncur III; although they are regularly cited as the leading trombonists associated with the New Thing, their use of earlier jazz idioms placed them in the aesthetic space described by Don Heckman in his liner notes for Rivers’ Contours, one that “cannot quite accurately be described as avant-garde, [but] is reaching towards goals not too far removed from those sought by the revolutionaries.” However, they are not represented in the LP series: Rudd’s quartet set with trumpeter Enrico Rava was issued in its entirety as Inside Job by Arista-Freedom the next year, while the absence of Moncur’s group in the series supports Simosko’s observation that they “did not seem well rehearsed.” Add in the ensembles of Rivers, Brown, Sunny Murray, alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons and drummer Andrew Cyrille (the latter three having respective formative associations with Cecil Taylor), and the resulting picture of loft jazz posited by Wildflowers begins to support the assertion that Rivers first made to Brower in ‘78, one he repeated in interviews well into the 1990s; that the music of the 1970s was the culmination of the music of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s.
Wildflowers may have been just a snapshot of what loft jazz was on a May weekend in 1976, but it documented, among other things, the scene-shaping arrival of key exponents of Chicago’s AACM and St. Louis’ BAG. Of the 23 tracks spread out over the five volumes, eight were led by members of the Mid-West collectives, and another – guitarist Michael Gregory Jackson’s quartet – was the same band that saxophonist/flutist Oliver Lake led. Two other groups led by AACM and BAG associated musicians took part in the festival; given Simosko’s enthusiastic response to original AEC drummer Phillip Wilson’s sextet and drummer Charles Bobo Shaw’s Human Arts Ensemble, it is curious why they were not represented in the LP series. Granted: some of these ensembles included New York’s own. Among others, Barry Altschul played with Braxton, and former Dizzy Gillespie bassist Chris White played with tenor saxophonist Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, one of the first AACM members to record with Delmark who remained a curiously tertiary figure in the avant-garde for decades to come. However, when considered in the aggregate, the musicians from the AACM and BAG constituted a wave.
However, it is neither Braxton nor Roscoe Mitchell (whose Sound, his 1966 Delmark debut, signaled the arrival of the AACM) who are the stand-outs among the Mid-Westeners. Even though Braxton leads a strong septet with Altschul, Hopkins, Jackson, Wilson, trombonist George Lewis and an unidentified pianist (later confirmed by Cuscuna to be Anthony Davis), they grind through one of Braxton’s knottier compositions rather than take flight. By the mid-‘70s, Mitchell had become one of the avant-garde’s more confrontational composers, incessantly boring into stark, even abrasive motivic themes for twenty minutes or more. Accompanied on “Chant” by two drummers – Mitchell’s AEC colleague Famoudou Don Moye and Jerome Cooper, who had played on Braxton’s Arista debut – the alto saxophonist launches into a tightly coiled figure for eight minutes, accompanied by a tsunami of drums, before suddenly dropping off into softly intoned, occasionally thickly textured single notes and short phrases, accompanied by quietly ringing cymbals, Cooper’s Theremin-like saw and silence for another eight minutes. Concluding with another nine minutes of reed-shredding intensity, “Chant” validates the usually tired bromide about uncompromising music rewarding committed listening. Fittingly, the placement of this side-long track on the B side of the fifth volume all but guaranteed that only the most committed listeners would hear it.
Braxton and Mitchell may have represented its breaking crest, but the full force of this wave, which would keep the Mid-West collectives in the foreground in jazz until the present, was equally represented by three BAG members – Hemphill, Lake and baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, who rounded out Braxton’s radical saxophone quartet on his Arista debut – and two from the AACM: trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and wind player Henry Threadgill.
Of the three St. Louis transplants, Bluiett had been in New York the longest, arriving in 1969; he quickly earned an international reputation for his robust swing and startling virtuosity in the altissmo range of the unwieldy horn in Charles Mingus’ quintet, and was frequently compared with Henry Carney, Ellington’s great baritone player. Lake’s Heavy Spirits and Hemphill’s Dogon A.D. and Coon Bid’ness, the latter featuring Bluiett, were already being touted as signal recordings. As evidenced by the groups they fronted at the Rivbea festival, each was a distinctive improviser, composer, and bandleader. However, their international renown accelerated with their formation of World Saxophone Quartet later that year with tenor saxophonist David Murray, then a 21 year-old phenom who had arrived in New York from California two weeks before the festival (where he led his own group and performed with Sunny Murray). For the next three decades – including a particularly fruitful association with Nonesuch Records from the mid ‘80s to the mid ‘90s, which yielded soulful swinging collections of retooled Ellington tunes and R&B chestnuts – WSQ became a fixture on the international festival circuit and in critics’ polls.
Relocating in New Haven upon his return from France in 1970, Smith delved into theoretic discourse, self-publishing the pamphlet notes (8 pieces) source a new world music: creative music in ‘73; in ‘76, he published Rhythm: a study in rhythm-units in creative music, an exercise book for musicians. With a cell of New Haven-based musicians like the sterling pianist Anthony Davis (who, beginning with X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X in the mid-‘80s, became increasingly known as a composer of gripping historical operas), Smith formed New Dalta Ahkri, which included Lake in its mid-decade quintet incarnation. Curiously, the ensemble is represented on Wildflowers by Davis’ “Locomotif No. 6,” an engaging vehicle for their improvisational acumen; subsequently, an opportunity was sorely missed to shed light on Smith’s unique compositional tool kit of traditional, graphic and pictorial notations, one that yields compositions that unfold note by note without telegraphing their form, making Smith’s music much more the proverbial sound of surprise than jazz in the main. A year after the Rivbea festival, Smith embarked on his magnum opus; 34 years later, Smith debuted Ten Freedom Summers, a 19-part depiction of the Civil Rights Movement that rivaled August Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle of plays for its panoramic scope and its emotional depths. After its 2012 release as a 4-CD set, Ten Freedom Summers was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013.
By the time he formed Air with Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall to reinterpret Scott Joplin compositions for a Chicago theater production, Threadgill had already played in US Army bands, touring gospel groups and various AACM ensembles, disparate settings that nurtured a compositional voice that, on the one hand, is immediately recognizable, but whose inner workings remain inscrutable even after repeated plays. The coursing rhythms of Hopkins and McCall and Threadgill’s keening alto saxophone on “USO Dance” exemplified why Air rode the loft jazz wave as well as any ensemble, and was soon signed to Arista Novus. 1979’s Air Lore was the last Arista jazz album of the ‘70s to over-perform, sales-wise, in no small part because of the inclusion of Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton tunes, which tapped the gathering traditionalist energies of the day without resembling the preservationist projects that became fashionable in the 1980s. Unlike his AACM colleagues, Threadgill remained bankable by major labels well into the 1990s, his subsequent ensembles like his seven-person Sextett and Make a Move recording, respectively, for RCA (which took over Novus through their absorption of Arista in the mid-‘80s) and Columbia. While some of his AACM contemporaries became MacArthur Fellows and NEA Jazz Masters, Threadgill is the only alum to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music; in awarding the 2016 prize, In for a Penny, In for a Pound, the committee cited the CD-length composition as “a highly original work in which notated music and improvisation mesh in a sonic tapestry that seems the very expression of modern American life.”
The cruel reality of samplers like Wildflowers is that, if they are successful, they winnow the field. They promote some artists, and leave trace evidence of also-rans. In this regard, Impulse had impressive results promoting their artists with their early ‘70s samplers, success they immediately seized upon, Rivers himself being a prime example. Ironically, Rivers was lost in the crowd on Wildflowers, despite being well represented by an incisive workout on soprano, ably supported by bassist Jerome Hunter and drummer Jerry Griffin. Tellingly, there was no “Sam Rivers appears courtesy of Impulse Records” among the credits.
But, sales of the Wildflowers series was sufficiently dismal that they were unceremoniously dumped into cut-out bins within a year of the LPs release, and neither Douglas nor Casablanca pursued subsequent, similar projects. There are a number of reasons for this, the first being the heavy lift for any label of marketing five individual LPs by a platoon of artists little known beyond the most hard core jazz fans. Arguably, Casablanca was the most unsuited label for such an endeavor, despite – or because of – its pull in the pop and disco markets. Their sales force was oriented towards big accounts – chain stores and one-stops (metropolitan and regional distributors where stores could order breaking hits for next day delivery) – not jazz specialty shops. Radio was their main marketing medium, not jazz magazines; no North American jazz magazine, even Coda, which ran a three-page review of the festival itself, reviewed the LPs.
Loft jazz cognoscenti knew what they were buying with Wildflowers; but for semi-qualified consumers, the series was something of a Russian roulette proposition. Name recognition is essential to jazz catalog sales – that’s a big reason why there are so many perennials on Blue Note. With Wildflowers, however, there were few dots that could be readily connected beyond a virtually unknown bass player who played in every other group. Additionally, without liner notes, these would-be buyers – the very ones that could have nudged loft jazz towards becoming an ongoing concern for labels like Arista – had nothing to go on in terms of understanding the aesthetic and social contexts that made loft jazz relevant, making it even easier for them to move to the next bin.
In a 1999 retrospective about the Wildflowers LPs, Signal to Noise publisher Pete Gershon paraphrased Cuscuna’s opinion that the series had “no immediately noticeable impact on the loft jazz scene,” and “that more than anything else, Wildflowers was an attempt to share what was going on in downtown New York with jazz fans coast-to-coast.” Ordinarily, it would be difficult to read such an assessment as something other than a tacit admission of failure and revisionist history; but, given the massive sums generated by Casablanca’s roster, the industry perception of jazz as a loss leader, and Douglas’ and Cuscuna’s respective bona fides, it is possible that the parties entered into the release of the series knowing where the chips would fall, giving credence to the notion that the producers’ agenda extended only to getting the music released and gaining national, albeit fleeting exposure to the loft scene and the artists working in it.
However, the unintended consequence of the series’ release was the misleading impression within the loft jazz community that there their ship was coming in. This exacerbated already building tensions between venues and artists, which became fodder for news stories in The Village Voice and the Soho Weekly News. It’s no coincidence that Brower’s article about Rivers was titled “Warlord of the Lofts.” Rivers himself became something of a target, being publicly challenged by the writer/musician/promoter Stanley Crouch. By the publication of Brower’s article in late ‘78, Rivbea was receiving subsidies from the New York Council of the Arts for a Summer Concert Series, and was criticized for almost exclusively presenting artists with whom Rivers had worked or employed. Within two weeks that summer, Rivers introduced the quartet of Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter and Max Roach at Jimmy Carter’s White House jazz picnic, and then led his quartet and orchestra at the evening-length Newport Jazz Festival presentation, “The World of Sam Rivers.” Yet, Brower’s extensive article opened with three paragraphs of Rivers’ indicting record companies’ mid four-figure offers for advances as exploitative and disrespectful, reinforcing his anti-establishment image.
The loft scene was “already crumbling,” Rivers told Brower; but he did not reveal he was closing Studio Rivbea at year’s end. Writing in The New York Times in late January 1979, Robert Palmer attributed Rivers’ decision to his increasingly busy performance schedule. However, the point of Palmer’s article was not to announce that a respected venue had shuttered, or to proclaim, as he does in his lead, that “(t)his is probably as good a time as any to report that loft jazz no longer exists,” and “that it never existed, not as distinct variety of jazz with a sound and a style of its own.” Instead, the crux of Palmer’s reporting was that “new jazz is no longer confined to the lofts … It can be now heard in established night clubs and concert locations.” In doing so, Palmer posited a twist on the history of musicians being priced out of the market when loft spaces became ripe for development by detailing how the denizens of the lofts were now performing at trendy venues like Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, which had “rapidly established itself as the avant-Bottom Line,” and Sweet Basil.
These developments notwithstanding, Rivers moved his family to New Jersey in 1980, presumably for lower housing costs.