Sunrise Studio: All Music Is Greater than the Sum of Our Selves

Sunrise Studio

They moved all the equipment from W 36th St. into Sunrise – the baby grand piano, the PA system, even the throw pillows for the audience to sit on. Mahaffay did some renovations. At first, he kept the rehearsal studio intact to be rented out to help meet costs, but eventually he even tore down some of the walls of the rehearsal space and opened it out into the concert space to create more room for an audience. The marathon jam sessions ceased and “the energy went into the concerts,” Mahaffay says.

Although they made the best of a difficult situation, it was still a big adjustment for the members of Free Life. “The Space was just a performance space paid for by a grant, but Sunrise was where I lived,” Mahaffay notes. “I had to come up with money for rent and utilities. In addition to putting on concerts, I had to keep the place clean, sweep it out, make sure the toilets didn’t get too funky, you know the real ‘glamour’ parts of the job! It was constant work.”

Free Life still kept up a busy schedule of performances. By Moss’s count, there were 84 concerts in 1974–75, and 75 concerts in 1975–76. They operated mainly on weekends, with performances on Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. There was no charge to the musicians to play there and they could keep whatever they brought in at the door. Anyone who played there could use Free Life’s extensive mailing list to send out publicity.

Performances were not limited to Free Life members and Sunrise opened its doors to bands from the Lower East Side music scene. “Musicians heard you were putting on concerts, and well, they were hungry, so they came,” Mahaffay says. “Most likely a musician would talk to me because I was running the nuts and bolts of the place, and then I would coordinate with Michael [Moss] schedule-wise.”

Michael Moss                                                           Courtesy of Mike Mahaffay

Moss, who had taken over as president of Free Life when Liebman left the post, was in graduate school working toward an MS in psychology in the early 1970s, in part to avoid having to serve in the armed forces during the Vietnam War. (In 1991, he received his PhD in Counseling Psychology from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.) A native of Chicago, he grew up in a musical family – his father, H. Baron Moss, was a Julliard educated concert pianist and composer – and began improvising when he was nine. Besides several LPs as a leader released on his own Fourth Stream Records label, Moss also appears on the 1972 Annette Peacock-Paul Bley album I’m the One (RCA) and Dreamcatcher and Bindu, two Stork Music cassettes by drummer Heinz Geisser’s Collective 4tet, with William Parker and Mark Hennen. None of his large-scale pieces, including one for the Jazz Composers Orchestra, have been released. Now retired as a psychologist, Moss continues to perform with his own group and lives in New York with his wife, dancer-choreographer Judith Moss.

Flyer for Jemeel Moondoc’s Muntu                                                           Courtesy of Mike Mahaffay

The first season at Sunrise that Moss and Mahaffay assembled in the fall of 1974 gives a good indication of the mix of music. From October through December, concerts included Free Life ensembles such as Moss’s Four Rivers, poet Steve Tropp and vocalist Gloria Tropp, a Laurence Cook band, Marty Cook’s New York Sound Explosion, International Percussion with Mahaffay and Halburian, and John Fischer’s Interface. During that same period, however, ensembles led by nonmembers such as trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah, saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc, trumpeter Ted Daniel (his CD, The Loft Years, Vol. 1, was recorded at Sunrise in September 1975), Keshavan, and Mark Whitecage also played there.

Mike Mahaffay                         Courtesy of Mike Mahaffay

Sunrise also joined three other lofts – Environ, Ladies Fort, and Jazzmania – for the Loft Jazz Celebration festival in 1976. There were 22 concerts scheduled throughout the day from Friday, June 4, through Sunday, June 6. In addition to evening concerts, there was a noontime Bagel Brunch by Clifford Jordan at Jazzmania, and what can only have been a sparsely attended 6 a.m. Jazz at Dawn performance by Errol Parker’s 4th World at Ladies Fort on Sunday. At Sunrise, they showcased Free Life artists, included International Percussion, a bass choir led by John Shea, Four Rivers, John Fischer, a Laurence Cook group, and a band with the oddball name of Intestinal Skylark, which no one interviewed for this article could remember anything about. Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach returned to the Free Life fold with Lookout Farm for the climactic concert on Sunday night. Michael Moss helped organize a total of three Loft Jazz Celebrations and remembers that Sunrise was part of all three. However, a New York Times article about the 1977 celebration does not list Sunrise. More research is needed to find out about these festivals. On the basis of the Times article and Mahaffay’s recollections, it seems likely that Sunrise Studio ceased operation late in the bicentennial year.

That’s what happens when you don’t have any money.

What had begun in utopian, and perhaps naïve, visions of cooperation and mutual advancement had crashed up against some very hard realities of money, cultural politics, and human foibles. To a large extent the enormous good fortune of residency at the Space for Innovative Development had masked many of the organizational limitations of musicians who were not by nature bureaucrats or managers. The stamp of approval from the mainstream Rubin Foundation had opened funding doors and allowed for stability and continuity even in times of organizational upheaval. When the Rubin Foundation shuttered the Space, the musicians in Free Life faced challenges that they ultimately weren’t equipped to handle. “There were so many headwinds,” Moss says. “It just got more and more difficult.”

For one thing, previously unknown accounting irregularities were exposed, jeopardizing state arts funding. Moss, in an account of his tenure as Free Life president written in 1976, explained that “the books were held by the previous accountant/grants consultant whose increasingly negative reputation at the New York State Council on the Arts had threatened Free Life Communication with funding rejection by that body.” A new accountant was hired, but the damage to the group was done up in Albany and they lost their NYSCA funding.

John Shea                                     Courtesy of Mike Mahaffay

Membership in Free Life was dwindling, and many of those who remained affiliated were unable or unwilling to help manage and maintain the group. They took advantage of Sunrise Studio as a place to play, but did little by way of support for the organization. “At the very, very end, the three of us [Mike Mahaffay, Michael Moss, and John Shea] were the work horses,” Mahaffay says. “Between the three of us we maintained the organization, but it became more difficult as time went on.”

They were trapped in a downward spiral, as Moss tells it. “There was a weakness in organizational management,” he wrote in the 1976 document. “A continuing obstacle [was] poor management by artists whose concern and talent lay not in organization and planning but in the development of innovative musical forms. The search for a manager who could work for no fee during the initial fundraising efforts required to pay for administration and group’s projects and performances, led to persons who proved inexperienced and unreliable and who were subsequently let go.”

“That’s what happens when you don’t have any money,” Moss notes dryly.

To add to the problems, relations with the neighbors soured. Someone stole the sandwich board that Mahaffay kept on the sidewalk to advertise concerts. Then things really deteriorated. “When we had the jam sessions in the sound studio that was one thing,” Mahaffay says, “because no one could hear us. But the concerts. ... We weren’t the most popular kids on the block. I mean the neighbors sent many letters to the mayor complaining about the noise, and got no satisfaction. So, they took justice into their own hands. They got a ball of concrete about the size of a baseball, stood on the roof across the street, and threw it through the plate glass window. It was one piece of stress that joined all the others.”

For Mahaffay, the strain of scrambling to make a living as a creative musician, administering a nonprofit, and the day-to-day operation of a performance space finally became too much. “I kept it up for as long as I could,” he says. “There really was no break from it. I was just doing it constantly. I remember exactly when I realized it was over. We had two flights of stairs that musicians had to crawl up to get to the space. And one day, I just left guys sitting outside for an hour, hour and a half, before I answered the door. And I said, ‘that’s it.’ Exhaustion, mental burn out whatever, I knew I was screwing the musicians and no, it can’t go on like this.”

We had to have a place to play.

Despite the difficulties, Sunrise accomplished much in its short life. “The fact remains that with decreasing fund levels, Free Life was becoming a more active force in the community,” Moss wrote in 1976, “a medium for new artists to learn and perform, a group held together by love and a commitment to the arts that few will ever understand. With a limited budget, laboring under the duel burdens of poor management and a concomitant reputation at NYSCA of being fiscally irresponsible, Free Life put on over 150 concerts over a period of a year and a half and recorded enough material for a double album [which was never issued]. It never lost its spirit or direction.”

John Fischer, unidentified, John Shea, Laurence Cook + Mark Whitecage              Courtesy of Mike Mahaffay

“Running Sunrise was just a natural extension of what we were doing,” Mahaffay says. “Long before Free Life, Greg Kogan had his place on 19th St in the same building as Liebman. I used to walk down there every day and we’d play all afternoon. On the floor below Greg was Carl Schroeder, who was playing with Roy Haynes, and his band would come over to rehearse. It was great to sit and listen to them. And Dave Liebman was upstairs. So everything flowed into Sunrise. It went from 19th Street to Free Life Communication and out of that came The Space for Innovative Development and out of that came Sunrise. It was just what we did. Thinking back on it, did I think I was part of a historical movement? No, that never occurred at all. You were just so involved in the moment, you were doing what you had to do to get by. We had to have a place to play and so we created our own place to play.”

“Sunrise was a place where creative impulses were allowed to freely generate,” Moss says, “where close associations between people were allowed to develop, where there was a focus on creativity and where people could develop their ideas. We facilitated the entire music scene of New York City without regard to color or musical taste or level of musicianship.

“Free Life gave me the opportunity to play with the best musicians in New York City,” Moss continues, “And I still work with Mike Mahaffay and John Shea. We’re old geezers now, but we still make CDs together.”

Text © Ed Hazell 2012

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