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

Armen Halburian                                                                       Courtesy of Mike Mahaffay

The Politics of Organizing

They knew that they were not the first improvisers to organize for their mutual benefit. In New York, the Jazz Composers Guild had set a famous precedent in 1964. Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), founded less than a year later in 1965, not only had some formidable artistic achievements to its credit, it had also been able to sustain itself longer than the short-lived guild. In 1970, after the Creative Construction Company returned to the US from Paris, several of the AACM’s earliest members were in New York, so Free Life invited two of them—Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton—to speak to them.

Jenkins “came in with a very strong heavy racial rap,” Moses recalls on Free Life Loft Jazz, “which I don’t think we agreed with, but we appreciated his honesty and forthrightness. It’s been a long time, so I won’t try to remember all he said, but for him, there couldn’t be a mixed black and white band, it had to be one way or the other. It was very politicized for him. We weren’t thinking in terms of politics; we were more into the aesthetics.”

The polarizing effects of racial politics among New York jazz musicians were to have a major impact on Free Life and its membership. Without in any way denying the legitimacy of black separatism on the personal and artistic development of many black musicians and the valuable music that resulted as a direct result, there’s also no denying the bruised feelings and bitterness it engendered among white musicians who were rejected by black musicians, especially among white musicians who felt they shared ideals and goals with black musicians that transcended race. There’s a legacy of resentment on the one hand, and in many cases regret and guilt on the other over these contentious issues that lingers among players of the generation that created the loft movement in New York. “There was a lot of hatred, unnecessary hatred,” says saxophonist Michael Moss, who was Free Life president from 1974 to 1976.

Of course, among such a large community of strong-willed, independent thinkers such as the loft musicians, there was bound to be a wide range of ideas about race and music, and relationships between black and white musicians often came down to the individuals involved. For instance, Moss characterized Joe Lee Wilson as a “lovely guy” who gladly joined several other lofts in each of three Loft Celebration festivals Moss helped organize. Moss also recalls gigs with Sam Rivers’ Winds of Manhattan, Cal Massey, Dave Burrell, and many other black musicians. Mahaffay has fond memories of hanging out and sometimes jamming with a Sunrise neighbor, Frank Lowe. “About a block from Sunrise, Frank Lowe lived,” he says. “We’d get a half pint of brandy and hang out on the front stoop all afternoon.”

Some black musicians changed their minds about the desirability of separatism, too. Moss remembers that Jenkins came to a latter Free Life meeting to recant his earlier position. “He came to a meeting expressly to apologize for his racist position, saying he was wrong,” Moss says. “He said there’s no room for racism in music. He said there was no way he could justify his earlier political position.”

It was a complex, confusing, and emotionally charged atmosphere—there were pockets of very political, aggressive, and hostile black musicians, and there were musicians who privileged individual relationships over political objectives. The end result for the nascent nonprofit was that “Every member of Free Life associated with a huge number of musicians, so we constituted the entire music scene—except that it was all white,” Moss wryly notes.

The Space for Innovative Development

After many months of hustling for places to play, the young organization’s fortunes took a sudden turn for the better in 1971. Pianist Beirach learned through a friend that the Samuel Rubin Foundation, a philanthropy established by Rubin, the founder of Faberge Perfumes, was looking for a resident music group for a new artist studio space they were creating in a renovated Presbyterian church at 334 West 36th St. The Space for Innovative Development, as they called it, already hosted some of the biggest names in the contemporary avant-garde performing arts. On the first floor was the Alwin Nikolais-Murray Louis Dance Theater Company, whose’ performances incorporated dance, slide projections, costumes, light, and original electronic music. The experimental theater group, Open Theater, headed by former Living Theater director Joe Chaiken rehearsed on the second floor. In addition to their explorations of improvisational theater and several politically engaged music theater productions, the Open Theatre earned wider notoriety for their staging of a simulated sex orgy in Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 film, Zabriskie Point.

The Rubins were persuaded to visit Liebman’s loft—“my psychedelic hippie loft” he calls it on Free Life Loft Jazz—and the millionaires sat and listened as Free Life members Liebman, Beirach, bassist Frank Tusa, and reed player Nancy Janoson (on flute) gave them a blast of free jazz. The Rubins loved what they heard and offered Free Life the top floor of the Space. The rent was a paltry one dollar per square foot annually. The group applied for and received a New York State Council on the Arts grant to help support them. “Lo and behold, we had much more than we bargained for,” Liebman writes, “a beautiful ‘home,’ a place alongside well established avant garde artists; a beautiful donated grand piano, a sound system, money, and a growing membership. We had made it in one year!”

Flyer for Michael Moss’ Free Energy                                                                 Courtesy of Mike Mahaffay

Liebman estimates they put on 300 concerts the first year they were there. Percussionists Mike Mahaffay and Armen Halburian performed there regularly as the Percussion Textures duo, incorporating world percussion into their free improvisations. When other percussionists like Badal Roy and Guillermo Franco joined them, the larger ensemble was called International Percussion. Michael Moss led a large ensemble he called Free Energy, which was influenced by his interest in Renaissance orchestra music and free jazz. His quartet, Four Rivers included Mahaffay, bassist John Shea, and pianist Greg Kogan, but they often expanded to include more drummers and percussionists. It was a mercurial project, sometimes doing free improvisation, at others incorporating elements of folk music. Liebman, Beirach, Tusa, and Jeff Williams formed Lookout Farm as an outgrowth of Free Life activity. Bassist John Shea led Perigee, featuring Laurence Cook, Al Greene, and Craig Purpora. Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava was a member and led groups there. Karl Berger began to formulate his ideas for his music school, the Creative Music Studio, while he was involved with Free Life. There were countless ad hoc groups and one-off projects and members freely participated in one another’s bands.

Gunter Hampel                                                                        Courtesy of Mike Mahaffay

Performances were not limited to member ensembles, either. Gunter Hampel and the Galaxy Dream Band, with Perry Robinson, Mark Whitecage, Jeanne Lee, and others, played there on more than one occasion. One night Jack DeJohnette came by and sat in with them. John Fischer’s Loafers, with Whitecage, Hampel, Danny Carter, Shea, David Eyges, Moss, Frank Clayton, and Lawrence Cook presented a concert of “celestial bread music.” Free Life also hosted already established artists, such as Andrew Cyrille and Ted Daniel.

One member of the collective was not a musician—visual artist Vinny Golia. Today, of course, Golia is known as a saxophonist and composer, proprietor of Nine Winds records, and a lynchpin of the Los Angeles creative music scene. “I did not play an instrument at that time,” he said in a recent email. “But my studies in the visual arts had led me into explorations of vibratory rates, the continuity of wavelengths, eastern and scientific thoughts on these things and I was frequenting many clubs in NY drawing musicians and creating paintings of a more abstract form later. I could draw as fast or as slow as the soloist would play and depending on the lyricism of the soloist, that’s how the drawing turned out. Through drawing I met many musicians and for a time when I had nowhere to live, Dave Liebman let me share his loft for a little while. We were all friends then and I was asked if I wanted to be a member, as there were hopes for other artists of different media to join. (I don’t think that ever happened; I believe I was the only non-musician).

“I also did live painting shows, one under Free Life’s banner with a dancer, Nancy Topf, Dave, and percussionist Armen Halburian. Free Life’s impact on me was more about the cooperative spirit that seems to be of that time.”

Drawing by Vinny Golia                                               Courtesy of Mike Mahaffay

On the surface, things could not have been better. The concert schedule was crowded, instrumental lessons were offered, as well as classes in T’ai Chi, and workshops on different topics, including one on “sound and body harmony.” Behind the scenes, however, there was the seemingly inevitable turmoil that attends artist-run organizations.

“Things got out of hand and our youth and naivety began to sabotage our work,” Liebman recounts. “As the membership grew too large, a greater bureaucracy accompanied it, so the original members conducted a ‘purge”’ and threw out newer and what we considered, less dedicated members. Our problem was how to let the membership grow in an intelligent way. So we decided that a member must take on some sort of clerical duties as well as performing. Also, we made the fatal mistake of insisting upon auditions for prospective members, which meant that we were judging our peers.

“Our original naivety had evolved into authoritarianism and that was when crucial members lost interest and began to drop out,” Liebman continues in his essay. “And so it went, with Richie and myself trying to hold it together throughout this period (1971–73), until our own personal careers coupled with the lost sense of idealism caused the leadership to pass on to others.”

There was also simmering discontent with the building. “They had an elevator; they never bothered to fix it,” Moss says. “So we were on the top floor, which meant people were walking up all these flights of stairs to get to it. The attitude seemed to be, ‘okay we’re going to give you a lot of things, but we’re going to make it impossible.’ ”

Then in the fall of 1974, the Rubins abruptly closed down the Space for Innovative Development. Free Life, after more than three years of relative security and outrageous productivity, was without a base of operations. “When they closed the Space down, they were going to shut Free Life down,” Mahaffay says, “But I said, well, I have a loft space, let’s shift the show down there.”

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