Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

It is a story repeated in US cities over the past sixty years. Commercial and light industrial properties and their surrounding neighborhoods fall into decline for varied reasons – everything from the demise of small manufacturing operations to the dispersion of ethnic communities. Artists needing low-cost studio and rehearsal rooms move into abandoned factories, warehouses and office buildings, residing in violation of zoning codes, coining the term “loft” for a combined living and work space. A few store fronts become galleries and performance venues presenting cutting-edge work; the bars and greasy spoons gain a new clientele. When the arts reach critical mass, media identifies the area as the seedbed of the new, triggering gentrification. Within a few years, real estate developers and their bankers have taken over; buildings are rehabbed, rents skyrocket, and, more often than not, the artist-homesteaders, the old timers and the vitality of the neighborhood squeezed out. And, that’s not the worst case scenario, which comes in the empty promises of urban renewal.

Beginning in the mid 1950s, lofts in fading Manhattan neighborhoods and commercial districts played consequential roles in New York’s jazz scene, providing congenial settings for networking and jamming, as well as mingling with their counterparts in the visual and literary arts. The decades-long association between Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron began at artist (and amateur saxophonist) Larry Rivers’ East 13th Street loft in 1958, shortly before the soprano saxophonist and pianist recorded Reflections, Lacy’s groundbreaking album of Thelonious Monk compositions. Lacy held sessions in his own loft in a former Bowery plastic bag factory, with Billy Higgins playing pieces of luggage in lieu of a kit, and Sonny Rollins occasionally dropping in during his “retirement” in ‘59-‘61 – Lacy’s was on the saxophone colossus’ way to and from the Williamsburg Bridge, then the mysterious location of Rollins’ now-legendary shedding.

Contemporaneously, painter David X. Young’s three-floor loft in the flower district at 28th Street and 6th Avenue had become an around-the-clock meeting place for a wide swath of modernists and mainstreamers including trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, saxophonist Zoot Sims, and guitarist Jim Hall. A drinking buddy of fellow abstract expressionists Willem DeKooning and Franz Kline at the Cedar Bar, Young increasingly immersed himself in the jazz scene, creating covers for Prestige 10” albums by, among others, Miles Davis, The Modern Jazz Quartet, and guitarist Jimmy Raney. From the mid ‘50s until the mid ‘60s, Young’s loft was frequented by everyone from saxophonist and original Austin High School Gang member Bud Freeman to Thelonious Monk, who, through the auspices of arranger Hall Overton, an early regular at Young’s, used the loft to rehearse the ensemble for the pianist’s historic 1958 Town Hall concert. Vibraphonist and Prestige producer Teddy Charles was another regular; in ‘55, he brought Davis and Mingus to the loft to refine the sound of Davis’ Blue Moods – it was at Young’s that the bassist received the telephone call from Pannonica de Koenigswarter informing him of Charlie Parker’s death in her apartment that night.

Unlike most lofts of the period, the scene at Young’s loft was extensively documented, not only by his own paintings and sketches, but by photographs and recordings made by Young and photographer W. Eugene Smith, who rented a floor from Young beginning in 1957. Smith alone took more than a thousand rolls of film, and recorded over 5,000 CDs worth of music. A mere fraction of their output has been published in respective volumes combining texts, images and sound recordings: David X. Young’s Jazz Loft (Jazz Magnet Records/The Sunshine Group; 2000) and Sam Stephenson’s The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965 (Alfred A. Knopf; 2009). However, this mass of media does not offer a definitive answer as to why such a confluence of artistic energies occurs. “There are many factors – too numerous to go into here,” Young concluded in his 2000 text for the collection bearing his name, “why it was able to come about, and why it is unlikely ever to happen again.”


Actually, there is only one reason why lofts sprung up and closed down – the real estate market. That is why the heyday of jazz lofts began in SoHo in the mid 1960s, when a failed plan for an expressway left a surplus of empty buildings. This attracted artists of various stripes: photorealist portrait painter Chuck Close, Duane Hanson, who made life-size sculptures of garish, overweight Middle Americans from resin, fiberglass and fabric, and Vito Acconci, who transformed masturbation into performance art. A similarly diverse array of composers moved into SoHo, spanning Minimalists like Philip Glass, the beyond-category Laurie Anderson, and jazz avant-gardists like Ornette Coleman. Subsequently, SoHo not only became ground zero for loft jazz, but for New Music, as well.

The saxophonist was part of a group that bought the seven-story building at 131 Prince Street in ‘68. Coleman ended up with three floors, each a vast 3,500 square feet (more than 50% larger than most American single-family homes at the time) divided only by six enormous wood pillars. The renovation was lengthy; when Swing Journal editor-in-chief Kiyoshi Koyama visited Coleman at Prince Street in the summer of ‘69, he reported that Coleman’s third floor living space was still in mid-renovation, though essentials like a sauna and a 9’ pool table were already installed. While the ground floor rehearsal and performance space was still raw when Valerie Wilmer photographed a relaxed moment during a Coleman quartet rehearsal in May 1971, which Brent Hayes Edwards and Katherine Whatley in their details-rich article, “’Ornette at Prince Street:’ A Glimpse from the Archives,” called “a memorable image not only because it seems to capture the warmth and commiseration of the men’s working relationship, but also because it seems to imply a link between that collaborative spirit and the setting – as though that relaxed intensity was engendered by, or flourished in, the stark, open atmosphere of a prototypical loft, airy and unadorned.”

By then, Coleman had already been giving informal, even impromptu performances at Prince Street for more than a year, but it would be a stretch to call them “public;” rather, they were for what Edwards and Whatley called an “underground coterie, less a public than a loose-knit personal and professional network that came together for performances only open to those in the know.” A 1970 Valentine’s Day quartet performance was released in 1972 as Friends and Neighbors: Ornette Live at Prince Street on former Impulse producer Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman label. Like any album by an important figure like Coleman, Friends and Neighbors has an enhanced documentary stature. However, the lasting resonance of the album does not emanate exclusively from the music, for which there are no resounding critical endorsements, even among Coleman biographers John Litweiler and Peter Niklaus Wilson. Litweiler’s praise centered on Ed Blackwell’s convivial interplay with Coleman, the drummer’s New Orleans marching band snare patterns, and his tautly constructed, yet ebullient solos. His comments on Coleman are equivocal; some alto saxophone solos fail to ignite, while others bring the best out of the tandem of Blackwell and bassist Charlie Haden.

Unimpressed, Wilson enumerates missing innovative aspects of Coleman’s musical language – “‘harmolodic’ polyphony, sudden tempo changes, dissolution of the beat” – concluding that the album is “[a]ltogether a rather drab debut on record of the quartet that regularly appeared with Coleman in the years 1969 to 1973.” At the same time, Wilson also understands that Friends and Neighbors had historical significance, not in the specifics of the music, but in “Coleman’s attempt to create something like the regional music of SoHo. In this respect Coleman was a forerunner of the loft movement that took on great importance for new jazz in New York around the middle of the decade.”

Wilson’s suggestion of a new SoHo music implicitly inverts the traditional role place plays in shaping artistic sensibilities. Granted, the influence of place on jazz musicians, for whom an itinerant life style was necessary to ply their craft, stands in stark contrast to novelists like William Faulkner or painters like Andrew Wyeth, who remained where they were raised for their entire working lives. Subsequently, there has been, historically, a dynamic tension between jazz’s cosmopolitanism and the tenacity of regional characteristics, one that intensified with the proliferation of media. Yet, by the time Coleman moved into Prince Street, however that dynamic had been largely overwritten by the fixation on the new in jazz, diminishing the role of regional characteristics in the music of the 1960s.

Because he was a lightning rod of the avant-garde, the detectable Texas roots of Coleman’s playing were, when noted at all, heard in the broader context of the blues and its precursors. Even more so than with Coleman, Texas was a palpable presence in the playing of tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, who first played with Coleman in their high school band, then earned his stripes in the bars on Fort Worth’s fabled Hot End (where the idiosyncratic Coleman was almost immediately sent packing), and eventually became Coleman’s front-line counterpart in his late ‘60s-early ‘70s quartet. Throughout his illustrious career with Coleman, Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet, and his own groups, Redman articulated the liberties ushered in by Coleman with Texas fundamentals – a big sound, a robust sense of swing, and the well-timed use of wails, shrieks and hollers that drives a Saturday night bar crowd wild.

If Friends and Neighbors is an early bud of SoHo jazz regionalisms, it is because existing vernaculars and avant-garde sensibilities were successfully grafted onto a new grassroots social context facilitated by lofts like Coleman’s. For more than a year, Coleman did not advertise performances, charge admission, operate a bar, or clear the house between sets. Occasionally, passers-by would hear the music and wander in, and were welcomed; but, generally, attendees were literally friends and neighbors. If anything, listeners were treated to Coleman’s generous hospitality, particularly on special occasions like his birthday gig in 1971.

This conviviality is potently conveyed in the first of the album’s two versions of the title tune, which, at first, seem to be atypical for Coleman; instead of angular phrases that dart in unexpected directions and resolve in surprising ways, “Friends and Neighbors” is a minimal funk riff. The music is propelled by a pair of countervailing forces; Haden’s thick dark sound tethering Blackwell’s bouncy groove, and Redman’s exhortative blues phrases grounding Coleman’s frenetically bowed violin. On the first version, the audience sings lyrics like “Friends and neighbors; that’s where it’s at / Friends and neighbors; that’s a fact,” with the glee of double-dutching kids. There had been a sing-songy strain to Coleman’s music since its beginnings, and Coleman would employ this type of material and a similar ensemble approach to astonishing ends (even for Coleman) on Dancing in Your Head, the 1976 debut of the electric group later known as Prime Time; but, the hootenanny-like audience participation on “Friends and Neighbors” signals the presence of the community for whom loft jazz would be their folk music.

Thiele’s liner photographs for Friends and Neighbors provide further texture to the scene at Prince Street. The quartet play facing each other in a circle, with Coleman seated, legs crossed, on a speaker cabinet; about a dozen people – with the possible exception of a young boy in his mom’s lap – attentively listen; luminaries like Gil Evans and Pharoah Sanders mingle; Coleman’s mynah bird’s cage is festooned with a sombrero. This vibe would continue for a while after Coleman dubbed the performance space Artist House early in ‘72, and began presenting other musicians, advertising the gigs in The Village Voice and charging admission. By the mid ‘70s, however, some of Coleman’s friends and neighbors became complainants. Irked by the round-the-clock music leaking through the building, and empowered by zoning codes not in place when Coleman first arrived, other shareholders in the building, undoubtedly motivated by the performance space’s potential drag on their investment in a market poised to boom, first forced Coleman to close Artist House and, eventually, sell his loft.

One metric in developing real estate is a neighborhood’s capacity for specific types of commerce – restaurants, galleries, music venues – whether real or perceived as such by the powers that be. Occasionally, even pending projects can stymie development in a community as effectively as established, dominant concerns. Such was the case when multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers started looking for sites in Harlem beginning in the second half of the ‘60s where he could run a studio for performance and teaching – loft living was not yet on his radar. When he finally found a vacant building, Rivers went to the planning commission, thinking his application would be embraced. To his surprise, he was turned down because plans for an arts center were then being drawn and Rivers represented competition to connected, moneyed interests. In 1970, Rivers finally found rehearsal space at P.S. 92 in Harlem, but he was unable to fully realize his vision there.

Rivers’ search continued until early 1972, when he found a 6-story building at 24 Bond Street in NoHo. Built in 1920, the building was owned by Virginia Admiral, the painter, writer and advocate for low-cost housing for artists in the 1960s; upon hearing his music, Admiral rented Rivers the basement and ground floor at an exceptionally low rate. (It was only after the Rivers family moved in that he found out that Admiral was also the mother of actor Robert DeNiro.) Rivers then set about transforming the wide open 30’ by 100’ basement into a performance and rehearsal space. With only the occasional help of a helper, Rivers would later make extensive renovations to the extraordinarily high-ceilinged ground floor when he moved the performance space upstairs, building a stage, installing a lavatory for concert-goers and constructing living-space lofts. But, initially, Rivers needed only to wrap the basement stage area with sound-absorbing burlap, rig a greenish gray parachute to hide the overhead pipes and joists, and cover the floor with rugs and carpets, to open Studio Rivbea in June.

As was initially the case with Coleman’s Prince Street loft, one had to be in the know to know when performances were on at Rivbea. There was no exterior signage and publicity consisted of posters put up on surrounding streets and flyers left at shops like Happy Tunes Records in Greenwich Village. Seating consisted of folding chairs and large rugs. There was no admission charge – though donations for the musicians were all but expected – and there was no bar; instead, juices, fruit and other food were occasionally laid out on a table. And, most importantly, having the music in the basement meant no complaints from the neighbors, which was fatal to Artist House.

However, the best thing Studio Rivbea had going for it was Sam Rivers.


Every African American musician is connected in spirit to the earliest forms of music practiced by Africans in North America, but few have Rivers’ lineage. His grandfather Marshall W. Taylor collected and notated spirituals and hymns, composed some of his own, and co-published A Collection of Revival Hymns and Plantation Melodies in 1882. Rivers’ father sang with the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Silvertone Quartet in the 1920s; he and Rivers’ mother were on the road presenting spirituals in concert when Sam was born in El Reno, Oklahoma, in 1923 (as is the case with other musicians – Cecil Taylor being prominent among them – Rivers’ birthdate was chronically misreported for decades).

After a stint in the Navy, during which the California-stationed saxophonist worked with up-and-coming blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon, Sam relocated in Boston with his bassist brother Martin to study music – Martin at the New England Conservatory, Sam at the Boston Conservatory, where he made acquaintances with Quincy Jones, pianist Dick Twardzik (whose astonishing, idiosyncratic artistry was snuffed by his heroin addiction at 24 in 1955) and, portentously, pianist Jaki Byard. On the brink of a nervous breakdown in 1956, Rivers repaired to Florida for two years, where he co-led a group with tenor saxophonist Don Wilkerson, a Ray Charles alum who soloed on the ‘54 hit single, “I Got a Woman” and recorded three albums in the early ‘60s for Blue Note that retained the jump blues flavor of early Charles sides.

Rivers also briefly toured with Billie Holiday. In a remembrance published in the New York Jazz Museum’s Billie Holiday Remembered, Rivers tells of nearing collapse after soloing in a jam session with Holiday; she suggested he get some fresh air, adding that she would look after his tenor as she did for Lester Young. “When I got back she was singing ‘Detour Ahead.’” I listened to the anguish in her voice and the lyrics seemed to be about my own problems. I started to cry.”

Whether or not this cathartic episode led to Rivers’ return to Boston in 1958, it is there and then that his playing and composing rapidly matured. Even though his bread and butter gig was directing a house band at a Roxbury club for touring R&B singers like Maxine Brown, Jerry Butler and Wilson Pickett, he also led a quartet with pianist Hal Galper, experimented with free jazz, and participated in what was then a Boston rite of passage for jazz musicians, playing in Herb Pomeroy’s modernist big band. “I did some compositions which were based on each instrument having a different part, all of which were harmonically together,” he said in a 1978 Down Best feature by W.A. Brower about the approach he developed in Florida. “I took part of one to Herb Pomeroy to hear how it sounded. He just laughed and said, Yeah! And gave it back to me.”

Rivers had better luck with Tadd Dameron; Rivers first played with the composer-pianist in Boston in ‘58 and made such an impression that Dameron enlisted Rivers three years later for an octet session for Blue Note. Despite the presence of polished players like trumpeter Donald Byrd, French horn player Julius Watkins and bassist Paul Chambers, copyist issues slowed the session and only four tracks were recorded – including Rivers’ “The Elder Speaks” – which remained unissued until their inclusion on a 1999 Lost Sessions compilation. There was nothing in the gospel-tinged soul jazz of Rivers’ chart and the exultant, testifying quality of his solo to suggest he was a budding radical – it could have been an effective vehicle for Wilkerson or other soul jazz tenors. While “The Elder Speaks” seems an unlikely discographical starting point for someone identified with the avant-garde for nearly a half-century, Rivers’ later work confirmed that mining grooves and evoking jazz’s roots were not incompatible with the central exploratory thrust of his music.

Arguably, Rivers’ most consequential gig in Boston occurred in 1959 when a 13-year-old drummer sat in with his quartet – Tony Williams. In the three years before Jackie McLean spirited Williams to New York to be part of the saxophonist’s quartet appearing in Jack Gelber’s play, The Connection, Rivers and Williams worked in various settings, including the Boston Improvisational Ensemble. Working in museums accompanying poets and slide shows of modern art, the Ensemble employed cards and timetables to cue improvisations. “The professor would stand by paintings by Van Gogh and others and explain the shape and movement of the brush strokes and other things about the painting, and we’d be playing the lines of the painting,” Rivers told Michael Cuscuna in 1996. “That’s how I first became interested in free playing, from a classical point of view, abstraction, creating sound. That’s different from Ornette’s concept, which comes out of the blues.”

Not only did Rivers refine an approach to free improvisation outside the parameters established by Coleman, but he also bypassed the modal jazz pioneered by Miles Davis and John Coltrane. “In most cases, so-called modal jazz wasn’t really modal at all,” Rivers explained to Robert Palmer in ‘75 for a Down Beat article. “People were playing free over the top of modes or, more often, just staying in one key.” Rivers also seemed to studiously avoid anything that would remind listeners of Coltrane, using a distinctively wiry, astringent sound and against-the-grain phrases, accents and vocalizations. None of these traits made Rivers a natural fit for Miles Davis’ quintet, whose performances were still shaped by suave and sophisticated chestnuts like “My Funny Valentine,” and “So What;” but, on Williams’ recommendation, the trumpeter hired Rivers, then on the road with blues guitarist T-Bone Walker, in 1964 as a place-keeper while awaiting Wayne Shorter’s departure from Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

Rivers’ brief stint included a Japanese tour, which yielded Miles in Tokyo, a 1969 Japan-only release that remained a coveted collectors’ item until its 2004 CD reissue. There are big differences between Rivers’ tenor sound and that of his predecessor George Coleman, who favored a soaring sound and more conventional, quicksilver runs of the registers, and there’s no denying that Rivers’ provoked the rhythm section of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Williams more incessantly than Coleman. However, Davis’ assertion to biographer and Miles in Tokyo annotator Takao Ogawa that “Rivers carried a new sound into the band of which my quintet did not have,” making “rhythmic figures and harmonies of the group freer than before,” ignores the evolution already in evidence on the LPs culled from Davis’ Philharmonic Hall concert in 1963. Hancock, Carter and Williams already had a few trademark moves, like double-clutching between driving and coasting time feels, and momentarily suspending pulse and harmony to promote figurations as accompaniment.

Arguably, it is Williams’ artful disruptions that pushed Davis’ music ahead of the curve, and that the performance propositions Williams encountered with the Boston Improvisational Ensemble informed his articulation of an expanded role for percussion in jazz, which presented in full on his Blue Note debut. Recorded shortly after the Japanese tour, Life Time is perhaps the most far-reaching album in the venerated label’s extensive catalog, laying down bold, durable markers in terms of ensemble configurations, compositional structures and sequencing tracks. Rivers foregoes even indirect references to the tenor tradition as he fine combs Williams’ sparse, largely non-idiomatic materials; and, the conventional lead/support relationships between horn, bass and drums are upended in his exchanges with Williams and bassists Richard Davis and Gary Peacock. At times, Rivers’ tenor sound is intimately breathy, while, at others, his guttural textures, disconnected from their exclamation point-like usage with Miles Davis, are chillingly stark. Ending the album with a abstract trio with Hancock, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, and Williams, and a dusky duet between just Hancock and Carter, Life Time remains stunningly unorthodox after more than 50 years.

It remains unclear exactly when Blue Note’s Alfred Lion offered Rivers his own date; it well may have been at Larry Young’s first Blue Note date three months after the Williams session, when Rivers join the organist, Elvin Jones and guitarist Grant Green at the producer’s behest. Presumably, Lion knew what he was in for with Rivers based on the two dates, Young’s being less radical than Williams’, but daring nevertheless. “Based on Tony’s date, I came in with some ideas,” Rivers told Cuscuna about the December ‘64 session. “I found out that Alfred considered his date so far out. Well, mine were even further out, so we postponed the date. I came back and did Fuschia Swing Song with music we’d been playing for years.”

Pomeroy’s rejection of Rivers’ chart, and Dameron’s use of “The Elder Speaks;” the limitations of Davis’ repertoire; Lion prevailing on Rivers to record more conventional compositions: in each case, Rivers was unable to document his most advanced, adventurous music. This is not to say that the compositions on Fuschia Swing Song are generic; even the blues-based “Upstairs Blues Downstairs” and “Ellipsis,” set on “I Got Rhythm” changes, shrewdly twist well-worn templates into distinctive shapes. Certainly, Rivers doesn’t play it safe using a series of minor 7ths for the skeleton of “Cyclic Episode,” or by dividing “Luminous Monolith” into units of 14, 8 and 12 bars. With the rhythm section of Byard, Carter and Williams maximizing the elasticity of each composition, Fuschia Swing Song is thoroughly engaging from beginning to end; but, it represents Rivers breaking from the pack of modernists when he already had left them far behind.

The remainder of Rivers’ three-year tenure with Blue Note is a case of one step forward, one step sideways, and one step held in suspension for years. Rivers’ second Blue Note, Contours,is a panoramic snapshot of Rivers’ music compared to his debut. For starters, it is Rivers’ first recording on flute and soprano saxophone (he also began performing on the piano a few years later), establishing him as a multi-instrumentalist instead of the tenor player presented on Fuschia Swing Song, an image reinforced by its cover photo of Rivers shot with a fisheye lens that enlarged and distended his tenor. The notion that Rivers was indeed initially tethered by Lion is supported by Contours, recorded six months after Fuschia Swing Song. Brimming with unorthodox forms and episodes of explosive energy, Rivers’ quintet Carter, Hancock, drummer Joe Chambers and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard (Rivers and the latter two had performed on vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson’s impressive debut, Dialogue just a month before), Contours exemplified jazz that, according to annotator Don Heckman, “cannot quite accurately be described as avant-garde, [but] is reaching towards goals not too far removed from those sought by the revolutionaries.”

By the time Rivers recorded A New Conception in late 1966, Blue Note had recorded such revolutionary albums as Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures and Conquistador!, as well as Williams’ Spring. A quintet date with Rivers, Hancock, Peacock and Shorter, Spring afforded a thorough basis for comparing the two tenors, with Rivers emerging as the more fiercely daring. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that Rivers would have as much conceptual leeway as he did with Contours. Whether or not Lion in any way suggested or insisted that Rivers record standards for his third Blue Note is unknown. In his comments to annotator Nat Hentoff, however, Rivers makes the case that playing standards is an artistic necessity, and that it is more challenging to play standards straight, without the chord substitutions many modernists use. He also said that “eventually I want to do some rhythm and blues things.” Rivers, Galper, bassist Herbie Lewis and drummer Steve Ellington, interpret chestnuts like “When I Fall in Love,” “Secret Love,” and “Detour Ahead,” the tune Holiday sang when Rivers encountered her in the mid ‘50s, with exceptional resourcefulness, tinting the emotional thrust of songs through tempo and attack instead of harmonic embellishments. Rivers told Hentoff he aimed for warmth and freshness, and he attained it on A New Conception.

Even though Rivers only recorded four albums for Blue Note, there is a clear pattern to the intervals between each session and the music of each successive release. Six months separate his first two sessions, but 17 elapsed between Contours and A New Conception; six months after the standards date, Rivers recorded the far-reaching Dimensions and Extensions in March 1967 with a four-horn sextet: Byrd, trombonist Julian Priester, and saxophonist/flutist James Spaulding join Rivers in the front line, while Ellington is joined by Cecil McBee. Rivers’ charts are dense and occasionally atonal; yet, between his precise coloration and his colleagues’ ability to project their respective, appealing personalities, the music alternates between engaging hard-swinging feels and reflective moods. Rivers’ trenchant tenor on a bluntly powerful, free form trio track begs comparison to Albert Ayler (considered the farthest of the out, Ayler was recently signed by Impulse largely on Coltrane’s endorsement); but, overall, Dimensions and Extensions is an approachable album, one that would have filled an important gap in the documentation of Rivers’ music. However, the album, replete with cover art, was shelved for nearly a decade, presumably due to the vacuum left by Lion’s retirement in ’67, abruptly ending Rivers’ tenure with Blue Note. Seven years would pass before another Rivers album was released on an American label.


The market niche for the aesthetic Heckman identified in his Contours notes began to be squeezed in the late 1960s by the rise of fusion and an increasingly polarizing avant-garde. Subsequently, Rivers joining Cecil Taylor’s Unit with drummer Andrew Cyrille and saxophonist Jimmy Lyons in early 1969 was a pivotal moment both for Rivers individually, and the compression of this segment of the jazz aesthetic spectrum. Aside from a few Stateside concerts – including a performance at Grinnell College coordinated by future Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins – Taylor’s quartet primarily worked In Europe. In addition to meeting and receiving lithographs from Joan Miró, and interacting with Karlheinz Stockhausen and other exponents of post-war European composition, their late July residency at the Fondation Maeght near Nice yielded Nuits de la Fondation Maeght, released as three individual LPs in 1973 on the French Shandar label (Prestige repackaged the material as the box set The Great Concert of Cecil Taylor in ‘77 – with liner notes by Giddens). By the end of the year, Taylor’s quartet had recorded for the BBC at Ronnie Scott’s in London, and performed at several of Europe’s most prestigious concert halls, including the Salle Pleyel in Paris and the Berliner Philharmonie. Because Rivers had not previously performed in Europe with either Davis or his Blue Note label mates, he is introduced to a continental audience through Taylor’s unrelenting, red-lining intensity; subsequently, European critics and presenters place him on the avant-garde edge of the spectrum instead of the interstitial space articulated by Heckman.

Nowhere was this squeeze more persistent and consequential than New York. By the time he opened Studio Rivbea, Rivers no longer had any residual benefits of being on the roster of one of the great jazz record labels a half-dozen years before – not that there were any to be had. Cutting-edge artists usually played prestigious venues only when they and/or their managers booked the hall, as was the case with Anthony Braxton’s May ‘72 Town Hall concert. Commercial venues featuring similarly oriented artists had been disappearing in downward-spiraling neighborhoods in the Bronx, the Bowery and the Lower East Side for years, a slow-motion process bookended by the Five Spot discontinuing live music in ’67 and Slug’s shutting down in ‘72 soon after trumpeter Lee Morgan was shot dead at the bar by his common-law wife. This created a vacuum artists sought to fill on their own; but while collectives and organizations were easy to create – and, given the supply of loft spaces, to house – the resulting competition among a glut of start-up artist-run entities for a small audience and a trickle of public and philanthropic funding inevitably created winners and losers in the short term, blunting efforts to network and present a united front against the powers that be.

One of the most concerted efforts to open opportunities for local exponents of the avant-garde was the New York Musicians Organization, springing from the collaboration of multi-instrumentalist Juma Sultan, co-founder of the Aboriginal Music Society, and trumpeter James DuBoise, founder of Studio We, a self-described “community music project” located on Eldridge Street on the Lower East Side. The musicians initially organized in reaction to producer George Wein moving the Newport Jazz Festival to New York in ’72. The well-connected Wein co-opted City Hall, giving Mayor John Lindsay an honorary committee chair, promising oxygen to a gasping economy, and launching a robust publicity campaign with a new, red apple-studded logo. However, Wein made strategic errors; concerts were to be held exclusively at such upscale shrines as Carnegie Hall and Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center; and, even though he booked a few avant-garde musicians like Ornette Coleman, he ignored the emergent local scene. Without outreach to Harlem and other black communities, and inclusion of the vital loft-associated scene, Wein made himself an easy target for Sultan, DuBoise and their cohort.

Sultan and Duboise were joined by Rivers, drummer Rashied Ali and others to devise a full-on assault. Their efforts prompted the New York Times to run several articles beginning in June in which Sultan laid out their case in brief, and Archie Shepp embedded Wein into a shameful history of white entrepreneurs exploiting black artists. Each successive article reinforced their critique of Wein. The NYMO concurrently issued its “list of demands, served upon the Producers and Planners of the Newport Jazz Festival,” which read like terms of surrender. For starters, black musicians would determine where they would play; they would be consulted on all aspects of the festival; and free tickets would be distributed in poor neighborhoods. The NYMO then astronomically upped the ante by tacking on demands of the Urban League to whom Wein had already promised half of the festival’s profits – renovation of the Marcus Garvey building on Lenox Avenue, and the funding of various projects, including a music school in Harlem. Their list was capped off by a final requirement of 100% compliance of all demands, which would presumably necessitate their access to the books of the festival and the Urban League to determine.

The NYMO’s strategically countered Newport’s strengths – deep pockets; prestigious venues; and a monopoly on top-dollar talent – with ubiquity. They compensated for their lack of patronage with sweat equity and self-funding through membership dues and the free use of Studio We, Studio Rivbea and other loft venues. In addition to the press, the NYMO worked the city’s bureaucracy, securing, in relatively short order, permits from the Parks Department to present outdoor concerts throughout the city, including a culminating event in Central Park. The ‘72 NYMJF staged four times the number of events held by Newport at almost four times the number of venues; Newport was held almost exclusively in Manhattan, while the NYMJF spread out over the city. Supporting a roughly 5 to 1 ratio of events to Newport’s over the 11-day counter festival not only required an impressively deep bench of musicians, but also competent logisticians like the hands-on Rivers.

Opening night of the festival at Rivbea is typical of the counter festival’s bounties. Braxton opened the proceedings with the same trio he presented at Town Hall – bassist Dave Holland had worked with Braxton in Circle, a co-op rounded out by pianist Chick Corea and drummer Barry Altschul, and Philip Wilson was the original drummer for Art Ensemble of Chicago. They were followed by Rivers’ trio with percussionist McBee, whose arco technique prompted a comparison to traditional Iranian music by Chris Flicker and Thierry Trombert in Jazz Hot, and Warren Smith, an all-around concert percussionist who played in Charles Mingus’ orchestra at the historic 1962 Town Hall concert – Rivers is approvingly cited for “violently attacking short, ferocious phrases [on tenor], without ever letting himself be outflanked.” Andrew Hill’s set confirms the presence of a suitable piano when Rivbea opened. The evening concluded with Ali’s ensemble with the then legend-spawning guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer.

Smoothly executed events were essential to the successful delivery of the counter festival’s overarching message of artist self-determination – it also signaled Wein that this was a force to be reckoned with, if not co-opted. Wein made his move the following winter, when he proposed a ten-day joint festival with the NYMO, culminating with a night at Alice Tully Hall. This exacerbated growing divisions in the NYMO, who were neither able to cohere a loose network of artists into a unitary structure nor to translate the recognition gained through the counter festival into realizing long-term goals like a music school, their pilot program at Studio We having quickly failed. Sultan and DuBoise were in favor of the alliance, while Ali contended it was a devil’s bargain and tendered his resignation from the board. Upon sealing the deal with Wein, Sultan proclaimed victory in a February manifesto posing as a press release, announcing “a new era for the Black Man. The hierarchy is served notice that a Black musician is a Black Man first and Black musician second. The New York Musicians organization appreciates the financial assistance that the Newport Festival is offering us.”

This put Rivers in a bind. On the one hand, the festival helped put Studio Rivbea on the map; additionally, NYMO continued to support his work, their September Central Park premiere of his Zodiac, a work for approximately 35 musicians and dancers, being their first production after the first counter festival. However, the fiercely self-reliant Rivers was as disapproving of becoming a subsidiary of “the hierarchy” as Ali; but unlike the vocal Ali, Rivers resigned quietly, allowing NYMO to continue to use his name in their press releases and other literature. It is also noteworthy that Rivers was then reemerging from years in the wilderness after his severance from Blue Note. In November ‘72, Holland recruited Rivers, along with Braxton and Altschul, to record Conference of the Birds for ECM. Upon its spring ‘73 release, the album was internationally acclaimed for memorable Holland compositions like “Four Winds” and the title piece, as well for the brilliant interplay within the quartet – it is now considered to be, at the very least, a minor classic. And, it is about this time that Rivers met Steve Backer.

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