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by Seth Colter Walls

May 14, 2014

Jazz 101: NYC Lofts

by Seth Colter Walls  |  May 14, 2014

Jazz history is massive enough at this point to be a touch intimidating. With so many box sets and so many compilations to choose from, where to start? We've got you covered, era by era, with our Jazz 101 series, which you can follow here. Each daily playlist offers up five-star performances, and tips you off to albums with plenty more gold left to explore after the intro course is over. Enjoy.

For a brief time in the mid-1960s -- before Coltrane passed -- avant-garde jazz commanded the mainstream in jazz discussion. But in the late 1970s, when fusion was winning the album-sales race, and hard-boppers were preparing for their restoration in the clubs (soon to come in the 1980s), the more exploratory members of the New York City scene quit the nightlife circuit almost preemptively, and made their new homes in the same lofts that noiseniks and minimalist composers were also inhabiting.

Sam Rivers -- a multi-instrumentalist given to playing a long sax solo before sitting in for a bit on piano during the same jam -- hosted and organized an historic loft space. Whether on a large-ensemble session like Crystals or on a small-ensemble date like Waves, he was unmistakable. Another loft leader, Henry Threadgill -- previously spotted in the Chicago Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians scene -- moved to New York and quickly gained prominence with his ensemble, Air. Others -- like those in the Black Artists Group -- described themselves as influenced by Chicago's AACM school, too. But St. Louis transplants like Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake also had plenty to distinguish themselves, including an enduring connection to R&B and gutbucket blues stylings. (Hemphill and Lake would collaborate on the first edition of the World Saxophone Quartet.)

Later, in the mid-'80s, with the town marinating in the seasonings of post-punk, a young saxophonist named John Zorn helped codify what the avant-garde would sound like in 1980s New York. Boundary-busting -- like much of the music of the AACM -- but with a proliferation of new rock and funk forms to draw from, the music was called, simply, "Downtown." Check out the jump-cut thrash-jazz of "You Will Be Shot" to see the turn-on-a-dime intelligence this music still offers. Like most of hip '80s New York, this scene has now moved to Brooklyn. But it remains capable of assaulting your ears in the best of ways.

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