Loft Jazz: Not for Everybody
The Value of the Avant-Garde (Part 2).
In The Value of the Avant-Garde I talked about how avant-garde music, and avant-garde elements in popular music, have influenced me as a musician and guitarist, from '60's psychedelia (Hendrix, The Beatles, King Crimson etc) to John Cage to jazz musicians like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Archie Shepp and Sun Ra.
I singled out Ornette Coleman, James Blood Ulmer and Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal as particularly potent avant-garde influences on me personally.
Another bundle of avant-garde influences stem from the loft scene in New York in the seventies.
Loft jazz (or the loft scene or loft era) was a cultural phenomenon that occurred in New York City during the mid-1970s. Jazz critic and author Gary Giddins described it as follows: "[A] new coterie of avant-garde musicians took much of the jazz world by surprise... seemingly overnight, new venues - in many instances, apartments or lofts (hence the phrase 'loft jazz') - opened shop to present their wares." Michael Heller stated that "loft practices came to be defined by a number of key characteristics, including (1) low admission charges or suggested donations, (2) casual atmospheres that blurred the distinction between performer and audience, (3) ownership/administration by musicians, and (4) mixed-use spaces that combined both private living areas and public presentation space." Regarding the music played in these venues, Michael J. Agovino wrote: "This was community music. Part of the point was that, free of the strictures of clubs, the music could be anything, go anywhere, go on for as long as it wanted." David Such stated that "the cutting contests, personality cults, and vices that characterized the jazz scene of the 1940s and 1950s were mostly missing." Musically, loft jazz was in many ways a continuation of the free jazz and avant-garde jazz traditions inaugurated by John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, and Sun Ra. Few loft jazz musicians played continuously atonal or arrhythmic music. They often combined conventional melodic elements with free jazz, used instruments less familiar to jazz and combined instruments in nontraditional formats. The loft scene began to decline in the late 1970s and early 1980s, mainly due to a steady rise in rents.
Somewhere around 1980 I obtained an album called, Wildflowers 3: The New York Loft Jazz Sessions. From the liner notes:
Many Of the most important changes of the 1970s are now taking place in the loft performing spaces that have emerged in New York as an alternative to the commercially-oriented clubs and concert halls. Run cooperatively by the musicians themselves, these lofts have become centers of creative activity by providing an environment outside the inhibiting pressures of the music business for the ongoing experimentation that is the lifeblood of the music...
The Douglas Wildflower Series was recorded at the loft home of saxophonist-composer Sam Rivers during seven nights of the New York loft jazz scene - a five record collection of 22 performances by over 60 major musicians.
This was the record that first exposed me to the New York loft scene. My interest in this music was simply a continuation of the avant-garde sensibilities I was pursuing in Ornette Coleman, James Blood Ulmer and Terje Rypdal; I was interested in pushing musical boundaries, and being open to those who were doing so.
One track on this record - track 2: Clarity - led me to Michael Jackson.
No, not THE Michael Jackson; guitarist Michael Gregory Jackson.
So it turns out Michael Gregory Jackson was an integral part of the New York loft scene:
“Michael Gregory Jackson…first made waves…in New Yorks' loft-jazz scene of the 1970s. Working alongside such major innovators as Oliver Lake, David Murray, and Wadada Leo Smith, he quietly laid the groundwork for much of what we take for granted in the contemporary jazz-guitar vocabulary.” — National Sawdust, Brooklyn 2019
I straightway went out, found and bought Karmonic Suite. It's more-or-less a duo record with Oliver Lake, recorded and released in 1978. Here's track 1: When We Got There:
Here's an example of his acoustic playing from a different album:
Here he is in 2015 with a trio at Berkeley School of Music in Boston, playing a guitar synth:
Incidentally, does the drummer on the Berkeley gig, Kenwood Dennard, ring a bell? Prolly not. 'Cause, by definition, avant-garde music is not for most people; but it sure rings a bell for me!
Kenwood Dennard was the drummer on Pat Martino's 1976 foray into Jazz Fusion and guitar synthesis, Joyous Lake.
Pat Martino is one of THE most influential players ever to my guitar playing - definitely in the top 5. He's not known as avant-garde, more mainstream jazz, although with a unique voice on the instrument, but a couple of his records, Joyous Lake and Starbright, contain strong avant-garde elements.
I have dozens of Martino recordings on vinyl, cassettes and CDs.
I've met him several times, but those stories will be for another time.
Back to Michael Gregory Jackson; in The Value of the Avant-Garde, I argued that avant-garde music influences the mainstream in many ways. The popular music - or maybe the not-so-popular music - that you love and listen to wouldn't be what it is without the avant-garde.
Before reading this, you'd probably never heard of the New York loft scene, or of Michael Gregory Jackson. But you have, indirectly. He's recorded or performed with Nile Rodgers (Chic), Carlos Santana, Vernon Reid (Living Color), Stevie Winwood, Walter Becker (Steely Dan), Patti LaBelle, Anton Fig (the drummer on the David Letterman show), Omar Hakim (drummer for Sting), Tony Thompson (Chic, Robert Palmer, Led Zeppelin), Ole Romer, Bernard Davis (Sam and Dave, Mariah Carey) - and these are just the pop artists and bands you are most likely to recognize; there are dozens and dozens of others.
If you happen to hear me play in a venue somewhere and happen to like what you hear (I hope!), I wouldn't sound the way I do without the avant-garde influences of Ornette Coleman, Jimi Hendrix, Terje Rypdal, James Blood Ulmer, John Coltrane, Robert Fripp, Charlie Parker, Sun Ra and countless others. In fact, my guitar playing is influenced by everything I've ever heard - including Michael Gregory Jackson.
“Michael Gregory Jackson has long been one of my favorite musicians... I have always considered him to be one of the most significantly original guitarists of our generation with his own distinctive sound and point of view. I am always curious to know ... where his inspiration has taken him next.” - Pat Metheny
“I believe he’s one of the unsung innovators.” - Bill Frisell
Michael Gregory Jackson is not for everybody. By definition, the avant-garde is not for everybody. In fact, by definition, it's not for most people. But everybody benefits from it, sooner or later.
As a musician, I'm open to anything that will give me vocabulary, ideas and inspiration to continue to grow in my abilities to express myself, and the Other.
And that is the value of the avant-garde.
He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
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