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Experimentation is a New York Thing: The Knit Classics(Part 3 – Education and & Free Jazz: The Lofts and The Creative Music Studio)

By Brian L. Knight

In the last few issues issue, the Vermont Review provided a brief overview of the Knitting Factory’s Knit Classics re-release series and the music it represents. This ambitious catalog of music is an impressive overview of the many styles of music that comprise the New York City underground/experimental music. While the Knitting Factory has been a leader of the avant-garde for the last fifteen years, this collection reveals some of the music that predates the club/label’s inception as well as some recordings that have become lost in recent years. In this issue, we will revisit the music of the Loft scene that has been captured on the re-release, Wildflowers. In addition, we will journey north to Creative Music Studio where education and innovation coexisted.

During the 1970s, what was once the "New Thing" (led by John Coltrane, Archie Shepp and Rashied Ali) sound slowly transformed into the "loft scene". The music and its spirit was the same but the name was different. The main difference was the venue to perform the music. Instead of performing in the clubs, the musicians decided to perform in cooperatively managed lofts. During this time many musicians participated in the loft sessions - Lester Bowie , Julius Hemphill, Arthur Blythe, Olu Dara, James Newton, Oliver Lake to name a few. The most notable was saxophonist Sam Rivers who set up RivBea Studio right inside his SoHo Loft. Created with his wife Bea, River’s loft was originally intended to serve as a practice room but it soon transcended into a live performance area. For seven spring days in 1976, Rivers hosted the Wildflowers concerts. Comprising of 100 different musicians, the sessions embodies the collective spirit of the jazz arena in the 1970s. Thanks to Knit Classics, the Wildflower loft jazz sessions are once again available to the human ear. Knit Classics reissue producer Jim Eigo comments on the sessions: "Studio RivBea was a very special place. I spent many nights there listening to and learning from all the great players who were part of the loft jazz scene."

Jazz critic Nat Hentoff spoke of Sam Rivers, "Rivers is very much a complete tenor man. His technique is remarkable and the depth and fullness of his tone recall the vibrant amplitude of the older tradition of jazz tenor playing. He is, moreover, a continually adventurous improviser, but while Rivers is in context in the avant-garde, he does not experiment haphazardly. His has a disciplined inventiveness with a secure sense of form. Furthermore, like all the best of the jazz explorers, he is motivated to try new approaches by a desire to deepen and expand his emotional expressivity."

In addition to Studio RivBea, other noted lofts were the Studio We and the Ladies' Fort. These lofts were held in old industrial warehouses in New York City’s Greenwich Village and Lower east Side. The jazz clubs of the time, such as the Village Vanguard, the Five Spot Café and Birdland, were only booking noted players and allowing minimal opportunity for "out" players to have an audience. There were many music collectives, which predated the 1970s loft scene. In 1960, Max Roach and Charles Mingus formed the Alternative New Port Festival, which was a protest against the New Port Jazz Festival’s mainstream lineup. This group soon segued into the Jazz Artists Guild. In the mid 1960s, musicians like Sun Ra, Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor formed the Jazz Composers Guild. The most notable of all music collectives was Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Music, which spawned the careers of the Art ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton and Wadada Leo Smith.

One of the interesting groups to perform that week was Flight To Sanity who played the 10+ minute "The Need To Smile². This band consisted of Harold Smith (drums), Byard Lancaster (tenor saxophone), Art Bennett(soprano saxophone), Olu Dara(trumpet), Sonelius Smith(piano), Benny Wilson(bass), and Don Moye(conga). Don Moye, with his inventive use of percussion, was the backbone of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Dara, who also sits in for Hamiet Bluiett’s "Tranquil Beauty" and David Murray’s "Shout Song"(Murray was another player on Ulmer’s album.), took a complete musical reversal in 1988 when he gave op on the avant-garde trumpet and picked up the guitar to play southern blues. The presence of Bluiett, Murray as well Oliver Lake signified ¾’s of the World Saxophone Quartet, which formed a year later. In a conversation with Pete Gershon of Signal to Noise Magazine, the session’s producer, Michael Cuscuna described the aura "The word was out on the project, so lots of musicians were drifting in and out. Sam’s loft was spacious and the working conditions were good. The atmosphere was relaxed and, like a jazz festival, musicians had a chance to check out what each other was doing."


The Creative Music Studio

Through the eyes of the mainstream media, Woodstock is always associated with three days of Peace and Love. The next level of musical recognition is the Band and especially their album Music from the Big Pink, which was named after their pink house in the rural upstate New York town. After that, Woodstock is often associated with Bearsville Studios where everyone from Paul Butterfield to Phish has recorded. Next, Woodstock is known for being the home for artists like David "Fathead" Newman, Jack DeJohnette and Pat Metheny. The funny thing is that the most creative music enterprise to exist in Woodstock is probably the less known. This organization is the Creative Music Studio, which was formed in 1971 by vibraphonist Karl Berger, and Ornette Coleman. Berger, who grew up in Germany, was a long time fan of Coleman’s music. In a discussion with Bob Sweet, the author of Music Universe, Music Mind: Revisiting the Creative Music Studio, Woodstock, New York , Berger talked about his love of Coleman: " When I first heard the Ornette Coleman Quartet, I guess that’s when I first decided to really be a jazz musician. That was the music that I wanted to play – just like that, free music that was rhythmical. That is still what I like best."

Before Berger met up with Coleman to form the Creative Music Studio, he met trumpeter Don Cherry, who was a member of Coleman’s 1960s bands. When Berger finally arrived in New York City, he was introduced to Coleman and the CMS came to fruition. Though conceived in 1971, the studio did not come a tangible reality until 1973. For the next 11 years, upstate New York, not Chicago or New York City, was ground zero for improvised and free music. Bob Sweet describes the Creative Music Studio: "The Creative Music Studio was not a place to come to learn how to play an instrument or to study any specific style. It was an environment in which musicians, regardless of their levels of proficiency, could give full attention to the universal elements of music and receive guidance from advanced professionals in developing a personal relationship with those elements. With a keener sense of what it really means to be in tune and in time, the individual is much better prepared to develop a freer, more personal expression within whatever musical context he or she chooses." Some of the Creative Music Studio’s "Guiding Artists" were John Abercrombie, Bob Moses, Don Moye, Sunny Murray, Trilok Gurtu, Babatunde Olatunji, Ed Blackwell, Carla Bley, Lester Bowie, Anthony Braxton, John Cage, Ronald Shannon Jackson, John Zorn, Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre and Oliver Lake. As one can see from this list, there are veterans of the New York City Loft Scene, the New York City Downtown Scene, the Association for the Advancement of Create Music, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and students of harmolodics and free funk. Sweet further describes the studio: "The Creative Music Studio comprised an actual community in which music and the creative process were fused into a lifestyle that brought students of all levels into contact with seasoned, improvising professionals of the highest stature"

Just like the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival was actually located in Bethel, the Creative Music Studio is located in West Hurly, a town adjacent to Woodstock. In 1981, a series of performances occurred to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the festival. There is a set that features an all star band of pianist Chick Corea, drummer Jack DeJohnette, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, and bassist Miroslav Vitous. Another set features the same band that is also joined by guitarist Pat Metheny and alto saxophonist Anthony Braxton. The weather may have been bad that September day, but the music overcame the climate as these leaders of 1980s jazz (with the exception of Konitz) lived up to the principle of the organization they were celebrating and played some truly creative music. Unfortunately, four years later, the studio closed its doors permanently.

In one of the Creative Music Studio promotional books, founder Karl Berger described the mission of the studio: "The art of improvisation, in the foreground of contemporary musical practice, is an art of self discipline. Far from being a practice second to notated composition, it has been a means for even more precise personal expression in all the world's musical cultures, including the West. Studies of the world's musical cultures are to a large extent, studies in the art of improvisation; observations of attitudes and approaches are not merely interesting as exotic objects of study, but are directly inspiring as examples of this discipline. No matter what material one chooses to use today, this basic attitude of self discipline towards precision in all details must be developed"

Although the Creative Music Studio is no longer and the Lofts are now a memory, the musicians who participated in and attended the workshops/sessions carry on the spirit of the music. And now the celebratory concert is available for all to hear through Knit Classics. Through this series, the folks at the Knitting Factory have become the primary source for experimental music. Through their nightclub and own label, the present day experimenters such as Steven Bernstein, Wayne Horvitz and John Zorn have a medium to convey their music. No, through the Knit Classics series, the experimentation of yore is equally available. Visit the Knitting factory at http://www.knittingfactory.com/


Go to Part I