Interview Series: Michael Heller, Loft Jazz

by Jarek Ervin on May 1, 2017

Michael HellerLoft Jazz

In Loft Jazz: Improvising New York in the 1970s (UC Press, 2016), Michael Heller explores the complex history of the loft jazz scene. This past March, John Petrucelli conducted an expansive interview with Heller, examining the entangled archival, social, and historical dynamics explored in the book. Loft Jazz weaves a narrative arc that relies upon the shifting socio-economic, cultural, and racial discourses within New York City as well as the spirit of self-determination and experimentalism that drove transformations in the jazz scene. In Part I, “Histories,” Heller argues the period is best understood “not as a musical style or even a type of venue, but rather as an interrelated set of presentational practices” (60). This model provides a wide lens through which to examine the explosion of self-produced programming in 1970s New York. Part II, “Trajectories,” frames the discussion with an exploration of broad themes ranging from freedom and community to space and the archive.


John Petrucelli: It seems like this project has its origins in the master’s thesis you wrote at Rutgers. Can you talk a little bit about how your approach or perspective shifted over time throughout the formulation of the loft jazz scene?

Michael C. Heller: Well, you can actually trace the prehistory of it even further back than that – this project really had its genesis in work I was doing in the early 2000s with the Vision Festival in New York. While I was organizing the festival, I was talking to all these musicians who had come up in the lofts and were speaking about how vibrant it was and how exciting it was. I was an undergrad at the time and had no knowledge of the period at all and couldn’t find anything about it in history books and so forth. So, I started getting more interested in talking to musicians themselves. I did some very early research projects on it when I was still an undergrad – looking at things like the 1972 New York Musicians Festival. So that’s been something I’ve been engaging with for a long time. The master’s thesis you talked about focuses on three particular festivals that start in 1960 and go to 1972. So, it’s definitely still engaged with the topic of musicians as self-promoters, musicians as activists, musicians as organizers and the political ramifications of that. That work was much more historical in nature – a lot more in that thesis was just going through and really trying to reconstruct what happened in a blow-by-blow way. The new book does some of that in relation to the lofts but really wants to dig more deeply into why it was such a meaningful period for these musicians – why did it resonate so much? Which is why I decided to structure it not just about particular events, but about the sorts of discourses and things that musicians were talking about in relation to the period.

JP: Your book is organized into two parts: “Histories” and “Trajectories.” In your introduction, you discuss how you could have relayed the story of the loft scene with a more conventional approach. Ultimately, you argue that your work is based upon the ethic of reconstruction. Why is the construct of narrative so important to you and seemingly so important to contemporary jazz studies?

MH: I think one of the things I came up against in working on the lofts is that it would have been really hard to write a conventional history. There’s no center to the movement. It’s very dispersed and there are things happening over here and over there in these little pockets of activity. So I couldn’t treat it like the festivals. Even if I had chosen 15 or so lofts, there are still dozens of others that were popping up in other places. It never could have been comprehensive. So instead, I decided that I didn’t want to get mired in that at all. I wanted to really talk to a lot of musicians who are involved and sort of to try to parse out the themes, the discourses that were important to them.

In terms of the broader approaches to jazz studies, I mentioned that I’m influenced by a lot of the jazz studies work since the ‘90s that sort of moves away from standard history toward broader themes engaging with cultural studies, critical studies and so forth. Partially too, I’m hoping this work resonates outside of the jazz world. When you write a book where it’s about a jazz topic and it’s just really focused in on, “these are the recordings that they made,” “this is why they are important,” “this is who they play with,” that all resonates with jazz readership who already know those things and are already on board. But it’s hard to convince people from outside of the jazz sphere that they should find it important. I’m hoping that some of these discourses have things that resonate outside of that, that resonate within music and politics circles or resonate within archival studies circles. That’s one I’m really hoping will get some more play because there are bigger themes that have lessons to teach no matter what the reader is interested in musically.

JP: Who is Juma Sultan? Can you talk about the development of your relationship with him?

MH: I met Juma when working on my master’s thesis. He is one of these figures who just seems like his entire life has been moving from one momentous movement to the next. He was born near Southern California in the early ‘40s, and then made his way up to San Francisco in time to be there for the height of the Haight-Ashbury scene and the emergence of the Black Panthers in San Francisco. Then he decided to move east and came just in time for both this Lower Manhattan arts scene and the blooming of Woodstock as an artist colony in the 1960s. He was just someone who was there at every stage of it. Oh, and he was Jimi Hendrix’s drummer! That’s the thing that most people know him for. I can’t remember if I mentioned this in the book, but when I first contacted him to talk about the lofts, one of the things that intrigued him was he said, “I get 10 or 15 calls a year from music researchers and it’s always people who want to talk about Hendrix. You’re almost the first person that called and wanted to talk about the loft scene.”

When I first talked to him, I just wanted to interview him. He was just sort of one of these figures connected to these festivals and I wanted to hear his story. At one point during our interview, he said, “You know, I’ve got a bunch of tapes from the period.” I didn’t even really think about it then, but he said, “Well, let me send you a video that I’m making.” At the time he was in the process of applying for grants. He was working with professors from Clarkson University in upstate New York. They had made this little DVD package for funders. I think it was called “The Lost Archives of Juma Sultan,” and it showed this collection that was sitting in a barn at the time. You could just see the camera panning across boxes and boxes of these tapes. So I realized that 1.) there were tons of them and 2.) they were all kind of falling apart. It was just this incredible moment for me of, “Oh this isn’t just a guy who has a handful of tapes, this is a real substantial archive of a period that’s not well documented at all.”

When I was in the process of proposing my doctoral dissertation, that’s when the thought first came to me of doing a project that was jointly historical—looking at these materials for what information was contained in them—but was also ethnographic: working with Sultan to see what could be done with his collection. And that’s really the first time I got into this sort of archival practice of the whole thing. A central piece of the ethnography was working alongside him processing these things, making digital transfers, making catalogs, and so on.

It was funny because when I first went out there – this was in 2009 – I’d gotten a grant to be out there for six months to do fieldwork and I was sort of naively under the impression of, “Oh, this is a collection. I’ll do research in it, I’ll help out a little bit and I’ll be fine.” I’m picturing it like I’m going into some state archive that’s…

JP: That’s already been organized and prepared…

MH: Yes, and I got there and it was nothing like that! It was literally just a pile of boxes. And to Juma, I was this guy coming from a university to help him organize his stuff. So, we had to sort of figure it out… both of us had different expectations from what ended up happening and we had to figure out how to navigate that. But we ended up developing a really close working relationship and it’s been good.

JP: You discuss space and the special urban ecology of New York in the late 1960s. I find it fascinating to consider the parallels between the opposing interest happening in jazz in tandem with the social environmental and physical landscape of New York’s Lower East Side.

MH: Yeah. It’s a fascinating moment where all of a sudden, the space is not the issue. Which like if you look at New York today, it’s the exact opposite. Getting space anywhere today is incredibly expensive, especially in Manhattan. But at this particular moment, there were spaces that were just completely unused, often falling apart. It’s not like these were pristine spaces, but landlords didn’t know what to do with them.

In a nutshell, what happened was that after World War II, there was an enormous exodus of industry that left Lower Manhattan. There were all of these buildings down there that had been built for handmade manufacturing, things like textiles and machinery in the late nineteenth-century. And when you were building these handmade production factories, you needed a few things. You needed a big open work floor and you needed a lot of windows so that people could see what they’re doing. Well, after World War II, a lot of this kind of production was getting automated more so it starts to move out to bigger industrial factories, some of which were outside of the city and some of which were in other parts of the country entirely. So, all of these big spaces that existed were going unused.

Normally, what a developer would want to do is say, “Alright, well, these buildings aren’t in use anymore. Let’s tear them down and build things that we can use for something else.” But this was also the beginning of the historic preservation movement. People were getting buildings and sometimes entire neighborhoods designated as landmarks, which meant that you couldn’t alter the facades of the buildings. So, this happened first in the West Village through some of the work of Jane Jacobs and people like that. And then ultimately it happened in SoHo as well, particularly the cast iron facades on some of these buildings. The other factor is that there were these enormous plans that had been in the works for decades that were looking to completely remake Lower Manhattan. There was a proposal to build this enormous highway called The Lower Manhattan Expressway that would have just decimated things. A lot of buildings would have needed to be torn down or would have been just completely in the shadow of this highway. Landlords didn’t know what to do because they didn’t want to put a ton of money into their buildings because they might be completely worthless in a few years anyway. In the meantime, these buildings were just going unused.

Artists started flowing in and filling that void in the ‘60s. This makes it a very different environment than what you see in other parts of the country, where music collectives are arising in Chicago and St. Louis and so forth. It’s a different scene where it’s possible to – it’s very easy in fact – to have a lot of activities, a lot of concerts and jam sessions and so forth. So, it ends up becoming a much more dispersed network of activities as opposed to a centralized collective.

JP: Let me follow-up with you on one issue that you just brought up: the issue of community. Which you evoke throughout the book and then devote, you know, a chapter specifically to the topic of community. But one of the more fascinating points I think you bring out is the notion of “un-community” that happens as well with these spaces. Can you talk a little bit just about that?

MH: Well, I remember the moment in my research where this really was particularly striking. I was talking to a musician named Cooper-Moore, a pianist who also builds his own instruments – percussion instruments and electronics and so forth. He had a space called “501 Canal Street” that he lived in with a group of other musicians. And one of the things he talked about was how having one of these spaces meant being there all the time. You spent all of your time trying to get the space up and running, you spend all your time rehearsing there and performing there, and it sort of dis-incentivized needing to go out and being a part of the larger jazz scene. And for him, that was very isolating because he had to devote all of this time and energy towards the place where he was living and working and he didn’t get out and circulate more. I remember I interviewed Cooper-Moore at his home in Harlem, and he said, “There was nothing in the ‘70s that I have like I have now… around here I know all of my neighbors. When my son was young, I would take him around to businesses and say, ‘This is my son, take care of him if you see him around.’” But in the ‘70s it was really just him and his musician friends working in a neighborhood that was sort of abandoned.

I talked to other musicians who told me similar stories. There was sort of a theme among several musicians who became so involved in organizing that they couldn’t focus on their own art. I refer to this as the “organizer’s dilemma” because once someone got a reputation as, “Oh, this person is a good organizer,” then other musicians would come to them and say, “Oh, can you plan a concert?” “Can you do this?” and they could quickly get caught up in the administrative thing.

JP: You write that the lofts had mostly dissipated by the early ‘80s. I’m curious to hear what are your thoughts regarding the current scene in New York? Do you still see the influence of the period and its organizing ethos? Is this a model that has continued in other places or found new life because of the confluence of social, physical, and musical movements elsewhere?

MH: Yes, absolutely. That’s another one of the reasons I really wanted to write the book. Part of it is that musicians who came up in that scene continued to have this organizing ethos of “let’s do it ourselves, let’s create our own performance opportunities.” So, the Vision Festival, for example, is a direct outcropping of that; the organizer, Patricia Nicholson Parker, speaks of it as an outgrowth of the loft scene. But you’re right that it’s also happening in disconnected individual ways in other parts of the city as well. Now, a lot of it has moved out to Brooklyn. Lower Manhattan has become so expensive, that, you know, you could never support that kind of movement. But when you get out into Brooklyn and it’s sort of slowly spreading further out, you still do find these factory shows and spaces that are organized on a grassroots level. It has also spread to other parts of the country and the world as well. I mean, the idea of loft venues is something you hear all over the place now. Sometimes it’s just like a marketing term. It’s listed as, you know, this is “The Jazz Loft.” But in a lot of places, it does have that kind of ethos.

JP: Yes. I’m sure you’re aware of the current dilemma facing the Jazz Gallery: when they initially set up the venue they knew that the lease they signed required extensive soundproofing in order to be eligible for renewal. Fortunately they were able to put together a successful campaign to raise over $50,000!

MH: Well, I mean, this is the problem. This is why artists – and not just musicians, but visual artists too – get so frustrated. If you look at the history of a neighborhood like SoHo, it was a completely abandoned part of the city when artists first started moving into it in the ‘60s and ‘70s. And it’s really the artists who turned it around by developing this cultural scene by making it a place that people wanted to come visit. And once that happens – once it becomes a hot destination – then the real estate developers start coming back in and rent skyrockets. I can’t tell you how many stories I heard about people who would run venues and say, “Oh yeah, and then our landlord tripled our rent overnight and we had to leave.”

What is interesting is that a lot of the lofts were not in SoHo proper. For visual artists’ lofts, SoHo was the center of the movement. This meant that SoHo prices were already going up by the early ‘70s because of its reputation. A lot of the jazz lofts, if you look at a map, aren’t inside the official boundaries of SoHo. They’re in the neighborhoods all around that. They’re in NoHo, they’re in the Lower East Side. Some are super far west over by the river. Part of it is because these were cheaper places. The rent increases started in SoHo and then sort of gradually spread out from there. And so, the musicians were sort of ahead of that.

JP: You begin “Part 2: Trajectories” with a nuanced discussion of freedom. This multiplicity of descriptive and aesthetic purposes often can lead to confusion and/or conflation of the different strands of narrative. Did you encounter any problems or challenges in writing this chapter? What method or methods of organization did you find useful in writing or editing your work?

MH: I think the impetus for that chapter and the “Communities” chapter too is the fact that the idea of freedom gets talked about a lot, but is somewhat overdetermined. People meant a lot of different things when they said “freedom.” And in particular, I heard a lot of distinctions between something that I refer to as “collectivism,” this ethos of “let’s start an organization and develop a set of bylaws and rules and goals and methodically pursue those goals in a disciplined way.” That’s on one side. And on the other side is what I refer to as “communalism,” something emerging much more out of ‘60s counter-culture movements: “Let’s get a space, let’s live without hierarchies, let’s make art and enjoy each other’s company and live off the grid.” There were overlaps between those, and musicians would sort of float in between them. But they are very different kinds of enterprises.

So I was trying to parse out what people mean by “freedom.” Do they mean the freedom to be recognized and to pursue a successful career? Do they mean the freedom to be left alone to do their own thing? It was difficult to disentangle. I was really interested in trying my best to do just that. I sort of look at freedom from a number of different perspectives and tried my best to unpack it. I don’t know if I come up with solutions as much as I raise different ways of looking at it.

JP: My final question, well not really a question, more of a statement that I’m hoping you can elaborate on. The notion of an archive – what it is and what it can be. I’m thinking in particular the statement you make in your introduction about archives in jazz as a generative force.

MH: That comes out of an idea from Michel Foucault in The Archaeology of Knowledge. And he’s using it really as a metaphor for discourse in general whereas I’m applying it to actual physical archives. Contemporary history has showed that there’s not one historical narrative that happens; there are a million ways to construct the history of any one particular object. And those histories inevitably draw from some kind of archive, some sort of set of data, facts, materials, objects, people, interlocutors to construct those things. It’s not this idea that, “Oh, I’m going to go to the archive and then I’ll prove the real story.” The archive presents a set of possibilities and depending on what you pull out of the archive, it can generate a number of different sorts of narratives. And where this becomes interesting for this book is that by shifting the archive you’re working from, it becomes possible to generate a different set of narratives. If I was just looking at commercial records, for instance, there would only be certain stories that I could tell because there were relatively few records made. By shifting to a particular archive like Sultan’s, then I can tell a whole another group of stories. And that doesn’t mean that those are all the stories, either. Sultan’s archive is limited and it’s focused on his particular work and it presents a particular view of the story as well. My hope is that this will inspire others to draw from other kinds of archives and other kinds of initiatives to flesh this out. But I hope the larger methodological thrust of the book is to convey the resonance that archives carry.

JP: Because it’s not just the recordings you’re shifting away from to tell this story. It’s sort of the recording continuum, the publications and the discourse surrounding those recordings as well.

MH: Right. And I’m not the first to do this. But, the whole thing is that, traditionally, recordings have been the main centerpiece for a lot of jazz writing over the last fifty years. You look at recordings, then you look at things like magazines and reviews of recordings and so forth. That can get you very far in a lot of places. But it makes it harder to look at things like, you know, the communities surrounding the music. Who are the people teaching these musicians in schools or on the street? Who are the people organizing concerts who don’t get talked about in record reviews? Who are the musicians that didn’t get recorded, but that were integral to the scene? What kinds of things were the musicians reading either in terms of literature or political materials? These become really interesting questions. Work that focuses on such questions can present a picture of a musical community as opposed to a canon of artists.

Michael C. Heller is an ethnomusicologist and Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Pittsburgh. His research focuses on the post-60s jazz avant garde, musician-organized collectives, sound studies, and archival theory. Heller has published research or reviews in Jazz Research Journal, Sound Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Jazz Perspectives, and the Journal of the American Musicological Society.

John Petrucelli is a jazz saxophonist, composer, and Teaching Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh. He is currently completing his dissertation entitled Beyond the Sound Barrier: Improvisation, Repertoire, and Narrativity in the Wayne Shorter Quartet, 2000-2015.

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