A lost jazz loft space in NYC
Environ sketches by Brian Olewnick
Leroy Jenkins' set-up
by Mark FormanLate in 1974, I started hearing about "Loft Jazz", mostly from posts by the Village Voice's Gary Giddins. The term evoked kind of a magical feeling- jazz that was "lofty" and ethereal. The names Environ, Ali's Alley, and Studio Rivbea all sounded much fresher and more intriguing than the "Village Vanguard" or "Sweet Basil" or other jazz club names that New Yorker knew so well. Somehow I decided to go to check out a show at Environ with Hamiet Bluiett, Julius Hemphill Olu Dara and others. The music was great-like nothing I ever heard before. Alive,vibrant,threatening,free and on a wide-open wooden dance floor with no seats. You could stand or sit on the floor- no tables. There was just the space,the artists, the art, and the listeners.
Afterwards I spoke to the manager of Environ, John Fischer. He's a Belgian-born pianist with a long white mane and ever present multi-colored wool scarf. He was also performing in this Loft Jazz musical scene with artists like Perry Robinson (clarinet), the late Jeanne Lee (vocals), and Gunther Hampel (vibraphone). John had an arrangement with two of the Brubeck boys (Dave's sons Chris and Danny) who let him use about half of the loft space at 476 Broadway right above Grand Street. I was 16 and very idealistic and wanted to get more involved in the scene and soak up this wonderful music. I noticed a sign seeking volunteers on the wall. I had a discussion with Jon and quickly became responsible for booking new events. I recall one of the events that was booked before I started was some guy I never heard of named James Siegfried from Milwaukee doing a solo sax performance. I later on found out that he became James Chance of the Contortions.
Another significant factor of the time period was the relocation of the AACM (the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), from Chicago to NYC. This included founder: Muhal Richard Abrams:piano, the Art Ensemble of Chicago (Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors, Joseph Jarman, Roscoe Mitchell and Don Moye), Chico Freeman (sax), Air (comprised of Henry Threadgill:sax, Fred Hopkins:bass and Steve McCall:drums), multi-wind artist Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins (violin) among others. If that rich listing of free jazz musicians wasn't inspiring enough, there was also the St. Louis BAG-Black Artists Group including Hemphill, Oliver Lake (sax), Bluiett, Joseph Bowie (trombone & brother of Lester) and Charles "Bobo" Shaw (drums). Some other up-and-coming musicians that played there were Arthur Blythe (sax), Olu Dara (trumpet & father of Nas, the well known rapper), and Charles Tyler (sax, former band member of Albert Ayler) who were all regulars on the Environ scene and the associated Loft Jazz scene of the time.
Abrams worked out an an arrangement with Fischer to practice at Environ since there was a piano there. I would often listen to him and sometimes discuss his music with him. His presence at Environ helped attract many of these other musicians to the place (especially his Chicago AACM brethren) since he was widely admired as a patriarch in this community. Muhal was a man comfortable with his role in the community and with his music very centered and unpretentious.
Most of these musician's had difficulty getting work in the established jazz clubs. They were the 'young turks" of the day. Their music didn't fit in a nice little box like Dixieland, swing, bebop, and the other, more mature categories did. In fact, you might hear a little bit of each of them in their sound or none of it. To my knowledge, other than the handful of these lofts, the only option most of them had was playing in Europe, which generally seemed to embrace jazz of all forms, or playing as a sideman, doing some other type of music than where their passions lied. Some of the record labels offering this style of music were the Italian-Black Saint records and Delmar of Chicago. Arista (started by record industry king maker Clive Davis) had Anthony Braxton but that was much more of an anomaly. Charles Tyler had his own label and performance space in Brooklyn. Ultimately, I ended up selling many of these indie records at Environ due to the diffculty of obtaining them and sparsity of their existence outside one of the better stocked Sam Goody stores.
Environ offered an alternative space in performance for performer and for the audience. The whole purpose of the space was the performance, not to sell drinks. The level of interaction between performer and listener were intensified since there were no distractions like wait staff moving drinks and food around or 'chachinging' of cash registers going off during quieter segments of the musical piece being performed.This was a sea change from the traditional jazz club model that had always existed. Environ allowed the artist to play what he truly felt without any pressure from management to play more commercially viable music.
ED NOTE: Other Environ personnel estimate that it closed around late 1979 or early 1980.
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