Sept. 30, 2008

Jazz summit: Artists reunite to discuss SoHo in the 1970s

Jazz greats, artists, friends and collaborators reminisced and riffed both musically and conversationally during the American Artistic Renaissance Symposium, a historic reunion of 1970s SoHo artists, Sept. 23-24 at Cornell.

"It was an exciting time -- it was evolving," said James Jordan, who arrived in New York City in 1970 to work with Ornette Coleman. "There were a lot of musicians, artists, poets and dancers all in one place."

Panel discussions featured Jordan and free-jazz musicians Henry Threadgill, Charlie Haden, Sam Rivers and Jerome Cooper; painter Fred Brown; poet and activist Felipe Luciano; photographer Anthony Barboza; pioneering video artist Tony Ramos; dancer-choreographer Blondell Cummings; dancer-visual artist Megan Bowman Brown and others. They recounted the explosion in collective creativity that took place in downtown Manhattan more than 30 years ago.

"To me, jazz is a political music -- it was a struggle to get your music heard," said Haden, who came to New York in 1959.

Thanks to cheap rents and an influx of creative talent drawn to the city, collaborations bloomed at Coleman's Artists House and in downtown lofts, studios, galleries and clubs.

"These places were small, but they were incubators for art that was moving forward," said moderator Brent Edwards, a Columbia University professor who is writing a cultural history of loft jazz. Cornell professor of music Steven Pond also helped coordinate the symposium and moderated a panel on "SoHo Outcomes."

Rivers also had a loft rehearsal space, and Cooper practiced with his new group in one of Brown's early studios.

"The Revolutionary Ensemble rehearsed every day in my loft while I was painting -- I'd advertise for nude models, the models would come over, and the musicians would always show up on time," Brown said during the panel "Time and Place: SoHo as a Creative Magnet in the 1970s."

Brown has painted some 450 portraits of jazz and blues artists, soon to be an international touring exhibition. Trained as an architect, he helped the venues meet building codes. "Everything that the Five Spot and the Vanguard didn't have, I made for them," he said. "All these places were not given the respect for what they were for America's indigenous art form."

The panels yielded many historical footnotes. Theater impresario Joseph Papp provided invaluable support in the 1970s, booking many of their endeavors at his Public Theater. Jordan helped direct state arts funding to new, experimental art forms. The SoHo artists' innovative collaborations inspired the Next Wave series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The New York punk scene at CBGB also evolved concurrently with the SoHo creative movement.

"You had this whole infusion of ideas at the same time," Threadgill said.

The artists made the most of cross-cultural influences and alternative spaces, Cummings said.

"We were transporting audiences from one space to another," she said. "Changing spaces could help you expand your use of space and how to move through it. We were incorporating media; we were working with writers and visual artists and ... training them to work with us in our own medium. It was the advent of video as well. It allowed me to collaborate with a lot of different artists who affected my work."

It all came to an end, as Jordan, Threadgill and Ramos noted, when the artists' new, more affluent neighbors began to complain about noise and "people on the street."

The participants also jammed Sept. 23 in Barnes Hall, featuring Cooper on percussion and wooden flute, Rivers and Threadgill on saxophones, and bassist Haden joined by David Skorton on jazz flute.

Brown and Threadgill are both discussing the donation of their archives to the Cornell Library, and conversations have begun with others. Brown has kept extensive scrapbooks and other materials documenting his career, archivist Elaine Engst said. The entire symposium was recorded on video to add to documentation of the SoHo renaissance.