The rediscovery of a New York music-history landmark is a reason for joy, especially when the past few decades have seen so many physical markers of the city's cultural past lost to gentrification, zoning priorities and general changes in the city's civic DNA. That’s especially true of DIY jazz spaces, which served as flourishing community hubs and would go on to become creative touchpoints but were often disregarded in their day. When the past is acknowledged, it can be as if a lineage needlessly severed is suddenly made whole.
The multinight performance “Studio Rivbea Revisited” celebrates the legacy of one such place: Downtown Manhattan’s great independent, artist-run jazz loft of the 1970s, Studio Rivbea. The concerts will take place at the Gene Frankel Theatre experimental arts space — the original location of Rivbea, which was previously operated by saxophonist Sam Rivers and his wife, Beatrice. The series runs from Jan. 4-8 and features artists who represent the past and future of New York's improvised music. It's produced by local organization Arts For Arts, whose downtown events and annual Vision Festival are primary outlets for New York's free jazz and spiritual jazz scenes.
Traditionalists have marginalized Rivbea and the downtown lofts — the scene was ignored in Ken Burns’ vaunted “Jazz” miniseries, for instance. Yet “Studio Rivbea Revisited” comes at a time when the narrative of late 20th century Black creative music as told by jazz institutions is being challenged, sounds like those made at Rivbea in its heyday are becoming more influential among contemporary composers and performers, and young improvisers are using Rivbea as a model for their own DIY spaces throughout New York.
“It looms large,” said poet, historian and NYU performance studies professor Fred Moten, referring to Studio Rivbea’s stature. “For me, it's like Minton’s Playhouse [in Harlem] or 52nd Street. These are crucial sites for the development of the music, and Rivbea is totally part of that.”
The seed for what would become “Studio Rivbea Revisited” was planted when dancer Patricia Nicholson, who is also a co-founder and artistic director of Arts for Art, was invited by fellow dancer and choreographer Yoshiko Chuma to participate in a performance at the Gene Frankel Theatre. The venue’s address sparked something in her memory.
“It was at 24 Bond Street, which sounded very familiar,” Nicholson said. “‘It must be near where Rivbea was’ – I think I even thought that. And then I went into this space and I recognized it. I couldn't believe I was there again.” It wasn’t long before Nicholson began to dream: “I knew I wanted to do something there immediately.”
When Nicholson was last there in 1973, the six-story building on Bond Street, between Lafayette and Bowery, was already acquiring a sense of New York mythology. The building was owned by artist-activist Virginia Admiral – the mother of actor Robert DeNiro, Jr., who that year had a break-out role in Martin Scorsese's “Mean Streets.” According to her obituary in The New York Times, Admiral was “instrumental in establishing low-cost housing for artists in SoHo.” She’d recently sold the fourth-floor loft to a talented young photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe, who occasionally visited the musical performances hosted by Sam and Beatrice, who went by Bea.
Though not a household name, Sam Rivers was well-established in the jazz world. He was for a short period the saxophonist in Miles Davis’ classic second quintet, before aligning himself with the more experimental music that began to divide the jazz world in the late 1960s. In 1969, he and Bea, who also managed his career, moved into a loft at 24 Bond Street so that the musician could give lessons to supplement his income.
By the following year, their loft joined a number of other artist-run spaces around Lower Manhattan, hosting performances by improvisational musicians whose sound was less welcome in the city’s increasingly conservative jazz clubs. During what became known as the city’s “loft jazz” scene, spaces like Studio Rivbea, singer Joe Lee Wilson’s Ladies’ Fort (one block over at 2 Bond Street), and saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s Artists House (at 131 Prince Street), among others, helped push the new music forward.
Even among these friendlier settings, Rivbea stood out. “You felt welcome in the space,” said bassist William Parker, who often played at Rivbea and has been a cornerstone of New York’s free jazz community for the past 50 years.
“If you [were] a young musician and you walk into the space, you could run into any of your musical heroes, and then the next thing you know, you're playing with them,” Parker said. “You just felt that you weren't watched over, or people weren't counting what you were playing, or criticizing. They were cheering you on, and they were interested in the music.”
A lot of that community energy dissipated in the 1980s, a time Parker marks as “when Ronald Reagan became president, real estate went up, and musicians moved to New Jersey, then to Brooklyn,” or went off to teach at universities. The downtown jazz scene splintered over that time. Parker and Nicholson founded Arts For Art in 1996 partly to realign the city’s musicians.
The do-it-yourself lessons of independent spaces like Studio Rivbea also seeped into the imaginations of multiple generations of players and DJs, whose attitudes were as informed by hip-hop and punk culture as they were by jazz. Isaiah Barr, 27, is a Brooklyn-born saxophonist with Onyx Collective, one of the Lower East Side-based groups whose sound moves fluidly between jazz, soul, funk and rap. He was born over a decade after Studio Rivbea closed its doors in 1979, but said he learned about the space from listening to Sam Rivers’ records, some of which were recorded at the loft, and through being mentored by local musicians like saxophonist Roy Nathanson and guitarist Marc Ribot.
Barr says Rivbea’s example lives on in the intentions of places where Onyx Collective plays. “I feel I've been very fortunate to grow up in New York and see kind of the changes in the remnants of that era,” he said. “I have always been very proactive in thinking about space in general in New York: from a sonic standpoint, but also a communal standpoint of what makes a place suitable or able to house a performance that is intimate and focused around creativity — and not entertainment.”
The spirit of Rivbea was present in 2016, when Barr and Onyx Collective took over a vacant restaurant space they dubbed NYXO on West Broadway to stage their own summerlong music series. “It starts with having that genuine connection with people on your block or in the neighborhood that can create a bridge,” he said, “and trying to then have an audience that's fluid, that doesn't feel like they're not able to connect or speak with the artists.”
For Nicholson, inviting Barr and other younger musicians to play on the “Return to Rivbea” bill had a purpose. “I wanted to book people who played there, and I wanted to book people who would've played there, if then was now,” she said. “I wanted to make it equal.”
Other new-generation players participating include saxophonists James Brandon Lewis, Isaiah Collier and Darius Jones. Among the Rivbea veterans on the bill are Parker, pianist Dave Burrell, bassoonist Karen Borca and trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah. The series also features poets, including Moten, Anne Waldman and Bob Holman. (A full schedule of participants can be found here.)
For Moten, having Studio Rivbea reawaken, especially with a conglomeration of younger and older players, speaks to something inherent in the music. “This is a unique opportunity in the sense that the space is made by the music,” he said. “And even though that space has changed, even though it's different when the music comes back in there — and especially with new generations and musicians playing — then that space will be remade. We remake these spaces with our practices.”
Maybe our cities, too.
“Studio Rivbea Revisited” runs Jan. 4-8 at the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond St., and all performances will also stream live online; go here for details and ticket information.