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Loft Jazz: The Politics of Space during the Cold War

Rutgers University Musicological Society Graduate Student Conference; March 8, 2015

This paper explores loft jazz’s development in downtown Manhattan during the 1970s. Specifically, I will argue that the loft jazz movement provided an authentic representation of the United States’ cultural mission against Communism.

After World War II, the United States State Department began viewing culture as a weapon against Soviet expansion. In Manhattan, slums were cleared in order to build cultural institutions such as the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts which builders and donors thought would be a place to showcase the democratization of the arts.

However, Lincoln Center did not achieve the desired affects. As an architectural space, it was built on top of a bulldozed working class neighborhood, its central plaza was hard to reach, and the Center’s rear wall symbolically blocked off an entire street. Although the center incorporated African-American or Puerto Rican related programming, ticket prices inhibited much of that demographic from attending. Paradoxically, critics like Jane Jacobs and Samuel Zipp note how Lincoln Center became a monument representing the very oligarchical ideas the United States was trying to defeat.

However, I propose that the loft jazz movement offered an alternative realization of the United States’ cultural effort against Communism. Funded mostly by Cold War-rationalized patronage of the arts in the 1960s and 1970s, musicians in Manhattan lofts performed in spaces that sought to democratize music: ticket prices were low or by donation only and the audience could sit on the floor and drink wine during these performances. Oftentimes loft jazz musicians moved their performances to public parks as well, where organizers would hold alternative jazz festivals. While lofts and park performances could not contend with the splendor of Lincoln Center, the short-lived loft jazz movement demonstrates one-way democratization of the arts existed in Cold War Manhattan

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