"It started out in a very humble kind of way," says pianist John Kordalewski of what continues this week as the Sixth Annual D.C. Loft Jazz Festival at d.c. space.
"It was mostly musicians who were just kind of getting together and playing in the loft at d.c. space, jam sessions and stuff like that. We got some coverage in the media and a decent audience, so we said, okay, this is a viable idea and a way to do something with the Washington musicians and get some interest going. When the loft closed we moved it downstairs and kept the name, because the loft idea represented a situation where musicians are free to use the creative ideas they have without feeling that they shouldn't go ahead and try something because the club owner might not like it.
"We knew that if we were going to make the idea into something that would really support the musicians," Kordalewski adds, "we had to build this whole nonprofit structure, which has been a struggle." That structure, District Curators, is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and has proved in its six years of existence to be a leading force in the city's cultural life.
In addition to the annual loft festival, a showcase for area jazz musicians, the organization has produced events featuring The Globe Unity Orchestra from Europe, the Philip Glass Ensemble, mixed-media performance artist Laurie Anderson and Japanese dancers Sankai Juku. Hundreds of internationally known jazz musicians have been brought here by District Curators, the long roster including pianists Cecil Taylor and Abdullah Ibrahim, saxophonists Arthur Blythe and Sam Rivers, and trombonist Craig Harris.
"We have always made room for whoever is doing something legitimate and serious in a more adventurous vein," says Kordalewski, who has coordinated the jazz program for District Curators since its inception.
The pattern he outlined follows so closely the brief history of the jazz lofts in New York in the '70s that the second-floor loft at d.c. space and what grew out of it can be looked upon as a sort of microcosm of the New York loft scene. The experiences of trumpeter Malachi Thompson, whose Freebop band will perform tomorrow night, confirm the analogy.
"When I first moved to New York in 1974, I lived in a loft over on the East Side," Thompson says. "There was a loft on each of the three floors and a business on the ground floor. Matter of fact, there were musicians living on each floor, and out of this we formed the Tenth Street Band. We started doing loft parties, and after gigs a lot of guys would hang out in the lofts and jam all night. The main purpose was for musicians to get together and experiment with their stuff without being under the pressure of being at a club. The press jumped on the loft scene and coined the phrase 'loft jazz.' Loft events were covered by the New York Times, and people started coming from all over the world because they found that that's where the real music was."
He names a few of the better known lofts -- the Ladies' Fort, Ali's Alley, Studio Rivbea -- and points out that some of them won nonprofit status and received grants, festivals were held at the lofts and several became successful nightclubs. "After a while rents started going up, and it became like a very fashionable-type thing," says Thompson, who moved to D.C. several years ago. But while it lasted, he says, it was a place where the jazz fan could go "and there wasn't any waiters or waitresses hassling you to buy drinks and the musicians were accessible -- you could sit down and talk with the cats. And out of the loft scene a lot of musicians built their reputations."
The Sixth Annual D.C. Loft Jazz Festival, which opens tomorrow at d.c. space with the Windmill Saxophone Quartet and Thompson's group, continues through Saturday. Thursday features the Steve Williams Ensemble, Friday the Ron Holloway Quintet and East-West Quartet, and Saturday the Webster Young Quintet and The Trio (Hays Burnett, Jimmy Lions and Nasar Abadey).