New York in the 70s: what the music said

New York City in the 70s looked like a pretty desperate place: the city was bankrupt, crime was out of control, the blissed-out visionary idealism of the 60s had quickly deteriorated into a joke. And the music appeared to be going much the same way: the Velvet Underground had fallen apart, jazz was in a kind of MJQ-based hiatus, disco was looking increasingly irrelevant, Warhol was rich and getting richer.

But down on the streets, things were happening. Art was being torn apart and reassembled, which is the backstory to the current Jean Paul Najar show. And the music was flinging up new green shoots all over town: it was the heyday of Afrika Bambaataaa and Grandmaster Flash running street parties, the New York Dolls making a mockery of Britain’s wimpy glam rock, David Mancuso reworking disco and pioneering club mixing at his invitation-only parties, which started as early as 1970.

David Mancuso at work: anything goes

The following year saw the likes of Willie Colón with the Fania All-Stars reinvigorate salsa at their spectacular Live At The Cheetah sessions. Philip Glass and Steve Reich were testing the boundaries of classical music; ‘loft jazz’ was giving black avant-gardists the chance to play (and in 1972 the New York Musicians’ Jazz Festival provided them with a public platform, a grassroots alternative to the Newport Jazz Festival).

CBGB opened in 1973 and immediately gave airtime to Television, Blondie and the Ramones. Patti Smith made her name there and Horses came out in 1975; so did Born to Run.

Not such a grim time, then. All those rundown low-rent business areas populated by “young iconoclasts on the edge of the mainstream”, the sense of us-against-the-world that produced those I♥NY tote bags, all those lofts – it resulted in art and music with a definite New York feel and an international impact in the longer run.

You can see that in Artist Run New York: the Seventies, the show at the Jean Paul Najar Foundation right now.

And we’re bound to get it from this evening of retro music from Bill Bragin, artistic director of the Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi (a polymathic music fan, and a decent horn player too) and Bryan Waterman, NYU Abu Dhabi Associate Professor of Literature (and author of Marquee Moon, a 200-page love letter to Television’s 1977 release: “each page seems to contain some new idea or discovery” said the Pitchfork review).

They will be playing records that they actually found in the personal collection of Jean-Paul Najar, who collected a lot of New York artists (and obviously a lot of New York music too) from the 70s on. Bill Bragin said: “this is not me and Bryan and creating our definitive or comprehensive vision of New York music in the 70s, but instead pulling together a picture of the music archives of an art and vinyl collector, and then talking about what we play. We will likely play some tracks we’ve never heard before (there are two shrink wrapped records I don’t know by artists I love so I’m excited to dig in). That’s a really fun constraint though that Bryan and I are both looking forward to.”

It’s free, it will be fun, and it will make you wish you had been there first time around.

It’s on 17 April from 7pm at the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation in Alserkal Avenue. More info here.


How to have fun with friends: the Fania Al Stars

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