A term from the 70s, for the most part. Not a style of jazz, really, but it was all generally of the "avant-garde" variety, though that shouldn't imply that it was hard on the ears. The practice of hosting avant-garde musical events in Lower Manhattan lofts probably dates back to the use of Yoko Ono's in the early days of Fluxus. By the end of the 60s, Ornette Coleman had set up his own space, and began sponsoring the occasional concert.

The 70s was a time when many of these musicians lacked for places to play in New York City; the regular jazz clubs, more used to presenting older and tamer forms of jazz, and that new phenomenon, the smiley-face inanities of fusion, didn't particularly want boat-rocking individualists gracing their stages. The concert-hall impresarios and such weren't interested either. Many of the musicians had found some degree of success in Europe, but little of it transferred to the States.

So places like Ornette's Prince Street loft and Sam Rivers' Studio Rivbea became places to play, free of the need to provide "drinking music" for club owners, or museum-pieces for the symphony crowd. It was a place for experimentation, as free jazz musicians, in the wake of the AACM, worked harder on the compositional aspects of the music, instead of just the stereotyped long, loud soloing associated with it. There was also a focus on "the tradition", showing off the avant-garde's lineage from such reference points as turn-of-the-century New Orleans jazz or the music of Duke Ellington; a jam session might include the likes of Anthony Braxton and David Liebman romping through a set of old Thelonious Monk tunes at breakneck speed. The trio Air (Fred Hopkins, Steve McCall, Henry Threadgill) might play updated versions of Scott Joplin rags.

And with the lack of mainstream interest, musicians had to rely on their own DIY record companies and sympathetic indies to "get the message out". India Navigation, which debuted with the release of the Revolutionary Ensemble's Manhattan Cycles, saw its catalog grow into almost a who's-who of the loft scene, with recordings by David Murray, Chico Freeman, L.A. transplant Black Arthur Blythe, Anthony Davis, and others, including AACM/Chicago transplants like Air.

The "loft jazz" term eventually fell into disuse, as, slowly, the music made its way out of the lofts. Joseph Papp's Public Theater began its "Jazz at the Public" series. Musicians started getting mainstream notice, and started getting signed to larger American labels: Blythe signed with CBS, and Freeman signed with Elektra, for instance. The disques were of varying quality - the more money that was at stake usually meant that more rough edges of the loft were sanded off. Blythe and Freeman disappeared into the nostalgia aspects of "the tradition" at times; vibraphonist Jay Hoggard, signed to Arista, ended up making R&B records, as did a guitarist named Michael Jackson, who, understandably, had to "change" his name (he recorded, first, as Michael Gregory Jackson and, later, as Michael Gregory). Tradition-mania was, in many ways, the most enduring aspect of the loft scene, as people like the loft-phobic Wynton Marsalis turned tradition into a doctrinaire straightjacket.

But, off to the side of the impeccably-dressed glitz of Wynton's New Mainstream, the World Saxophone Quartet goes on; Murray won Sweden's Polar Music Prize a few years back; AACM-ers like the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Anthony Braxton have become elder statesmen, though so far without the wide iconic status of an Ellington or an Armstrong. And, somewhere, in a loft, an art gallery, a performance space, or someone's living room, a group of musicians are scratching an itch not unlike that of 1973 Manhattan.