Sunrise Studio: All Music Is Greater than the Sum of Our Selves

Ed Hazell

Mike Mahaffay                                                           Courtesy of Mike Mahaffay

Drummer Mike Mahaffay moved into the loft on Second Avenue because he knew a friend of Mary Magdalene. Not the Mary Magdalene, but the actor who played her in the first national touring company of Jesus Christ Superstar, Yvonne Elliman. She and her boyfriend were living in a second floor loft at 122 Second Avenue in the spring of 1971 when the musical’s popularity exploded and a road company, which included Elliman as Magdalene and Mahaffay as the orchestra drummer, left New York to tour the country. She left the road to prepare for the show’s Broadway debut several months before Mahaffay, who was enjoying what he calls “wildest party I ever went to” with the traveling theater ensemble. Elliman and her boyfriend broke up around the time Mahaffay returned, and Elliman offered the space, with its soundproof recording studio, to Mahaffay’s friend David Hopkins, a saxophonist from the Superstar road show. In need of a place to live after coming in off the road, Mahaffay moved in some time in early 1972. Mahaffay christened their space Sunrise Studio, reflecting a love of nature rooted in his Pacific Northwest upbringing and symbolic of his sense that he and his fellow musicians were on the rise.

Mahaffay is one of those players whose love of music took him in many directions. He grew up in Portland, Oregon, and began playing drums because his mother thought if he used his wrists it would improve his handwriting. Classical lessons and membership in the Portland Youth Philharmonic followed, as well as a summer semester at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, where he studied with Alan Dawson. Moving to New York in the early 1960s, Mahaffay at first made a living teaching musical and occupational therapy at Gracie Square Hospital. By the early ‘70s, while he was improvising with the likes of Gunter Hampel and Dave Liebman, he was also touring with Jesus Christ Superstar and appearing with the ‘50s rock band the Angels on the Midnite Special, a TV show hosted by early rock DJ, Wolfman Jack. During and after his time running Sunrise Studio, Mahaffay composed music for and performed with the Open Eye Theater, under the artistic direction of Jean Erdman and mythologist Joseph Campbell. Inspired by his experience with Open Eye, he and his wife formed their own dance company, Contemporary Mythmakers, and traveled in Europe and the US creating site-specific dance pieces. In the early 1980s, he returned to Portland, Oregon, where he lives today and remains active as a composer, performer, and improviser.

For the first two years after Mahaffay moved in, Sunrise was the site of around the clock free jazz jam sessions. However, the most important aspects of the story of the loft are inseparable from the story of one of the most unique and little known musicians’ collectives of the era – Free Life Communication, whose members included musicians such as Dave Liebman, Richie Beirach, Enrico Rava, Badal Roy, and many others both well known and obscure. In 1974, Mahaffay volunteered his living and performance space as the home base of this musicians’ collaborative, of which he was a member. The shift to more formal performances turned Sunrise into an important venue for the jazz avant-garde. It was unique among the city’s lofts in that management was in the hands of the nonprofit Free Life’s board. Most other lofts, such as Studio Rivbea, which was operated by Sam Rivers or Ali’s Alley, which Rashied Ali booked and owned, were run by individuals. The loft became the site of concerts by both Free Life members as well as other bands from the Lower East Side. It remained active for about two years before it eventually succumbed to the same pressures that brought down many other the lofts – lack of money, youthful inexperience, and the overwhelming stresses of handling the daily chores of booking and maintaining a performance space while trying to develop creatively as an artist.

We had the greatest sessions there

Sunrise was a big space – 5,000 square feet, with 2,500 in front for performances and 2,500 sq. feet in back for living. A bank of large windows flooded the performance space with sunlight giving the exposed brick walls and pressed tin ceiling a warm glow. Some of the interior walls were simple white plasterboard covered in psychedelic line drawings done by the previous tenants; other walls were used to hang photographs and paintings.

The rent was only around $500 a month. “What it is now ... don’t even think about it,” Mahaffay says. “It was the cheaper costs to everything that allowed for independent organizations to survive. I don’t think Sunrise would work today.”

Best of all, “there was a very cool soundproof rehearsal space in the middle of it where you could play all hours,” Mahaffay recalls. “We had the greatest sessions there. We could play as long as we wanted and as loud in the middle of New York City. So we would just pack the place and play all night long. Half of the people who showed up I didn’t know. Word got out and there was always smoke around and it was a good place to play. People would bring their friends and we’d just play. I mean, there were the people who could really play and there were the people who could play at playing, so you had all levels. But the energy level was so high, the tide raised all the boats, man. It was quite remarkable.”

Clarinetist Perry Robinson, a frequent participant in the jam sessions has similarly vague, but positive memories. “There were fantastic jam sessions, anyone could come at any time,” he says. “Anyone could be there. You could walk in, go out, come back. It’s all a blur; I just remember it was a great vibe.”

The marathon jam sessions kept up at this grueling pace until the fall of 1974, when Mahaffay offered the space as the new home for a nonprofit jazz musicians' organization of which he was an active member, Free Life Communication. Free Life had just lost its base of operations at the Space for Innovative Development, a deluxe artists’ studio space managed by the Samuel Rubin Foundation on W. 36th St., where it had been in residence for nearly four years.

Free Life Communication

Richie Beirach + Dave Liebman                                                      Courtesy of Mike Mahaffay

Drummer Bob Moses had provided the inspiration for establishing the musicians’ cooperative in 1969. “I started talking to Dave Liebman, Richie Beirach, Karl Schroeder, the Brecker brothers, Dave Holland, Frank Tusa, Lennie White, Clint Houston,” Moses recalls on Free Life Loft Jazz (Snapshot of a Movement), an oral history-music CD released by Mahaffay on his label, Mahaffay Musical Archives, in 2009. “We wanted to play more visionary music and help each other to do that. The idea was someone might be good at making posters, or had access to a photocopier at work, or someone had a place with a good piano, and maybe they wouldn’t mind presenting something. We needed a place to play. We tried to pool our resources and between us make something happen.”

Saxophonist Liebman, who would become the group’s first president, convened the first meetings to discuss organizing. “I’m not pulling any punches; we were quite naïve,” Liebman writes in a short history of the organization’s early years. “Try to imagine fifteen to twenty young (ranging from eighteen to late twenties) aspiring jazz musicians; mostly white and middle class; unknown and not working at the time (in jazz); sitting in my loft on W. 19th St. in New York, attempted to come up with a name, principles, guidelines, etc., for a collective organization. With that much raw energy in one place, it’s amazing to me that anything was accomplished ... The discussions on the name were very involved with ideas ranging from Marxist-type politics to hippie-based communal axioms prevalent in the late sixties. To my mind, these first meetings were fantastic for the great discussions that took place among such a vibrant, young, diverse, and naïve group of musicians.”

A mission statement they drew up reflects the countercultural leanings of the group: “The music we play is so filled with reality of our being/existence that it is no longer something we do; it has become something we are. Improvisation is the core of our work: spontaneous creation ... Our improvised music works to produce an intensification of the present moment in order to dramatize vividly to all people everywhere that life is to be lived with as much involvement in the now as possible.


They decided that for a ten-dollar fee anyone could become a member and set about producing concerts, mainly in churches where rental fees were an affordable $25, such as Judson Church and St. Peter’s. “It was an exciting time; running around New York posting flyers in record stores, restaurants and on street corners,” Liebman writes. “We were a young, energetic group of cats dedicated to this self-help approach, and some of the concerts drew upwards to 250 people, while others didn’t do as well.”

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