Michael Dorf: 20th Anniversary of The Old Knit

Kurt Gottschalk By

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By his own account, Michael Dorf is living the dream.

Despite a tough ten years -personally and professionally -the founder of the Knitting Factory has been crafting an unusual role as a philanthropic arts entrepreneur and couldn't be happier with where a tumultuous decade has landed him.

After building the club he opened on Houston Street in 1986 at the age of 23 into an internationally recognized home for music that pushed boundaries, starting a record label, moving to a three-story, multiple-stage space in Tribeca and capitalizing on radio, TV and internet broadcasts, Dorf lost control of the club in 1997. He announced plans for a "Downtown Carnegie Hall , but funding never came through. And the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed his city and neighborhood forever.

"I was going bald, my kids started to grow up, I wanted to do something more meaningful, he said. "And the people who grew up with the Knit, our knees are going bad, we want to sit for shows, we want to drink wine out of a glass, we've grown up.

Since leaving the Knit—at least in any creative capacity -Dorf has organized annual "Downtown Seders , which have included performances by such Jewish musicians and entertainers as John Zorn, Stiller and Meara, Steve Reich, Theodore Bikel, Frank London, Jill Sobule and Uri Caine (this year's Seder will be Mar. 28th). He's pulled together allstar tributes to Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan to benefit Music for Youth, an organization supplying musical instruments to children from low-income families. And on Mar. 1st, Dorf will be celebrating the 20th Anniversary of The Old Knit's opening with a very uptown affair at Town Hall. In a sort of going-around, coming-around, the show will benefit The Stone, Zorn's Alphabet City club, which is the closest thing the city now has to the early days of the Knit.

Those early days -weekly Xeroxed schedules; sweaters hanging from the ceiling, retaining the smell of cigarettes in a city that still smoked; saxophonist Gordon Knauer working the door and ready to point out which shows wouldn't suck; towering piles of cassette tapes along the stairs leading up to the performance area; the hole in the wall of the men's room next to (and as big as) the urinal -marked a different time for Downtown music.

"James Blood and Butch Morris at the bar checking out some of the new groups—'who is this Dave Douglas?' Dorf said. "That's what The Old Knit was about.

After the Leonard Street club opened in 1994, the Houston Street space stayed open for a few months with unadvertised gigs and earning the affectionate nickname "The Old Knit . And that's the Knit that Dorf is looking to celebrate, reverse-leapfrogging some of the troubles that came with his going from fanboy to CEO. With the move downtown and the growing What is Jazz? Festival, Dorf started looking for corporate investors. He was early in the Internet game, launching KnitMedia and working to set up live streams of concerts. He opened a second club in Hollywood and an office in Amsterdam to handle European bookings. Texaco and Bell Atlantic underwrote the summer festivals. And ultimately, he brought in more and bigger investors to help cover the costs of his many ventures. By 1997, he had diluted his ownership of the club to a 30% stake, which he retains to this day. By 2002, he said, he was ready to move on.

"I was chairman of the board of a company that was pretty difficult because everything was about the bottom line, he said. "Could I have been smarter financially or legally or was it all for the best? I believe it was all for the best.

But even if it was all for the best, inasmuch as it got him where he is today, there were hard knocks along the way. When corporate sponsors started underwriting the What is Jazz? Festival, artists organized and started demanding a bigger piece of the pie. And when Instinct Records gained a majority share of the Knit, they discontinued the Knit's record labels and dramatically sent the back stock to the dumpster, with musicians charging they were owed unpaid royalties.

"I went corporate, I took outside sponsorship, Dorf said. "The vibe changed. When they destroyed all those CDs—it was the most uncomfortable feeling of my life to see them hold up signs with 'Down With the Knit.'

"There were definite tensions, according to guitarist Marc Ribot, who with the organization Take it to the Bridge negotiated with the Knit about festival pay and later with the Noise Action Coalition dealt with Instinct about rights and royalties. "It's always a shock to the management or ownership of any business when the people they deal with say 'No, we want to bargain collectively. It's to his credit that he negotiated it and KnitMedia acted like a responsible business.

For Ribot, a bigger issue than what has happened with any particular club over the years is the shrinking opportunities overall in New York. The Knit went from an occupancy of just over 100 on Houston to a 400-seat main room on Leonard. But after another dispute about musicians' rights and control over webcasts, Zorn left the Knit for Tonic, a small and little known performance space on the Lower East Side. He quickly made that club the new home for Downtown music (despite many rumors to the contrary, however, he neither owned nor opened it). But, Ribot pointed out, that meant a shift down to a 200-person room. And as Tonic turned toward booking more rock acts and The old Knit crowd headed over to The Stone, musicians found themselves playing a room that holds 80 people at best.

And the fact of it is, avant-garde music by any name has rarely flourished in the free market. In Europe and much of the world, government subsidies support composers and festivals. In the US, composers are generally either on faculty at universities or are left to eke out a living however they can.

"I think Michael's efforts at getting stuff produced and getting stuff funded is exactly what's needed, Ribot said. "But we should be fighting to increase the pot of what's available. Why isn't the city donating free space? Why can't New York City do what Cologne and Bern and Lupiana and every other city in Europe does? Let's not have this depend on the pauperization of the people making the music. If you want to talk about the difference between a 400-person room and an 80-person room, you're talking about a big reduction in income for the people playing it. It seems to be part of all these clubs that at a certain point they need to make more money.

The Stone is the exception that proves that rule. Small and simple, it exists with no visible means of support: no bar, no merchandise and no cut of the door. A monthly benefit pays the rent and any losses are assumedly covered by Hip's Road, Zorn's non-profit umbrella that also includes the Tzadik record label, or by larger benefits like The Old Knit anniversary concert. (For his part, Zorn didn't reply to a request for an interview for this story.)

"If any performance space in the world deserves charity, there is no better place than The Stone, Dorf said. "Add to that the element that it's named for the two best customers at The Old Knit [Irving and Stephanie Stone]—there was this poetic element. Still, he said, when he heard Zorn's plan for financing at The Stone, he was dubious. "As a club owner who believes there must be some sales margin even for a non-profit, it was like 'OK, zie gezunt—God bless.'

That lineage, from the Knit to the Stone, about a mile east and two decades later, is what Town Hall will be about on Mar. 1st. For whatever reasons and through whatever calamities, it's an era that's past, even if the players live on.

"Moving to Tribeca was not the end of The Old Knit, Dorf said. "I think The Old Knit period is '87-97. The end of The Old Knit was my going corporate.

"All good things come to and end, I guess, he added, then paused. "I hate that expression.


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