The music of The Microscopic Septet was the sound of jazz in 20th C. America: all of it, from Ellington to Ayler, bebop to Zorn, Dixieland to experimental, captured in a microcosm. It distilled the essence of jazz as a popular music into a sound that swung, a music that was intelligent, sometimes smart-aleck, and always good clean fun. Optimistic and upbeat, full of innocent confidence, the Microscopic Septet captured not only the sound of jazz, but also the sound - or soundtrack - of 20th Century America. No wonder, then, that when National Public Radio (NPR) needed a new theme song for one of its most popular shows, "Fresh Air, with Terry Gross", broadcast to every home in America, it asked this band to compose the tune and has used it ever since.
Active from 1980-1992, The Microscopic Septet was part of New York's emerging Downtown Music Scene, a diverse group of artists on the fringes of jazz, rock, and improv that would converge in the Knitting Factory when the club opened in 1987. But while the band shared an aesthetic for breaking down genres boundaries with such other Downtown bands as Curlew, Massacre, and Material; shared the goal of creating intelligent music that could be danced to with Curlew, and shared stylistic surface elements (retro sound, stage costumes and attitude) with the Jazz Passengers and Lounge Lizards, the Micros, as the band was familiarly called, neither sounded like nor was directly comparable to any one of the Downtown bands. More inclusive than even the barrier-breaking downtown crowd, the Micros shared elements with all these bands - and more.
During the 1980s, jazz in New York City was split into two distinct scenes. Downtown's jazz scene was unregimented, avant in outlook, and inclusive in scope, often merging with the rock scene and including improvisers, the free-jazz players, and the new jazz-funk/groove-influenced players. Mainstream jazz was headquartered Uptown, where Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Wynton Marsalis was reviving early forms like swing and bebop, enforcing a return to stylistic tradition, and championing jazz as America's new classical music. As Will Friedwald noted "While the two major strains of '80s jazz were "neo-classical" (ala Wynton Marsalis) and the avant garde, the Micros seemed to be doing both at the same time." As NYU dropout and Micros' founder Johnston said: "Break all the rules and respect all the saints." Like Uptown, the Micros played swing music and quoted from the Masters. But they extended swing into the present, bringing free blowing from the lofts and Knitting Factory noise into the dance hall, and introducing the radio age to TV theme songs. As Johnston relayed in an interview with Howard Mandel: "...our music, if nothing else, is definitely jazz...Jazz is something that's always changing, so of course our music is different than the way it was in the Fifties. It incorporates all the things we've experienced."