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Dianne McIntyre Ensemble and Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy perform Invincible Flower at O’Shaughnessy Auditorium in Saint Paul, March 6, 1999.

Philip Bither, “The Walker and Creative Black Music,” foreword to Creative Black Music at the Walker: Selections from the Archives, ed. Danielle A. Jackson and Simone Austin, Vol. IV of the Living Collections Catalogue (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2020).

It’s nearly 10:30 pm on February 15, 2019, and on the Walker Art Center’s McGuire stage some two dozen Minnesota musicians—a diverse and multigenerational group from backgrounds spanning jazz, rock, classical, and experimental music—are in a collective zone, riding crescendo after crescendo of Pulitzer Prize–winning composer Henry Threadgill’s 1986 masterwork “Bermuda Blues” into an ecstatic, free-blowing conclusion.Threadgill’s “Bermuda Blues,” which appeared on the Henry Threadgill Sextett 1986 RCA recording You Know the Number, featured Threadgill (bass, flute, alto and tenor saxophones), Rasul Sadik (trumpet), Frank Lacy (trombone), Diedre Murray (cello), Fred Hopkins (bass), and Pheeroan akLaff and Reggie Nicholson (percussion). The packed house erupts, everyone standing and cheering. It’s Henry Threadgill's 75th birthday and he’s in the house watching Minnesotans interpret his works on this opening night of a two-day Walker festival in his honor.Celebrating Henry: A Threadgill Festival was held in the Walker Art Center’s McGuire Theater February 15–16, 2019. Opening night featured a range of Minnesota-based ensembles/musicians, curated by Michelle Kinney. Participating musicians included Tarek Abdelqader, Noah Ophoven-Baldwin, George Cartwright, Anthony Cox, Chris Cunningham, Ivan Cunningham, Douglas Ewart, Milo Fine, Nathan Hanson, Laura Harada, Eric Jensen, Michelle Kinney, Babatunde Lea, Charlie Lincoln, Mankwe Ndosi, Pat O’Keefe, Carley Olson Kokal, Cole Pulice, Davu Seru, Joseph Strachan, Dameun Strange, Donald Washington, Faye Washington, and Adam Zahller. On February 16, the festival featured New York power-jazz trio Harriet Tubman and Threadgill’s quintet Zooid.

Threadgill impulsively rushes from his seat onto the stage to speak to the crowd: “You know, this is twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five people that have really just made my life really happy.… When you make things for people, for the public, you just do it. It’s not like playing tennis, where the ball comes back.... The whole point is to send it out.... I don’t sit around anticipating anything coming back.” Visibly moved, he concludes, “There is a great American poet named Daniel Moore and there’s this one line he wrote, that says something like, ‘Once in a lifetime, where the marvelous takes place.’ That was tonight. Thank you so much.” That moment crystalized for me the Walker’s six-decade history with creative black music, a history that aspired to honor its leading figures as essential forces in the contemporary American artistic landscape. 

JazzNearly all of the artists featured, and many other leading forces since the early part of the 20th century, have rejected the word jazz as a definer of their music for reasons ranging from its so-called disreputable origins (in the early 20th century, “jazz” was used as slang for the act of sex) or sometimes carried negative connotations (short for “rubbish, unnecessary talk, or ornamentation”) to its reductive, nostalgic, or commercial orientations to simply issues of economic inequity. (At the recent American Composers Forum’s Racial Equity and Inclusion Conference held September 7, 2019, in St. Paul, Minnesota, AACM large ensemble leader Ernest Dawkins said he felt the word jazz too often meant “you don’t get paid.”) Jazz now involves so many musical styles, the word is too narrow to encompass the multivariant music created by the artists featured here. The genre includes music that merges with contemporary classical (Braxton, Taylor, and Julius Eastman), experimental music, fusion, indie, post-rock, and a variety of other musical forms from around the world. and the broader worlds of creative black music have been important parts of the Walker’s Performing Arts program since its inception. In the early 1960s, the Walker’s volunteer-run Center Arts Council (CAC) began presenting genre-defining, iconic black jazz figures—Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Nina Simone, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Charles Mingus (along with more mainstream interpreters such as Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins, Sarah Vaughn, and Oscar Peterson)—often introducing their music to the Upper Midwest for the first time. Suzanne Weil, who began as a volunteer jazz expert on the CAC before becoming a paid coordinator and who also established Performing Arts as a formal department in 1970, vastly expanded musical offerings at the Walker, adding folk, pop, rock, blues, and experimental music to the mix in the late ’60s and ’70s. The Walker maintained its commitment to jazz, presenting well-known crossover figures, including Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Gary Burton. By the mid-’70s, programmers like Weil more consciously shaped the program to reflect the Walker’s contemporary art mission and leaders of jazz’s black avant-garde were increasingly sought out. Appearing multiple times in those years were such pioneers as Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Ornette Coleman, and Miles Davis, whose four visits in six years (1968 to 1974) offered audiences the opportunity to witness the full trajectory of his influential “electric period.”From 1968 to 1974, the Walker presented Miles Davis in performance with different electric period collaborators, including Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette, Al Foster, Airto Moriera, Gary Bartz, James M’Tume, Cederic Lawson, and Dave Liebman. During this time, Davis released such seminal jazz fusion recordings as In a Silent Way (1969), Bitches Brew (1970), and On The Corner (1972).  

As an artist-centered institution, the Walker offers a respectful concert-setting alternative to the typical festivals or standard jazz clubs, which a New York Times critic recently wrote (in a profile of the Art Ensemble of Chicago) “tended to give high black culture low budget treatment.”Giovanni Russonello, “50 Years On, the Art Ensemble of Chicago Is Still Transforming,” New York Times, May 1, 2019, In fact, the Art Ensemble’s insistence that their “work be treated as a form of art music”  was in full alignment with the respect and care the Walker strove to provide the artists it was presenting. In a Minneapolis Tribune article about disappointing sales for a Walker-sponsored Woody Shaw concert held on March 7, 1979, at the Children’s Theatre Company, Walker music programmer Tim Carr (1978–1981) illustrated how the Walker’s programming philosophy paralleled the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s insistence that its music be treated respectfully: “The Art Center wants to present music as art. Musical integrity is the key.… That’s my job. I’m not supposed to play it safe. I hope everything isn’t a risk, but these are risks worth taking…. Why shouldn’t Woody Shaw play Minneapolis.” Carr and two other passionate programmers, Tim Holmes (1981–1983) and Chuck Helm (1983–1991), sustained this commitment at the Walker. Later, Helm went on to direct Wexner Center for the Arts’ performing arts program (1991–2017). The Walker’s 1980 New Music America Festival, which helped launch an annual national juggernaut for contemporary and experimental music,Overseen by a national volunteer-led New Music Alliance Board, the New Music America Festival began at the Kitchen in New York City in 1979. The event was held annually (1980–1991) and mounted in a different major city each year, with a different set of producers/sponsors in each city. After the Walker’s event in 1980, festivals took place in Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, Houston, Los Angeles, Montréal, and New York (as part of BAM’s Next Wave Festival). It concluded in 1994 with the four-day New Music Across America, an extended weekend festival that happened simultaneously in twelve smaller and midsized American cities. was a case in point, placing vanguard black music on equal footing with that of leading white composers from more classical or rock backgrounds (which dominated most new or contemporary music gatherings of the era), even though they remained underrepresented in comparison to their white counterparts. The Art Ensemble of Chicago performed in the festival’s prime slot, closing the opening-night bill, which also featured David Byrne and Philip Glass, at the Guthrie Theater. Less than six months later, the Walker invited the Art Ensemble back for a presentation at Minneapolis’s prestigious Orchestra Hall. Ensemble members such as Lester Bowie and Roscoe Mitchell would return to the Walker with multiple groups and projects for decades to come. Following the Walker’s New Music America Festival, a wide spectrum of black jazz visionaries were presented here, including Muhal Richard Abrams, Geri Allen, Betty Carter, Anthony Davis, Leroy Jenkins, George Lewis, Sam Rivers, Sonny Sharrock, Archie Shepp, Sun Ra, Horace Tapscott, World Saxophone Quartet, and many others across the ’80s and ’90s.    

In hindsight, it’s notable that an art center in the upper Midwest would host so many transformational black music figures over such a sustained period. Part of the Walker’s Living Collections Catalogue, the volume Creative Black Music at the Walker: Selections from the Archives is grounded in that history and the Walker’s museum-based commitment to document, archive, and preserve aspects of the ephemeral events it presented, rare in standard concert venues or performing art centers of the era. Archival material not before available for public view is at the center of this publication, including rare audio and video recordings, photographs, posters and programs, correspondence, and other materials. The artist modules focus on figures who not only changed the face of American music history, but also—particularly in the cases of Taylor, Coleman, Threadgill, Smith, and Braxton—invented their own compositional systems. Their unique notational and textual approaches to their music forged alternative paths to standard music-making that stood in rejection of, or at least as an alternative to, existing academic, institutional, or codified approaches to creating music.

This publication makes no pretense to be comprehensive (although a timeline of selected performances highlights the full range of black musicians and writers who appeared at the Walker from 1963 to 2019, providing broader Walker context). Yet, the hundreds of concerts and events still only reflects a small part of the remarkable breadth of creative black American music being made in the decades of the 1960s through the 1980s. We chose to focus the publication on a select group of influential figures who came to the fore in the ’60s and ’70s and appeared at the Walker multiple times, each having an indelible impact on US musical culture. 

Beyond archival material, Creative Black Music, which has been edited by emerging scholars Simone Austin and Danielle A. Jackson, Interdisciplinary Fellows in Visual and Performing Arts (2016 to 2020), in collaboration with the Interdisciplinary Initiative curatorial team, features a range of newly commissioned essays and interviews that offer perspectives from succeeding generations of artists on these groundbreaking figures and movements. Not only does this focus consciously mirror the intergenerational artist-to-artist transference of musical information so essential to these forms themselves, but it also strives to offer needed balance to the (mostly white, male) critics, academics, curators, and historians who have historically shaped the narrative. Thus, interdisciplinary artist/musician/composer Jason Moran and cellist/curator Michelle Kinney both offer reflections on Henry Threadgill; musician/writer/bandleader Greg Tate (Burnt Sugar) as well as drummer/bandleader Dave King (the Bad Plus, Happy Apple) reflect on the vast influence of Ornette Coleman; musician/curator Taja Cheek facilitates an engaging cross-generational video interview with Wadada Leo Smith; and musician/interdisciplinary artist Jace Clayton writes a personal contemplation on the posthumous appreciation of vanguard composer Julius Eastman. And grounding the entire publication is scholar Tammy L. Kernodle’s historical reflection on the emergence and prominence of avant-garde black jazz in American music.    

The publication also includes powerful literary celebrations of visionary black music artists: archival audio recordings of early ’80s charged readings at the Walker by influential activist/critic/poet Amira Baraka (on John Coltrane and saxophonist Arthur Blythe); and protean theorist/poet Fred Moten’s rumination on Cecil Taylor’s 1987 poetry/percussion recording Chinampas, which echoes Taylor’s own deeply literary, idiosyncratic recording. Through these poems, essays, books, and works of criticism, both of these black writers, from two different generations, have profoundly mined notions of blackness, music, and freedom in language that reflects the openness, liberation, and energy of the music. Their words reflect the deeply intertwined, trilaterally influential lines between poetry, criticism, and creative black music.

Scanning the history, it is apparent how male-dominated the music of this period was (or at least the writing/historical accounting we have of it). In music, this gender imbalance is belatedly beginning to be recognized and addressed today. However, in jazz-informed poetry and other literary forms, the imbalance was less severe. This is reflected in the wealth of black writers invited to read or perform at the Walker during this era. Though men were present, they were outnumbered by powerful appearances by female writers, including Lucille Clifton, June Jordan, Jamaica Kincade, Toni Morrison, Harryette Mullen, Ntozake Shange, and Alice Walker, among others, whose work was closely tied to the creative black musical universe of their times.

Oliver Lake and Leroy Jenkins performing on stage
Oliver Lake (saxophone) and Leroy Jenkins (violin) perform at the Walker Art Center, May 3, 1981. Walker Art Center Archives.

Throughout its history, the Walker’s music programming involved many leading figures in jazz and experimental music across racial, generational, cultural, and transnational lines. However, this publication focuses on black innovators in recognition of how foundational, deep, and specific the dynamic between blackness and jazz as well as other forms of improvised experimental music has truly been. In his recent collection of writings Black and Blur, Fred Moten refers to avant-garde jazz as music emanating from “the question concerning the scored, scarred, richly internally differentiated, authenticity of blackness,” going on to define progressive black jazz as “the locale where the ambivalent and timeless sublimity of the music’s aspiration for ‘freedom under continued unfreedom’ is continually played out.”Fred Moten, Black and Blur (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).

The freedoms, fluidity, and bold confidence that the pioneering forces of these new sounds explored is also apparent in the broad range of expression they were involved with beyond music, which paralleled but was independent from the merging of disciplinary boundaries seen in the primarily white art world of the ’60s and ’70s. Whether the celestially costumed pageantry of Sun Ra and his Arkestra; the theatrical and pan-African expressions of the Art Ensemble of Chicago; the dance and poetry that Cecil Taylor included in his concerts; the graphic scores and other visual art created by Wadada Leo Smith and Anthony Braxton; the plays and performance rituals of Muhal Richard Abrams and Joseph Jarman (both of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians); or the collaborations with performance, visual, and theater artists that Henry Threadgill has involved himself in throughout his career, the creative work of these artists was intrinsically expansive.

In the introduction to his essential history of Chicago’s globally influential black jazz collective the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM),The AACM not only supported hundreds of creative black musicians, but its ethos of self-empowerment and its emphasis on original music and collective action had both a national and international influence, a model for other US collectives such as St. Louis’s Black Artists’ Group (BAG), New York’s Jazz Composers Guild, Los Angeles’s Underground Musicians Association (UGMA), Brooklyn’s Musicians of Brooklyn Initiative (MOBI), and Germany’s Free Music Production collective (FMP). the composer/writer George Lewis summed up the collective’s artistic expansiveness: “AACM musicians developed new and influential ideas about timbre, sound, collectivity, extended technique and instrumentation, performance practice, intermedia, the relationship between improvisation and composition, form, scores, computer music technologies, invented acoustic instruments, installations and kinetic sculptures.”George E. Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and Experimental Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). The Walker’s long support of the AACM collective (which included 35th, 40th, and 50th anniversary tributes) and many of its individual members is rooted in that eclecticism and boundary defying spirit central to the Walker’s overall mission. (Nearly half of the artists featured in Creative Black Music—Art Ensemble, Threadgill and Air, Wadada Leo Smith, and Anthony Braxton—were AACM members.) Collaborations between dance and music that involved so many black artists, and the general mix of poetry and jazz, referred to above, served as a foundation for the type of interdisciplinary, theatrical, or hybrid work by black music innovators that the Walker has fostered in recent decades. The Walker’s long-standing, close relationship with Twin Cities–based instrumentalist/composer Douglas Ewart (former president and key member of AACM) has helped maintain our AACM ties over decades, with Ewart often taking the lead on assembling inspired projects for the Walker.

Upon my arrival at the Walker in 1997, I was not only proud to inherit this rich legacy but also intent on deepening it through commissioning and producing interdisciplinary projects by various creative black music artists. In my first season I produced a series called Common Time: New Jazz and Dance, which featured three new commissions/productions: Soul Deep, a new dance-theater-music collaboration between the David Murray Octet and the Urban Bush Women; Invisible Flower, a collaboration between Lester Bowie and his Brass Fantasy and influential choreographer Dianne McIntyre (premiering just fourteen months before Bowie’s untimely passing); and a new collaboration between percussionist Leon Parker and choreographer Maia Claire Garrison. The success of this series pointed the way toward an ambitious array of commissioned interdisciplinary projects in the subsequent two decades, which were often realized with the programmatic and producing support of Doug Benidt, associate curator in Performing Arts. These included thematic festivals; cross-disciplinary collaborations; new music works that featured moving image and new media, theatrical, or movement elements; and even gallery exhibitions (such as 2018’s Walker-organized show Jason Moran, which toured to the ICA/Boston; Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). Lead artists of color on these projects included Rafiq Bhatia, Amir ElSaffar, Douglas Ewart, Fred Ho, Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Makaya McCraven, Lawrence “Butch” Morris, James Newton/Jon Jang, Matana Roberts, Matthew Shipp, and Craig Taborn (in addition to multiple interdisciplinary music projects led by white artists such as Bill Frisell, Dave King, Nels Cline, Myra Melford, and John Zorn).

These efforts have not only given a range of pioneering composers a platform to expand their practices and connect more deeply with audiences of contemporary visual art, dance, film, and poetry but also have helped frame avant-jazz and other forms of creative black music as ever-evolving, vibrant, and essential parts of the broader US interdisciplinary, experimental art world. That said, it was vital that we approached this subject with humility, care, and consciousness, recognizing the unbalanced power dynamics and white privilege inherent across this history.

In focusing on these vanguard artists with whom the Walker has had sustained relationships over time, the publication Creative Black Music aspires to honor them and the art forms they helped to forge, creative output that exemplifies artistic freedom, self-determination, racial justice, interdisciplinarity, and free-flowing creative expression.

Philip Bither is the McGuire Director and Senior Curator of Performing Arts at the Walker Art Center, where he has commissioned more than 170 new works in dance, music, and performance, among other accomplishments, over the past two decades. Prior to this Bither served as director of programming for the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts and artistic director of the Discover Jazz Festival, Burlington, Vermont; and as associate director and music curator of the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York.