In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the Walker has presented performances by key AACM members, including Jack DeJohnette’s Made In Chicago (March 12) and a Sound Horizon performance by Douglas Ewart with Mankwe Ndosi (March 5). In addition, we present this commissioned essay on the association’s history and influence by critic, author, and Burnt Sugar band leader Greg Tate.
Musical revolutions tend to have a spontaneous, spasmodic outlier quality about them. They poke the status quo and then have to weather a pushback that tests their survivalist mettle and ability to create appreciative audiences in sync with their intuitions and intentions. Such is the case with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.
But first, let’s back up. When Ornette Coleman and his quartet infamously showed up in late-1950s New York, they brought a shock of the new that had seasoned pros divided as to whether they were charlatans or primitives or just insane. The Coleman group’s trumpeter, Don Cherry, however, recalled their most fervent devotees being not solely drawn from the jazz world but from the ranks of Beat poets, fledgling novelists like Thomas Pynchon, and painters such as Willem de Kooning, Bob Thompson, Hans Hofmann, and Larry Rivers. (Pynchon even wrote a Colemanesque character into his debut V., one “McClintic Sphere.”) In redefining the art of jazz, the Coleman group also redefined the music’s artistic circle. The jazz presence in the Eurocentric avant-garde art of the 20th century can be found across all the dominate “isms”–Cubism, Surrealism, Dada, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Conceptualism. Poet Charles Olson, a Black Mountain College éminence grise, once said there was no Black Mountain aesthetic; there was only Charlie Parker that located bebop in John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Jasper Johns’ ideations in ways erased and elided by other Black Mountain principals.
The revolution in music begat by Parker, Thelonious Monk, Diz, Mary Lou Williams, Bud Powell, Max Roach, and Charles Mingus would in turn beget music initiated just a few short years later by those who would rile and roil the shape of jazz to come in the 1960s: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, and Ornette Coleman.
Though these musicians originally hailed from locales as distanced and disparate as Illinois, Alabama, Ohio, North Carolina, and Texas, their avant-garde reputations were made and secured within the nation’s crucible of gladiatorial cosmopolitanism, Manhattan. Come 1965, though, a group of their contemporaries in the midwestern quadrant of the country’s Black Music galaxy would decide to advance the art form known as jazz from the hog-slaughtering core of America’s midsection.
The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a mouthful more often referred to by its acronym moniker, the AACM, has for 50 years gifted the globe of improvised music practitioners (and listeners) with a host of transformative composers and players: pianist and AACM founding father Muhal Richard Abrams; saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell (who would form the AACM’s flagship group, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, with fellow members, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors Meghostus, Lester Bowie, and Famoudou Don Moye); the promethean saxophonist Fred Anderson, who also ran the AACM’s longest running neighborhood venue, The Velvet Lounge; polymath Anthony Braxton; multi-reedist Henry Threadgill, who has been repeatedly cited as the most significant jazz composer by DownBeat magazine; and drummer/composer Jack DeJohnette (who’d become a percussive engine for change agents Charles Lloyd, Miles Davis, and Keith Jarrett); Phil Cohran; Wadada Leo Smith; Leroy Jenkins; and Amina Claudine Myers. And we can’t leave out George Lewis, trombonist, interactive software innovator, composer, Yale-pedigreed doctor of Philosophy, and the author of A Power Greater Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press), his 2008 chronicle of the AACM’s five-decade history of vanguard explorations.
Among that rich tome’s many revelations is that most of the AACM’s celebrated, now-world-renowned figures were nurtured within the culturally rich, economically challenging environs of segregated working-class South Side Chicago of the 1940s and ’50s–the products of the genius and generosity of prescient parents who prepared their whiz kids to fully avail themselves of every opportunity offered for self-directed success in a post–Civil Rights era/post-Apartheid USA. Lewis also details the organization’s developmental mandates for all members: interested parties could only be nominated into the organization by existing members, and all members had to commit to composing and performing their own original music and participating in the AACM Big Band.
When the Art of Ensemble of Chicago decided to move en masse to Paris in 1969, joined soon after by Braxton, the AACM quickly gained international prominence in Europe’s freer improv circles. The Ensemble’s epic, eternalist description of their esthetic as “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future” is as close as anyone has come to granting AACM music a genre and a political manifesto. The Art Ensemble’s inclusion of every known genre and historical era of music-making imaginable into the fold of so-called “free jazz” (“freedom swang” is our own humble vernacular nomination for a revision there) expanded the conceptual reach of that idiom exponentially. As did the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s emphasis on collective development, artistically and economically. As individuals, the group’s members also possess highly personal, highly recognizable sounds on their instruments. No astute listener would have much difficulty picking trumpeter Lester Bowie and saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell out of any fast and thick crowd of freedom swang wailers.
The AACM brought new job descriptions and performance templates to the jazz fold, pioneering solo saxophone, drum, and brass concerts; percussion as orchestral lead voices; instrument-building (Threadgill’s Hubkaphone, made from hubcaps, stands out); and multidisciplinary collaborations with visual artists, choreographers, filmmakers, poets, and performance poets–many of the members created in those mediums themselves. The AACM’s heraldic avatars were musical globalists long before that became vogue: Bowie moved to Nigeria for a spell to play with Fela Kuti; Jarman, a martial arts master who opened his own aikido dojo in 1980s Brooklyn, had by 1990 became an ordained Shinshu Buddhist priest in Kyoto, Japan.
Braxton’s ambitions, inspired by Sun Ra and emboldened by AACM derring-do, spun off the planet and eventually wrote a symphonic composition designed to be simultaneously played by six different orchestras in six different galaxies!
Jarman has said of the AACM’s impact on his evolution:
Until I had the first meeting with Richard Abrams, I was “like all the rest” of the “hip” ghetto niggers; I was cool, I took dope, I smoked pot, etc. I did not care for the life that I had been given. In having the chance to work in the Experimental Band with Richard and the other musicians there, I found the first something with meaning/reason for doing. That band and the people there was the most important thing that ever happened to me. For his part, Bowie joked that he immediately felt at home upon realizing “never in my life had I met so many insane people in one room.”
Threadgill said, “Bebop couldn’t service me: it didn’t have anything to do with people standing up for their rights, it didn’t have anything to do with the Vietnam War, didn’t have anything to do with the Gray Panthers, the Black Panthers. In the AACM what was happening was an expression of what I was about, and the moment. I knew that it expressed the times… the revolution in America, God is dead, America shooting down its kids, the [Vietnam] War, the questioning of traditional philosophies…. I was tied into that moment.”
Abrams, Threadgill, Braxton, and Lewis all migrated from their various emigre stains and met up with the Art Ensemble in mid-1970s New York, where all became instrumental in aiding and abetting what’s become known as the “Loft Jazz” insurgency, fomented by Sam Rivers, Rashied Ali, and others in then-cheap Lower Manhattan’s abandoned-warehouse district, Soho. The addition of the AACM cats’ California-bred compatriots David Murray, Butch and Wilbur Morris, New Haven notables Anthony Davis and Michael Greory Jackson, St Louis exiles Oliver Lake, Joseph Bowie and Julius Hemphill from that city’s AACM affiliate, The Black Artists Group, made for the healthiest and most innovative moment grassroots improvisation had experienced in Manhattan since the bebop era. From their home base on Chicago’s South Side The AACM continues their community-uplift mission, engaging in various educational initiatives in the city’s schools. The long-running AACM School of Music has been instrumental in this process.
The AACM’s core continues to experiment and lead the charge in fulfilling the creative promise of their ’60s experimental seedbed. The association also continues to incubate and harvest formidable presences for the global stage–notably Spencer Barefield, Douglas Ewart, incoming member Mankwe Ndosi (who performed with Ewart at the Walker earlier this month), Ernest Dawkins, Adegoke and Steve Colson, Nicole Mitchell, and Matana Roberts.
No longer affiliated with AACM, Roberts is a gripping and gutsy alto saxophonist whose ambitious sprawling “Coin Coin” series of ensembles (and recordings) enfolds epic family storytelling within expansive compositional frames. Mitchell is arguably the most virtuosic and innovative voice on flute we’ve heard since Eric Dolphy, and he has composed major suites based on Octavia Butler’s apocalyptic and transgenic fictions. Reedman Dawkins, a former AACM chair (poet and performer Khari B is the current chair), leads the clarion charge on the Chicago home ground, regularly bringing the association’s message to the city’s street corners, student assemblies, and lounges. True to AACM form, the bewitching and virtuosic vocalizing of Ndosi spans genres, ethnicities, species, continents, and likely galaxies, too.
Thanks to this standard-bearing third wave of visionaries, one already hears the AACM’s next half-century in full bloom: leapfrogging twenty thousand light years ahead of the status quo and still holding their organization’s freedom swang legacy down on the home front.