In Line with the Living: Davu Seru on the Sonic Universe Project
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In Line with the Living: Davu Seru on the Sonic Universe Project

Artwork by Douglas R. Ewart (detail)

In advance of the Sonic Universe Project, composer, writer, and percussionist Davu Seru remembers the routes and rootedness of six artists and two movements.

I went looking for BAG and AACM at the Hippie Modernism exhibition but they were, apparently, busy in the ritual.

For many of us, the charm—the call—of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and Saint Louis’s Black Artists’ Group (BAG) is in a one-world principle born in the Midwest at the end of the 1960s and fit to burst anyone’s binary bubble. Where the axiom ain’t either/or but and.

Jamaica-born and Rasta-reared Douglas R. Ewart says (in his capacity as the group’s former president) AACM has always been a ritual practice of persistence rather than resistance. A tale spun from a life-affirming focus on “positive” doings rather than the negativity that keeps us militating against our constituent tar babies.

Douglas Ewart

Some may have noticed that the title “avant-garde” has recently been appropriated by a new breed of Twin Cities black artists for periodic nightclub happenings. Whether they do so in a vacuum is uncertain; but some know that, having long being a rubric under which practitioners have tended to imagine themselves as the elite advance of whatever’s hip in art, yearning for the avant-garde has also allowed some to position themselves outside of popular culture. According to the one-world principle, this is what folks who lack a sense of cosmic irony do. And this is among the reasons that some black artists committed to day-to-day problems facing the black community have not identified with the so-called “avant-garde.” Conflated for some since Ornette as the “black avant-garde,” marketplace packaging has long belonged up-front in the box for the dead. The line in back is for the living.

Where we might witness a Sound Universe of connections officiated by Douglas R. Ewart and Roscoe Mitchell and Oliver Lake and Wadada Leo Smith and Hamid Drake and Anthony Cox—seminal members of the AACM and BAG diasporas and a rhythm section of Chicago and Twin Cities hometown-global heroes.

Anthony Cox

Those of us with historical perspective who find it more difficult to escape the compartmental traps of binary logic ask: what will be the lesson from BAG and AACM on how not to become a museum’s monument to 1968? Of youthful revolt given over to the institutional pragmatism of later life? How to continue BAG and AACM legacies of musical innovation born out of experiments with graphic and traditional notation, “free” improvisation, genre pastiche, commitment to community, gadgetry, auto-didacticism, multi-instrumentalism and interdisciplinary praxis in the city? How to shake off the albatross and grow?

Wadada Leo Smith. Photo: Michael Jackson

In the middle of things, the elder (Douglas R. Ewart) and the recruit (yours truly) gather by phone to talk around it, aware of the fault in looking at an elephant up-close. We remember African American dancer-choreographer and bona fide “race woman” Katherine Dunham and Ukrainian-born American filmmaker Maya Deren who worked for Dunham in the early 1940s, just before the trip to Haiti that would manifest as the book (and later filmDivine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1985). Remember that Dunham the teacher and Deren the pupil had ritual in common—

Chalkline preparations. Performative shell host to loa passers-through.

Art-imagination speaking to and witnessing art stand as witness to creation for creation.

Flattening of time and space—here and there, now and then. The imagination leapt and leaping over the body. The bifocal viewer is in on the social ritual from a meaningless distance. All sense folded into a singular principle that belies naming. Language game where meaning escapes presence to someplace in a future past.

In The Feel Trio (2014) the inimitable Fred Moten provides a lyric for something called “aacmic transfer.” Passage from one to the next; passage to something Black-black. A great crepuscular swamp where we might take cover, gather, cut-out, cross-over and make a pidgin. Like how, in Chicago of the middle ’60s, Phil Cohran, Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, and others would become the latest generation to tend to what Ishmael Reed called the “jes grew” till it blossomed into Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future.

Roscoe Mitchell. Photo: Paul Natkin

. . .

Before it gave way to urban renewal, Route 66 between Saint Louis and Chicago was the storied thoroughfare that carried enterprising frontiersmen and depression-era waifs west into the newest Promised Land of American opportunity. But the stretch of the route would also lay between two, deep blue Midwestern cities: former French territories where black migrants would find more welcome settlement than out west alongside their white counterpoints (excepting, perhaps, the Tom Joads). Two cities out of which the New Negro Renaissance of the first half of the century and the Black Arts Movement of the later half would shout, “Come on, get it!”

In 1967 Chicago native and Rada-Dahomey cult initiate Katherine Dunham opens the East Saint Louis Performing Arts Training Center (PATC) and doctors the root for the Black Artists’ Group thing taking the new Chicago AACM as its model. After Saint Louis–reared trumpeter Lester Bowie leaped into Chicago and the Art Ensemble and Saint Louis-kindreds like Oliver Lake would visit to make a little funkaDolphic serialism with them.

Oliver Lake

(Feed. Sow, tend and harvest. Rotate and repeat on down the line.)

The route from Saint Louis and Chicago to Walker Art Center has been varied. Former Black Artists’ Group chairman and founding member of the Human Arts Ensemble, drum-poet Ajule Eneke (Sonny Rutlin) would gather the group Eneke The Bird following his relocation to Tucson, Arizona, bringing Hamid Drake, Douglas R. Ewart, Oliver Lake, Henry Threadgill, and others to his “Desert Harmonies” series. Following the exodus of many of its founders, efforts to reinstall the Saint Louis BAG have persisted nearly into the era of Ferguson, Missouri.

Hamid Drake. Photo: Marek Lazarski

The last time I was audience to the Black Arts ritual was at the Walker and Muhal was there. Humble teacher but resolutely individual Muhal Richard Abrams. Founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music School and Saturday morning workshops with Ewart and them. Now something is remembered for us…

Those of us Minnesotans who are too hip to accept that we are undeserving of good things will be there: on display listening until we’re blue in the face. The body’s a speaker converted to a microphone. Feedback generator in the texture of McGuire Theater.

A proverb from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart instructs that: “Eneke the bird says that since men have learned to shoot without missing, he has learned to fly without perching.” Elder legacies which periodically circle around one another for a feigned landing. Ideals born of necessity. And, I’m told, the thing only works on trust.

Don’t miss them before they go. They can play, and they will.

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