Friday, May 02, 2008

AACM: Four Decades of Music That Redefined Free

New York Times
May 2, 2008

“First of all, No. 1, there’s original music, only.”

Those words would have consequences, yielding everything from runic silence to braying cacophony, from open improvisation to orchestral scores. Baubles and bells. Bicycle horns. The rumble of a hundred tubas. Ancient drums and electronic striations, and flashes of full-tilt swing.

The pianist and composer Muhal Richard Abrams uttered that statement of purpose one afternoon some 43 years ago, in a meeting on the South Side of Chicago. In the process he laid the groundwork for the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, an organization that has fostered some of the most vital American avant-garde music of the last 40 years.

Though noncommercial, often pointedly conceptual and unabashedly arcane, this music has had a profound influence over the years on several generations of experimental musicians worldwide.

The scene plays out vividly in “A Power Stronger Than Itself: The A.A.C.M. and Experimental Music,” an important book by the trombonist-composer-scholar George Lewis due out from the University of Chicago Press this month. Reconstructing that inaugural meeting from audio tapes, Mr. Lewis conveys not only Mr. Abrams’s aim but also the vigorous debate begun by his notion of “original music.” (Whose music? How original?) From the start, it’s clear, the association expressed its firm ideals partly through collective discourse.

Next Friday night another sort of discourse will unfold at the Community Church of New York in Murray Hill, when the association convenes a panel discussion with a handful of its current members, including Mr. Lewis, the multireedist Henry Threadgill and the pianist and vocalist Amina Claudine Myers. The conversation will precede a concert featuring Mr. Lewis and Mr. Abrams in an improvising trio with the trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith.

The evening was conceived largely as a celebration of Mr. Lewis’s book, which in turn was conceived largely as a celebration of the organization, an African-American body now rooted in both Chicago and New York. Mr. Lewis narrates its development with exacting context and incisive analysis, occasionally delving into academic cultural theory. But because the book includes biographical portraits of so many participating musicians, it’s a swift, engrossing read.

“I told George, ‘It’s like you wrote a Russian family novel of the A.A.C.M.,’ ” said the critic Greg Tate, who will moderate the panel.

Mr. Abrams reflected on the book and the organization last week in a conversation on the roof terrace of the apartment building in Clinton where he has lived since 1977. “The A.A.C.M. is a group of individuals who agree to agree, or sometimes not to agree,” he said. “Our cohesiveness has been intact because we respect each other’s individualism.”

Mr. Lewis, the Edwin H. Case professor of American music and the director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, offered a similar thought. “As I saw it,” he said in his office, “here’s a group of people who had a robust conversation going on, with basically no holds barred, and yet managed to manage their diversity without falling apart, without falling into factionalism.”

Such is the basic philosophy of an association once pegged by the jazz critic Whitney Balliett as “a black musical self-help group.” Three years ago, as part of its 40th-anniversary celebration, some clearer definitions emerged at a colloquium presented by the Guelph Jazz Festival in Ontario.

The saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell began by recalling how the organization grew out of the Experimental Band, led by Mr. Abrams on the South Side of Chicago. “We wanted to have a place where we could sponsor each other in concerts of our original compositions; provide a training program for young, aspiring musicians in the community; reach out to other people and other cities; and have exchange programs,” he said.

Noticeably absent from Mr. Mitchell’s description, and from the language of the early planning meetings, was the word jazz. This was partly in keeping with the arm’s length the organization intended to establish between its art and the commercial realm of nightclubs, then the de facto setting for any African-American art music. Partly, too, these musicians were concerned with a breadth of style that reached beyond jazz, to encompass serious classical composition, as well as music from Africa and the East. Having inherited the new freedoms of 1960s jazz innovators like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, the artists in this movement were ready for a next step, one they could claim as their own.

“This is a book about mobility and agency,” Mr. Lewis said. He links this impulse conceptually to the Great Migration, illuminating how the association’s first generation came from families that had moved to Chicago from a postslavery South. He examines the continuing debate over the organization’s exclusion of nonblack musicians, shedding new light on the phrase Great Black Music, which many in the association adopted.

“What a lot of us are looking for,” he added, “is a much more open-ended conversation than any simplistic prescriptions of blackness will allow.”

Pluralism has always been an ideal of the organization. Reporting on a marathon WKCR radio broadcast in 1977, Mr. Balliett quoted one unidentified member, responding to a question of style: “The A.A.C.M. sound? If you take all the sounds of all the A.A.C.M. musicians and put them together, that’s the A.A.C.M. sound, but I don’t think anyone’s heard that yet.”

The utopian tinge of such language was hardly lost on the artists themselves. “If this was to be a revolution,” Mr. Lewis writes, “it would be a revolution without stars, individual heroes or Great Men.”

But the association has had its share of great men (and a few great women): audacious improvisers like the trumpeter Lester Bowie, the tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson and the violinist Leroy Jenkins; visionary composers like Mr. Abrams, Ms. Myers, Mr. Threadgill, Mr. Mitchell and the saxophonist Anthony Braxton. The Art Ensemble of Chicago, the most celebrated of all its groups, has always principally emphasized the elusive chemistry of its players, who in the group’s heyday included Mr. Bowie and Mr. Mitchell alongside the multireedist Joseph Jarman, the bassist Malachi Favors and the drummer Famoudou Don Moye.

Yet even in the most solitary of settings — the solo saxophone recital, as represented by Mr. Braxton’s landmark 1968 album, “For Alto” (Delmark) — the aesthetic of the organization called for something other than the jazzman’s heroic voice. For this reason, Mr. Lewis said, the association represents a postmodern ideal: “You’re thinking about it in terms of multiple subjectivities rather than a unified subject.”

Unlike Coltrane or even Ornette Coleman, who each developed a recognizably penetrating sound, these artists largely favored a sense of identity that was protean and slippery. And their resistance to habitual gestures was fierce.

“With the A.A.C.M., you’re not rooted in a set of simple, codifiable practices,” Mr. Lewis said, “but you’re rooted in an attitude, in a creation of an atmosphere, in an orientation to experience.”

Not surprisingly, this approach never enjoyed mass acceptance, though the Art Ensemble of Chicago has always played to large concert audiences. The greater impact of the association has been felt among other artists. It inspired the formation of the Black Artists Group in St. Louis in the late 1960s. And as its first generation gradually relocated to New York in the 1970s, its experimental ethos connected with a larger circle of musicians. One was the alto saxophonist and composer John Zorn, a chief architect of the so-called downtown scene of the 1980s and ’90s.

Mr. Lewis’s book takes a cleareyed view of the historic tensions between the Chicago and New York chapters of the association. Within his narrative those tensions sit side by side, unresolved, as they are in real life. The flutist Nicole Mitchell, a younger member of the organization who now serves as its first chairwoman, suggested as much in an e-mail message this week: “New York and Chicago will continue to be very distinct organizations.”

But Ms. Mitchell, who lives in Chicago, framed those differences in positive terms. “For example, new members only come through in Chicago, and the A.A.C.M. School only exists in Chicago.” She was referring to the organization’s educational program, which, as she put it, “continues to fill a gap that is still present today on Chicago’s South Side.” And she pointed out that the two chapters had grown much more interactive in recent years, partly as a result of events surrounding the 40th anniversary in 2005.

Matana Roberts, an alto saxophonist, weighed in as a younger member of the Chicago chapter who now lives in New York. “The Chicago organization and the New York organization have different goals,” she said. “The people who came to New York were pretty major performers on an international level, whereas there are a lot of people in Chicago who perform on more of a local level. So I think there has been a lot of misunderstanding. But in the last five or six years, things seem to be pretty well connected.”

The association’s presence in New York can be harder to find than it is in Chicago, but it has grown increasingly pervasive. Certainly its spirit of self-preservation and collectivity can be found in the Vision Festival, presented each June on the Lower East Side by the artist-run nonprofit organization Arts for Art. (This year’s event will feature performances by numerous members of the association, including Mr. Lewis.) A related entity, Rise Up Creative Music and Arts, has been presenting performances each weekend this spring, also on the Lower East Side. On Friday the series will feature Ms. Roberts in a solo performance.

The association’s practices can also be found around the city on a regular basis, thanks to artists like the pianist Vijay Iyer, a nonmember who has worked extensively as a sideman with Mr. Smith and Mr. Mitchell. Both of the albums released by Mr. Iyer last month reflect his deep experience with the organization; one, “Door” (Pi), is a product of the collective trio Fieldwork, which could be considered a sort of unofficial byproduct of the association. (Fieldwork’s other two members are the drummer Tyshawn Sorey, who has backed Mr. Abrams in concert, and the saxophonist Steve Lehman, who is now a teaching assistant for Mr. Lewis.)

For Mr. Lewis, who began work on “A Power Stronger Than Itself” more than a decade ago as a professor in the music department at the University of California, San Diego, the association presents a continuing story, especially given the relatively recent arrival of talent like Ms. Mitchell and Ms. Roberts. And as he has demonstrated in his own career, the older members of the organization have continued to create and innovate.

Mr. Abrams made much the same point. “Certainly there has been great development, and I think at the base of that development is constant work,” he said.

And at the heart of that work? Originality, of course. Or as Mr. Abrams put it, “The word and the work are the same.”

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