At 50, The AACM Keeps Collecting Individuals


The Muhal Richard Abrams Sextet, circa 1972/ courtesy AACM

Greetings from New Orleans, where the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival begins tomorrow. And where, courtesy of something called the “United States Postal Service’s Jazz Fest Postal Cache,” those of us packed into the new (and quite nice) performance space at the George and Joyce Wein Jazz & Heritage Center got a three-song set from the original Meters—keyboardist Art Neville, bass player George Porter, Jr., drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste and guitarist Leo Nocentelli.
New Orleans is in Louisiana, a state whose governor, Bobby Jindal, has an Op-Ed. piece in today’s New York Times compelled by his apparent concern for “the musicians, caterers, photographers and others” contracted for same-sex weddings,” because, as he writes “a great many Americans who are not members of the clergy feel just as called to live their faith through their businesses.”
Well, Mr. Jindal, guys like Zigaboo appear to live faith through his business, but that business is about funkiness as a belief system, not bigotry masquerading as religiosity. (But I digress…)
Speaking of faith-based endeavors (faith placed in the power of music and art and education and social justice) below is my piece in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal honoring the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which turned 50 this year. If you’re in Chicago, where the group was founded, head to Mandel Hall for a celebratory concert on Sunday.
If you’re in NY, where there’s a notable chapter, try Manhattan’s Bohemian Hall April 28&29 for some notable concerts, including a rare trio of George Lewis, Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell).
Here’s my Wall Street Journal piece marking the AACM’s 50th in The Wall Street Journal:
April 21, 2015
At 50, A Musicians’ Group Keeps Growing
A portable oxygen tank, painted vivid colors and fashioned with a drumhead, sits near a wooden crutch adorned with bells, beads and wheels. These objects—improvised instruments and freestanding sculptures—were made by multi-instrumentalist Douglas Ewart from items found on the street. They make perfect sense among the 83 items in “Free at First: The Audacious Journey of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians,” an exhibition curated by Carol L. Adams and Janis Lane-Ewart at the DuSable Museum of African American History through Sept. 6, one of many events commemorating the 50th anniversary of an organization now best known by its abbreviation, AACM.
The AACM has long offered sustenance and support to musicians steeped in jazz tradition yet unwilling to be confined by it. Through a half-century, the organization has grown from a collective of ambitious Chicago musicians to an engine of creative inspiration and practical outreach that has touched nearly all corners of modern music.
Mr. Ewart, once the organization’s president, was mentored as a teenager in the late 1960s at the AACM’s music school, which is still in operation, free of charge, at Chicago State University. “The AACM was my birth mother for music, and in other ways,” he said in an interview.
The DuSable exhibition documents the AACM’s founding fathers through artifacts from the organization’s beginnings. Pianists Muhal Richard Abrams and Jodie Christian, drummer Steve McCall and trumpeter Phil Cohran had sent out postcards inviting leading Chicago musicians to meet on May 8, 1965, at Mr. Cohran’s South Side home to set the AACM’s course and credo.
“First of all, number one, there’s original music, only,” Mr. Abrams said at that gathering, according to “A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and Experimental Music,” a 2008 book by trombonist and composer George Lewis, also an important force in the AACM ranks. Mr. Lewis’s book framed the conditions that gave rise to this movement: A legendary South Side jazz and blues scene quickly evaporating; creative ferment demanding a broader jazz aesthetic; a transformation of African-American identity and its representations; and, above all, a dedication to wherever collective purpose and individualized composition might lead gifted musicians in a troubled yet genre-free world. (“Don’t give me a name,” Mr. Abrams has said about “jazz,” which is notably absent from the association’s name. “I’m not taking it.”)
The DuSable exhibition rightly places the AACM story within the long view of African-American history. Another museum exhibition, “The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now,” curated by Naomi Beckwith and Dieter Roelstraete and opening July 11 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, will frame the AACM in terms of boundary-breaking links between musicians and visual artists. That connection gets literal—the show will include paintings by Mr. Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell, a multireedist who was among the earliest AACM members.
Well beyond Chicago, the AACM (which includes a New York chapter, formed in the late 1970s by Mr. Abrams and pianist Amina Claudine Myers, among others) holds a singularly celebrated place. Its key members form a roll call of distinguished African-American musicians, with National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Fellowships, MacArthur Foundation grants and prestigious academic appointments: Mr. Abrams, still a formidable creative force at 84, whose early-1960s Experimental Band helped foster the organization; Mr. Lewis, now 62, the Edwin H. Case professor of American music at Columbia University; and, among others, multireedists Anthony Braxton, Joseph Jarman, Henry Threadgill and Mr. Mitchell, and trumpeters Wadada Leo Smith and the late Lester Bowie. These musicians’ individual expressions sound nothing alike, yet their careers trace a shared ascendance.
The AACM has in some ways been caricatured for contributions to jazz’s avant-garde. The deeper truth is that jazz’s mainstream is closer to the AACM’s ideas now than it was a half-century ago largely through the influence of the association’s musicians. The same can be said of the AACM’s effect on contemporary classical and electronic music, and within academia.
Whitney Balliett once quoted an unidentified AACM member: “If you take all the sounds of all the AACM musicians and put them together, that’s the AACM sound, but I don’t think anyone’s heard that yet.” Even so, this 50th anniversary year may approximate that experience.
Among the many Chicago events, an April 26 concert at the University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall will gather 50 AACM members, bridging continents and generations. Mr. Abrams’s Experimental Band will perform a rare reunion concert at this year’s Chicago Jazz Festival (Sept. 3). The Great Black Music Ensemble, the closest thing to an AACM house band, will play original scores to three commissioned dance pieces (Aug. 3). And the Museum of Contemporary Art will host performances from July through November, including Mr. Mitchell in four different trio settings (Sept. 27).
In New York next week, the new-music series “Interpretations” will present symphony and chamber works by AACM composers (April 28) and Messrs. Abrams, Lewis and Mitchell in trio (April 29). The AACM’s New York chapter will stage a four-concert festival in October.
Meanwhile, Mr. Lewis has transformed his AACM book into an opera, scheduled as a work-in-progress at Brooklyn’s Roulette (May 22-23) and the Contemporary Museum of Art Chicago (July 17): The museum will host its premiere in October.
It’s fitting that this anniversary celebration features so many personal takes on a shared legacy. As Mr. Abrams said in an interview, “the AACM is always expanding but in a specific way. It’s collecting individuals.”

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