Listening to the Women of Chicago's AACM

The Voices Heard! ensemble performing at the Jazz Institute of Chicago’s Made in Chicago Festival in Poznan, Poland: (l-r.) Ann Ward, Coco Elysses, Nicole Mitchell, Dee Alexander, Tomeka Reid, Renee Baker/ photo: Lauren Deutsch

I can’t think of a better way for the Jazz Institute of Chicago to wrap up a year of programming highlighting the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) than with a free concert on Dec. 11 by the Voices Heard! ensemble. The event gathers women who have made significant contributions to the AACM and whose musicianship has been marked by the AACM’s influence: vocalist Dee Alexander, pianist and singer Ann Ward, flutist Nicole Mitchell, cellist Tomeka Reid, violinist Renee Baker, and percussionist, singer and songwriter Coco Elysses.
The promotional headline reads:
Empowering Women, Spanning Generations: The Women of the AACM Unite!
It celebrates an aspect of AACM’s legacy that deserves attention beyond Chicago.
Earlier this year, while researching a Wall Street Journal piece celebrating the AACM anniversary, I spoke at length with Mitchell, a perennial poll-topper as flutist and a real visionary as a composer and the leader of several groups (her Black Earth Ensemble performs at the Chicago event). Currently also Professor of Music at the University of California, Irvine, Mitchell arrived in Chicago in 1990, where she began playing music on the streets. She was drawn to the AACM, eventually serving as its first female president, from 2009-2011.
Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

When I moved to Chicago and started playing music on the street downtown, I started meeting AACM members naturally. Eventually, I looked up AACM found in the phone book. I came to their office because they had Saturday classes. I showed up at Saturday school. That was my first kind of real effort to connect with them formally.
That’s how those relationships began for me. Those relationships turned into long-term mentorships. The first was Douglas Ewart. Through AACM, I realized that I could have a musical community that was mutually supportive of the idea of original music. Whatever I was going to do was OK. I wanted to bridge the familiar with the unknown. It was important that I found a positive, nurturing environment.
I needed to incubate. I had decided that I needed to incubate with a group of women musicians. I didn’t necessarily have the confidence I needed then, but in a collective where it’s all women, that would be a safe place for me to experiment, a secure laboratory. I found that as co-founder of Samana, the AACM’s first all-woman ensemble. This ensemble was directly influenced by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Several women in Samana had also studied seriously with [AACM co-founder] Phil Cohran.
As for my larger involvement with the AACM, it was very organic. I came to the organization in late 1995, and I started out as secretary for a long time. Over the years, I just felt that I had some vision, some of the direction we could go in.
There is no one AACM sound. Some people think there is a certain aesthetic, but it’s really about finding your own voice and refining it, about finding ways and partners to demonstrate excellence and originality. The organization has had this incredible endurance, an ability to maintain a presence in spite of obstacles.

Below are more details about the Dec. 3rd event in Chicago:

CHICAGO, 3 DECEMBER 2015 – Capping off the year-long 50th anniversary celebration of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the Jazz Institute of Chicago celebrates female voices from the formidable creative organization on December 11 at 7 p.m. during a free performance at Garfield Conservatory (300 N. Central Park).
All astonishing in their own right, these AACM sisters, musical, spiritual, conceptual, downright levitating sounds reflect the energy of the of the South Side collective and their all important contributions to the organization’s great legacy.
And so, simply enough, let us hear Dee Alexander, vocalist nonpareil, who stopped being a best kept secret in the rest of the world with her stunning performance at the 2013 Newport Jazz Festival and continued expanding her audience with her stunning 2014 album, “Songs My Mother Loves.” Equally at home with jazz standards and earth mother chants, she has the capability to redefine the music in any setting.
Let’s hear Ann Ward, who will be playing piano this evening, but is also treasured as a singer in such settings as the AACM Great Black Music Ensemble and AACM Vocal Ensemble and highly valued as a composer whose works have been featured by the all-female group Six Degrees.
Let’s hear Nicole Mitchell, who in recent years not only has redefined the flute in all manner of jazz settings, but also has expanded the instrument’s popularity – as reflected by her dominance of the flute category in magazine polls. Her Black Earth Ensemble represents a high point in the merger of music and African American myth and her relationships with an expanding circle of great players has only enhanced her reputation.
Let’s hear Tomeka Reid, who broke through this year with a quartet album that ranges from chamber sounds to jolly grooves, taking the cello past the boundaries that usually separate jazz, classical music and new music.
Let’s hear world class violinist and composer Renee Baker, who in addition to being an AACM stalwart who appeared with Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Strings) is artistic director of the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project, PEK Contemporary Project/ Berlin and the Mantra Blue Free Orchestra among many other musical projects.
And, finally, let’s hear Coco Elysses, an alumnus of the all-female ensemble Samana who will be playing percussion tonight but has also drawn serious attention as a singer, actor, voice-over artist, songwriter and arranger.
Listening to these women reminds us that they are an integral part of the AACM’s sound, spirit and uncompromising work ethic. After 50 years of creative music, we shouldn’t expect any less.
About JazzCity
Founded in 1969, The Jazz Institute of Chicago promotes and nurtures jazz in Chicago by providing jazz education, developing and supporting musicians, building audiences and fostering a thriving jazz scene. For more information on our programs, visit
About The Jazz Institute of Chicago
Founded in 1969, The Jazz Institute of Chicago promotes and nurtures jazz in Chicago by providing jazz education, developing and supporting musicians, building audiences and fostering a thriving jazz scene. For more information on our programs, visit


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