Richarda Abrams calls the names of performers at concerts produced by the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians-New York in a proudly stentorian voice, and Friday’s concert season-ender of saxophonist Mantana Roberts’ quartet and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s trio was typically earnest, iconoclastic and rousing. But it’s almost a cry in the wilderness. More than 40 years since its founding in Chicago and almost 25 since its establishment in NYC, the non-profit AACM cooperative still has a mostly underground reputation, though its stars have ascended to important posts in musical academia.
Ms. Abrams is the daughter of pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and Peggy Abrams — the first family of the AACM, which convened experimentalists emerging from the jazz mainstream (the bands of popular saxist Eddie Harris, the studio sessions of Chess Records) on the South Side of Chicago in 1965. With a mission to promote originality and cultural integrity, the AACM from the beginning presented an alternative to jazz in nightclubs, taverns and restaurants, though its members — including the Art Ensemble of Chicago, violinist Leroy Jenkins, saxophonists Anthony Braxton, Fred Anderson (who today hosts Chicago’s storied Velvet Lounge and Henry Threadgill — played in such venues as well as art galleries, college auditoriums, community centers, coffeehouses and the organization’s own Abraham Lincoln Center, where it held instructional classes for neighborhood kids.
I was lucky to discover the AACM during my teens in the late ’60s, to hear its then-unheralded members play mostly around University of Chicago in Hyde Park and Northwestern U. in Evanston (sometimes with their friends like Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake from St. Louis’ similar Black Artists Group) and to obtain their earliest records (Abrams’ eerie Levels and Degrees of Light poet-saxophonist Joseph Jarman’s ferociously lyrical Song For featuring Anderson’s quintet, Braxton’s iconoclastic solo 2-cd set For Alto and Three Compositions of New Jazz, and Roscoe Mitchell’s prophetic Numbers 1 and 2 (with Jarman and Lester Bowie — the birth of the Art Ensemble) just as the Delmark and Nessa labels produced them. These musicians and their compatriots — guitarist Pete Cosey, drummer Steve McCall, vibist Emmanuel Cranshaw, several dozen others — introduced me to the jazz-beyond-jazz concept, which the Art Ensemble dubbed “Great Black Music — Ancient to the Future,” less a nationalistic claim than frank and accurate description, which did not deny there is great White Music or limit what “black music” (pace Amiri Baraka) might be.
The music, whoever was creating it in whatever combination, always went beyond conventions and expectations. It involved extended composition as well as open improvisation, delicacy as well as robust energies, dynamic narrative arcs, entertainment values and roots in both familiar forms (parade and circus music, hymns, bebop) and esoteric ones (African drumming, modal investigations, process pieces, atonality). Every/anything was possible, no ideas seemed taboo, and the musicians apparently didn’t seek permission, they just felt free to pursue their own ideas. They demonstrated extraordinary instrumental skills as well as confidence and a degree of selfless devotion to their group’s concept. The AACM proposed an effective model of ad hoc artistic collaboration on a shoestring, self-generated budget.
And it has kept doing that, while its individual members ventured on in their careers to set sustaining outposts in Europe, New York City and Rhinebeck NY, New Haven, Middletown CT, San Diego, Valencia and Oakland, California. Today Wadada Leo Smith teaches at California Institute of the Arts, Roscoe Mitchell is at Mills College, percussionist Thurman Barker at Bard College, trombonist and electronic music composer George E. Lewis (just finishing pre-pub labors on his 650-page biography of the AACM Power Stronger Than Itself, due in spring from University of Chicago Press) is new director of Columbia University’s Center for Jazz Studies, Braxton is ensconced at Wesleyan University, and their influence extends to musicians far and wide. Several of these artists have been recognized with Guggenheim and MacArthur Awards, some have gained loyal followings and their albums proliferate — most recently, Muhal’s splendid recital Vision Towards Essence from the 1998 Guelph Jazz Festival has been issued by Pi Recordings. Most admirably, AACM members represent quality, and have never sold out.
True, the Art Ensemble, in its heyday, was canny about commercial appeal; Threadgill’s Very Very Circus with its twin electric guitars flirted hard with funk; Wadada has recorded three albums of Yo Miles! interpretations with guitarist Henry Kaiser, and no one has turned down any good paydays, but the AACM is not into smooth jazz, retreads of standards, romantic ballads or anything easy. The pianist Adegoke Steve Colson and his vocalist wife Iqua, organist-singer Amina Claudine Myers, the late tenorist John Stubblefield and trumpeter Malachi Thompson, the instrument-maker/reedist/sculptor Dougas Ewart, drummer Reggie Nicholson, younger AACM members such as wonderful flutist Nicole Mitchell and Mantana Roberts, who played a rigorously methodical, meditative and maximal-minimalist set somewhat reminiscent of Pharoah Sanders — no one takes the paved way forward. They all make music that leaves listeners feeling they’ve experienced something substantial, something to think about, remember and respond to. They do not promote a single style or sound, but rather an attitude of seriousness about what they’re doing, which leads to the construct of new things of beauty and unusual fun.
I’ve written about the AACM and its members from time to time, but never enough to repay my debt to the organization for adopting me into its audience, nor ever well enough to convince an enormous crowd to turn towards it. The other night, as usual, the music grabbed me — especially Roberts’ patient way of pressing her fundimental ideas, and Wadada’s burnished, blasting tone, deployed in a series of consecutively elongated episodes that weren’t structured as a song, concerto or suite, but rather a series of dramas coming to climax. Muhal was the last minute replacement in Wadada’s trio for a Chinese pipa player. His fingerwork was fast, close, articulate, personal, penetrating — he and Wadada and the drummer Martin Obeng formed a firm, flexible, balanced triangle of sound-makers, each supporting and provoking the others.
There were perhaps 50 people in attendance — besides other AACM musicians (Threadgill, Lewis, Nicholson), a familiar coterie of players (pianist Vijay Iyer; percussionist Adam Rudolph, who has been conducting his GO Orchestra at the downtown arts space Roulette on regular Monday for several weeks; drummer Harris Eisenstadt, whose recording The All Seeing Eye + Octets celebrates Wayne Shorter without imitating him), recordists (Jon Rosenberg, who has documented many of the AACM’s New York concerts over the years), journalists (me, photographer Alan Nahagian) and fans (some of them quite influential: Ken Pickering, principal of the Coastal Jazz & Blues Society of Vancouver Canada; Petri Haussila of Finland’s Tum Records; Velibor Pedeski, an electronica deejay and frequent manager of edgy musicians). We know the AACM has something to share that we want to hear, and though it’s not the 25th anniversary of the association or its 50th, nor is there a chart-climbing hit captivating the country or a big tour planned or awards on the way or other glitzy buzz, I wanted to inform you about how strong, steady, enduring the experiments and investigations of this unrivaled group remain, besides being always new.