Freddie Hubbard, the AACM and me in Down Beat

The June issue of Down Beat magazine (subtitled “Jazz, Blues & Beyond”) features my cover story about trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, who has enjoyed a blazing and extended artistic youth, but at age 70 is now somewhat chastened, struggling with challenges to his chops while eager to reaffirm the legitimacy of his reputation. 


The issue also contains my review of musician and educator George E. Lewis’s epic history of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians — here represented by his friend Douglas Ewart’s quintet). I’ve posted my writer’s edition of that report, as it was trimmed just a little for length, 

Also — introducing Matt Miller’s recommendations for music in New York City — comin’ right up


Here’s the complete text of my review of A Power Strong Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music as I submitted it — about 150 words too long — of my thoughts on Lewis’s magisterial and highly readible study of the AACM, the self-supporting artists’ collective I was fortunate enough to discover during formative listening years. The June issue of Down Beat includes the article pretty much if not exactly as I composed it, and nuance matters!: 



George Lewis’s
epic history of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians sets
a new standard for scholarly writing about the people who make Great Black
Music, or any other kind.
A
Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music
(University of Chicago Press),
interweaves interviews with 67 of Lewis’s AACM colleagues, select journalistic
reports and theoretical writings with the perspective of a trusted insider
across a societal portrait worthy of Tolstoy. Lewis dramatizes the story of
independent, underfinanced, determined, sophisticated artists from a
working-class minority subculture struggling to launch an esthetic movement
that emphasizes individuality, continuous exploration and personal development
in a world that could hardly care less.

A self-funded
artists’ collective founded in Chicago in 1965, the AACM has gone on to
establish three generations of adherents’ composing, improvising, performing,
recording and teaching throughout North America and Europe (some have reached South America and Japan, too). The AACM’s mission and structure have proved durable, flexible
and, best of all, achievable, while proposing that its members’ seek out and
employ any material or approach they choose, as long as the results are
expressly their own.

As Lewis tells
it, the organization’s guiding dictums issue in large part from the wise council
of founding chairman Muhal Richard Abrams, but are also tributes to the group’s
ad hoc participatory democracy. The AACM has faced some long-running disputes;
many political, practical and personal issues are confronted in this narrative.
De facto policies including the Association’s stance on racial identity and
exclusivity, gender equality and musical re-creation vs. all-original works
have been debated, yet just having the discussions has served most AACM members
well. While Abrams, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, Leroy
Jenkins, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, Fred Anderson, Lewis and many
others pursue their distinct, sometimes inter-related careers, they remain
tethered to AACM principles.

That the AACM has largely succeeded in raising a platform
for itself the equal today to any experimentalists’ gives the book an upbeat
lift. Some of the text’s greater
power also accrues from the tales of each member arriving at organizational
affiliation. The details of these black Midwesterners meeting on Chicago’s
South Side, leaving that district’s confines and/or reinforcing their roots
recall many an immigrant saga. 




As a devout
AACM member nearly since his professional baptism, an internationally acclaimed
trombonist and computer music innovator, a former music curator of New York’s
Kitchen Center for avant garde performance and the current director of Columbia
University’s Center for Jazz Studies, Lewis has unparalleled experience with
the world he surveys. His evident inclusiveness lends an air of authority and
substance to streetwise descriptions and lofty analysis, although his focus on
theoretical questions occasionally flirts with impenetrability and distracts
from more concrete thought.

For instance,
despite the breadth of his considerations, Lewis is spare in depicting the
music itself, and doesn’t relate the pilgrims’ progress to their recorded
manifestations. He seldom notes an AACM influence in nominally
non-“experimental” contexts, though the Paul Butterfield Band, also from
Chicago’s South Side, expanded its blues and jazz palette considerably when
drummer Philip Wilson, late of the Art Ensemble, joined, and guitarist Pete
Cosey had a crucial role in Miles Davis’s mid-’70s ensemble. Earth Wind and
Fire also owes something to the AACM, the same way the AACM owes some
acknowledgement to Sun Ra’s precedent, though the organization prefers to
downplay it. Neither does Lewis discuss senior AACM members’ ongoing enlistment
as faculty members by educational institutions such as Bard College, Mills
College, California Institute of the Arts and Wesleyan University.

If Lewis bears
any animosities, it’s a subtle grudge that the American jazz press was slow to
acknowledge or understand the AACM’s new music (despite the fact that much of
it took place outside commonly reviewed commercial venues). He also suggests that the
National Endowment for the Arts imposed inappropriate administrative directives
and officers (who go unnamed) in its effort to upgrade and standardize fundees’
business practices. 


More significant, perhaps, is Lewis’s disinterest in
addressing discussing the AACM’s receptivem non-musician listeners. Who have
they been, and what did they want or get from what AACM members created? Lewis
is right that the “Eurocentric” wing of the arts elite and U.S. philanthropies
have initially disdained, condescended to, and worse, ignored the AACM — many
of them continue to do so. Still, a self-selected audience of devotees attached
itself to AACM projects and initiatives, leading to global appreciation and
performance opportunities for many members. To the credit of Lewis’ book,
reading about the AACM leaves one wishing to have been a part of it. –  Howard Mandel

howardmandel.com
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Comments

  1. Tony says

    Howard, I checked out the Hubbard article in db. I recall an interview, I think it was with Blakey, where he comments that he would tell Hubbard to warm up a little before going on stage, to protect his lips, but that Freddie wouldn’t bother; rather, would just step and blow hard right from the start. If that’s the case, not surprising he blew out his lip. Freddie put out some great albums and performances, but in the 70s and 80s , he started chasing Mammon and put out some real dreck. Not sure his reputation has really recovered from that; if it has, it demonstrates the strength of his early work.
    I’ll be checking out the AACM book, but from your review, I gather that this was a book you admired more than enjoyed?
    HM: Freddie Hubbard, like many jazz musicians who emerged in the 1960s, has had a complex relationship with pop forms and ambitions. I agree that he released some mediocre albums that did not do his artistry credit; he also has a complicated personality that has resulted in on-stage outbursts and denial of looming problems while having the upside of considerable charm. His best music is unforgettable, and his worst is utterly forgettable. When he’s played well, there’s just no one like him for strength of sound, precision and ideas — check out the video I linked to, where he’s playing a rich and compressed solo on “Cantaloupe Island” with Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Ron Carter and Joe Henderson.
    I thoroughly enjoyed George Lewis’s book, as well as admiring it, though I kept up a running argument with some his points while reading, comparing my own slighter, less involved but deeply moved experience of the AACM with his, and wrote voluminous notes in my copy’s margins. Hey, that’s engagement! I envy George’s ability to address a broad range of tonalities, from oral history interviews to abstract theorizing, and his success in weaving together such diverse threads into a compelling tapestry; it also sounds just like him (the way he speaks, more than the way he plays trombone or what I’ve heard of his electronics). A Power Stronger Than Itself is much more tightly organized than my books, for instance, and though it is more than 500 pages long and rather formal in diction, it does not drag. I really believe this book sets a new standard for writing about multiple artists working individually and together, and it’s the volume that’s made more of an impression on me as a study of jazz (or what the author might refer to as Afrological music) than anything since Leroi Jones’ Blues People (I also have great respect for Gunther Schuller’s Early Jazz and The Swing Era, have falled for the romanticization in the fictionalized autobiographies of Mingus’ Beneath The Underdog and Mezz Mezzrow’s Really The Blues, learned a lot from Ekkehard Jost’s Free Jazz, and appreciate the research of Paul Tingen’s Miles Beyond).

  2. Tony says

    Howard, I’ve been reading the collected writings fo Whitney Balliett, and came across several articles he did on an AACM festival. Included is a very fine description of George Lewis in performance. Have you read these? I’d recommend them to anyone interested in AACM.
    HM: That’s interesting, I haven’t any recollection of them — I must not have read them, but I have the collected Balliett and I’ll look up those writings. He’s written some of the best jazz journalism I’ve read — the Betty Carter portrait his one favorite, his description of Cecil Taylor at Newport another.

  3. says

    Howard, I checked out the Hubbard article in db. I recall an interview, I think it was with Blakey, where he comments that he would tell Hubbard to warm up a little before going on stage, to protect his lips, but that Freddie wouldn’t bother; rather, would just step and blow hard right from the start. If that’s the case, not surprising he blew out his lip. Freddie put out some great albums and performances, but in the 70s and 80s , he started chasing Mammon and put out some real dreck. Not sure his reputation has really recovered from that; if it has, it demonstrates the strength of his early work.
    HM: Your right, his reputation did suffer. But if we turn to the ’70s and ’80s live performances and many of the records, too, they prove to be much better than dreck. Most recently, Blue Note has issues Pinnacle — a live date from Keystone Korner in the early ’80s. I did some work on it (wrote a press release) but have to say Hubbard plays his heart out, at peak virtuosity, dominating a band that includes the very young and talented Billy Childs on piano.