Clip: At 40, AACM at turning point
At 40, legendary jazz group at turning point
By Howard Reich
Tribune arts critic
Published May 1, 2005
A 40th birthday can be traumatic, but for one of Chicago's most illustrious
musical organizations, it appears to be rejuvenating.
Innovative musicians from around the country -- and across the city -- will
converge on Chicago's stages during the next two weekends to celebrate the
founding of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians
(AACM), a Chicago institution that changed the course of jazz four decades
ago and continues to do so.
Though many listeners may be unfamiliar with the acronym, the musicians who
have performed and recorded under its banner have long since become
international figures. Imagine the past four decades without the epic tenor
saxophone solos of Fred Anderson, the majestic reed soliloquies of Roscoe
Mitchell, the intricate sound-structures of composer-bandleader Anthony
Braxton, the Eastern-tinged experiments of Henry Threadgill and the
ancient-meets-the-future improvisations of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and
you sense the scope of the AACM's contributions.
Add to this list such sorely missed members as trumpeter Lester Bowie,
bassist Malachi Favors, drummer Steve McCall, bassist Fred Hopkins and
trumpeter Ameen Muhammad -- whose deaths underscored the value of their
work -- and it's clear that jazz of the past 40 years would have been
diminished without the AACM collective.
Yet the 40th anniversary shows that as the AACM officially enters middle
age, it's looking forward rather than back. Young talents such as the
brilliant trumpeter Corey Wilkes and the stylistically versatile
saxophonist Aaron Getsug have brought fresh possibilities to the
organization, while ascending stars such as flutist-bandleader Nicole
Mitchell have reminded listeners that the AACM remains an incubator for
distinctive jazz talent.
"Every entity has its growth spurts, and I think we're having one now,"
says AACM chairman and bandleader Douglas R. Ewart, citing a growing talent
roster that includes pianist Justin Dillard, bassist Junius Paul, cellist
Tomeka Reid and drummers Isaiah Spencer and Mike Reed, among others.
"We're still spreading our tentacles around the world. Nicole [Mitchell]
recently performed in Israel, Edward [Wilkerson] has been there, and I've
played in Brazil and Puerto Rico."
More important than their travel itineraries, however, is the nature of the
music they're creating. Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble eloquently has
merged live performance with video art; Wilkerson has been performing
excerpts of a searing opera-in-progress, "Harold in Chicago"; and Ewart has
brought the art of collective improvisation to a heightened degree of
sophistication with his aptly named Inventions Clarinet Choir.
Though the AACM long has survived on the efforts of its musicians, who
organized and promoted concerts themselves, last summer the AACM opened an
office in the Fine Arts Building, in space operated by the non-profit Jazz
Institute of Chicago.
"It's not only the music anymore -- it's the business now too," says AACM
drummer Dushun Mosley, who mans the AACM office and has become a nexus for
"We're learning how to run a non-profit organization, how to get press
releases out, how to apply for grants the proper way."
The most recent fruit of these are apparent in the 40th anniversary events,
the AACM gathering support from an impressive roster of contributors,
including The Boeing Co., Illinois Arts Council, Chicago Community Trust
and the City of Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs.
"Organizationally, the AACM clearly is at a turning point," says Lauren
Deutsch, executive director of the Jazz Institute of Chicago.
"But their artistic reach is also just getting deeper.
"I've observed Douglas Ewart showing French musicians how to play `Red
Hills,' which is not written in conventional notation, and I've seen [AACM
bandleader] Mwata Bowden teaching students in Chicago how to play `Red
"So the AACM not only created a new musical language but figured out how to
document it, notate it and teach it to others, which means it's
Certainly the AACM has come a remarkable distance from its origins, on the
South Side of Chicago, when Muhal Richard Abrams in 1962 formed the
Experimental Band, a rehearsal ensemble staffed by no less than Anderson,
McCall, alto saxophonists Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell and drummer
Jack DeJohnette, among others. Realizing anew that Chicago overflowed with
major talent but that opportunities to perform and record were in short
supply, the musicians eventually cohered around the idea of creating a
collective of players who would promote one another.
"Muhal Richard Abrams and I sort of dreamed up the idea one night at some
West Side bar," Anderson once told the Tribune, citing Jodie Christian,
McCall, Phil Cohran and others as co-founders.
"We figured there was no place for us to be showcased, no place to be
heard. Most of the clubs weren't too keen on booking the latest new music,
and there weren't even that many clubs to begin with.
"So we decided to showcase ourselves, build an organization that would
feature us, instead of waiting around for someone else to do it.
"It was really tough at first. Anytime you're breaking new ground and
playing original music, you can expect resistance. But that was no problem,
because the Chicago guys were used to that."
Struggled in '80s
The international success of the Art Ensemble and Braxton's Trio in the
late 1960s and of Threadgill's Air in the '70s solidified the AACM's
stature as a progenitor of radical new ideas in jazz, but the journey never
was easy. More a concept and a musical philosophy than a concrete
institution, the AACM struggled in the 1980s, when many listeners'
interests turned toward more traditional styles of jazz.
But even with major figures such as Abrams and Braxton leaving Chicago, and
with the AACM's South Side headquarters and school destroyed in 1991, the
organization would not disband. The critical acclaim accorded AACM bands
such as Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio and Ethnic Heritage Ensemble,
Wilkerson's 8 Bold Souls and Shadow Vignettes, Dawkins' New Horizons
Ensemble and Bowden's Sound Spectrum attested to the AACM's enduring
Not that the AACM can get comfortable, anytime soon. Though thankful that
the AACM School has continued to operate on the campus of Chicago State
University, Ewart hopes that the collective can find a single space in
which to teach, organize and perform.
"My dream is to have the school on a much larger scale . . . and to have a
building on the South Side, because we started there," Ewart says.
"We still want to be nomads, touring the world, but we need a home.
"Five years from now, when we give the next anniversary concert, we hope
we'll be performing in a place of our own."
- - -
Following is the lineup of upcoming performances celebrating the 40th
anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians
(AACM). For more information, call the AACM at 312-922-1900 or visit
Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St.
2 p.m. -- AACM Experimental Chamber Ensemble, with Nicole Mitchell, Douglas
R. Ewart, Edward Wilkerson Jr., Mwata Bowden, Ari Brown, Ann Ward and
Dushun Mosley; free.
Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave.
2 p.m. -- "Dialogue: Historical Perspectives," a conversation with
Mitchell, Ward, Ewart, Joseph Jarman, George E. Lewis and Rita Warford;
4 p.m. -- Performance by students of the AACM School; free.
7:30 p.m. -- AACM Fire Trio, staffed by Jodie Christian, Reggie Nicholson
and Ari Brown; duo with Lewis and Ann Ward; Wilkerson's 8 Bold Souls,
featuring Fred Anderson; Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble, with guests James
Newton and Dee Alexander; quintet staffed by Ewart, Bowden, Wilkerson,
Warford and Oliver Lake; quartet with Isaiah Jackson, Corey Wilkes, Vincent
Davis and Art "Turk" Burton; and Great Black Music Ensemble, led by Mwata
Bowden; $16-$20; call 312-397-4010.
7:30 p.m., HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo Drive. "Three Generations of AACM
Bandleaders," with Roscoe Mitchell, Malachi Thompson, Kahil El'Zabar and
others; $15-$17; 312-362-9707.
-- Howard Reich