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Clip: At 40, AACM at turning point

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  • Carl Zimring
    At 40, legendary jazz group at turning point By
    Message 1 of 1 , May 2, 2005

      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.

      Looking forward

      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
      its interests.

      "We're learning how to run a non-profit organization, how to get press
      releases out, how to apply for grants the proper way."

      Impressive contributors

      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
      artistic vigor.

      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."

      - - -

      AACM performances

      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.

      May 8

      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.

      May 14

      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
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