Clip: AACM turns 40
They took the bull by the horns
May 7, 2005
BY JOHN LITWEILER
A parade of top jazz artists swings into action this weekend for the 40th
anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.
Every five years, this noted Chicago musicians' cooperative celebrates with
a festival, and this year's big concert will occur Sunday evening at the
Museum of Contemporary Art. That's when New York and California-based
free-jazz giants Joseph Jarman, Oliver Lake, James Newton, George Lewis and
Reggie Nicholson will match wits with Chicago's home heavies.
Moreover, the AACM Experimental Chamber Ensemble, including Douglas Ewart,
Nicole Mitchell, Edward Wilkerson and others, will offer a free concert
this afternoon at the Chicago Cultural Center. And May 14 at HotHouse,
Malachi Thompson will lead a combo that includes Roscoe Mitchell in a
tribute to AACM co-founder Phil Cohran, trumpeter and inventor of electric
harps and thumb pianos.
It was at Cohran's South Side apartment that a crowd of adventurous
musicians first gathered on May 8, 1965, to discuss how to cope with that
era's jazz recession. Back then, nightclubs and concert venues were
disappearing all over Chicago -- where could they play their music?
Their answer: Let's present the music ourselves. They formed the AACM to
produce concerts -- finding places to play, advertising, putting up posters
around town, selling tickets, setting up the stages, performing, even
sweeping out the hall afterward.
No need to compete
It was a daring move, at a time when two famous avant-garde musicians'
cooperatives -- the Jazz Artists Guild, formed by Charles Mingus and his
colleagues, and the Jazz Composers Guild, which included notables such as
Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Archie Shepp and Carla Bley -- were struggling in
1960s New York City.
Why did both of these guilds soon vanish, while Chicago's AACM thrived?
"You can't get away from [pianist and AACM leader] Muhal Richard Abrams'
influence," says trombonist and computer-music inventor George Lewis, who's
writing a history of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself, to be
published by the University of Chicago Press. "You see a lot in American
music about competition being a supreme value. For instance, the jam
session is where you compete. Instead of fighting over crumbs from the
music industry, Muhal and the others saw the fallacy of competition. Their
solution was to cooperate. Art comes from a network, a group. The AACM was
a creative community, despite differences in class and so on."
Creative it certainly was. Abrams, the AACM's father figure, urged dozens
of younger musicians to discover original concepts of composition and
improvisation. "It was just the right time," says saxophonist-composer
Roscoe Mitchell. "It was a time to be excited about the possibilities of
doing new and original things with the music."
Our own little New Orleans
Mitchell's early combos evolved into the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the most
famous AACM musicians, with their hundreds of ringing, thunking and
whizzing "little instruments" (toys, found objects, their own inventions,
In contrast to the high-energy music of New York, the music of Chicago's
innovators was more colorful, lyrical and expressive. In their disparate
ways, saxophonists Mitchell, Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Kalaparush, Henry
Threadgill; tragicomic trumpeters Lester Bowie and Wadada Leo Smith;
violinist Leroy Jenkins; pianist Amina Claudine Myers; bassist Malachi
Favors; drummer Steve McCall, and others were brilliant originals who
bloomed in Abrams' bands and then became major figures in modern jazz. That
first AACM generation created a vital jazz scene to compare with early New
Orleans, 1930s Kansas City and New York's 52nd Street of the 1940s.
"The AACM has lasted because of the nurturing it provides," says
association president Douglas Ewart. "It's democratic -- it allows people
to be themselves musically. You have to take people as they are. If you
want to foster growth in somebody, you have to accept them first."
The influence of the AACM has been enormous. Subsequent successful
musicians' co-ops formed around the world -- and there's now a New York
chapter of the AACM. Many members teach at universities; Braxton and Lewis
were awarded MacArthur Foundation "genius" grants, while Abrams, Mitchell
and Bowie have been the most influential AACM musicians.
Of course, the Chicago-based players are active around town all year long,
especially at Fred Anderson's Velvet Lounge, 21281/2 S. Indiana.
Nevertheless, this month's anniversary concerts are a good place to start
celebrating the AACM's 40 years.
John Litweiler is a Chicago jazz critic and author.
AACM 40TH ANNIVERSARY FESTIVAL
AACM Experimental Chamber Ensemble, 2 p.m., Chicago Cultural Center, 78 W.
AACM Fire Trio (Jodie Christian, Ari Brown, Reggie Nicholson); George Lewis
and Ann Ward; Edward Wilkerson and Eight Bold Souls, with Fred Anderson;
Nicole Mitchell and Black Earth Ensemble, with James Newton and Dee
Alexander; Douglas Ewart, Oliver Lake, Mwata Bowden, Rita Warford and
Edward Wilkerson; Isaiah Jackson, Corey Wilkes, Vincent Davis and Art
"Turk" Burton; Great Black Music Ensemble, with Joseph Jarman and Oliver
Lake. 7:30 p.m., Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago. $16-$20
Malachi Thompson Group with Roscoe Mitchell. 9 p.m., HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo.