– Autumn/Winter 2014

The Way Ahead: The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and Chicago’s Black Arts Revolution

Dieter Roelstraete

Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in the front yard of the WJ Studios and Gallery in Chicago, IL, 1970. Photograph: Wadsworth Jarrell

They play. You listen. No one dreams.

— Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘I Discovered Jazz in America’1

[The Art Ensemble of Chicago] once found itself playing to just three people in its own hometown, and it attracted its largest following among white college students — in France.

— Ken Burns, Jazz: A History of America’s Music2

In the spring of 1965, close to half a century ago, four jazz musicians hailing from Chicago’s overwhelmingly African American South Side began meeting in the kitchen of an apartment in one of the city’s many post-War-built public housing projects. During these informal get-togethers at the parental home of one of the musicians, the foursome — pianist Richard Abrams (b.1930, Chicago), pianist Jodie Christian (b.1932, Chicago; died there in 2012), harpist and trumpeter Phil Cohran (b.1927, Oxford, Mississippi) and percussionist Steve McCall (b.1933, Chicago; died there in 1989) — would discuss the various challenges facing black musicians coming of age in mid-1960s America, when that period’s simmering social conflict and increasing cultural dissent had become manifest in the jazz community. (The titles of some of the era’s classic jazz albums suffice to tell the story

  1. Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘I Discovered Jazz in America’ (1947), in Robert Gottlieb (ed.), Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now, New York: Pantheon Books, 1996, p.710.

  2. Quoted in Howard Reich, ‘The Measure of Jazz: Two Views of Ken Burns’ New Series’, Chicago Tribune, 7 January 2001. Jazz: A History of American Music is a documentary film directed by Ken Burns that premiered on PBS stations in the US in 2001.

  3. See George Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2008, p.97. Lewis’s magisterial 650-page tome tells the story of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in the greatest imaginable detail; Lewis, himself a prolific composer and contributor to some of the era’s landmark recordings, has been a prominent member of the organisation since the 1970s. His book is also an invaluable source for students of post-War US musical history and anyone interested in the African American experience in the Midwest in particular. Oak Woods Cemetery is located in the Woodlawn neighbourhood on Chicago’s South Side (a couple of blocks south from this author’s home, in fact). It is also the final resting place of such luminaries as Jesse Owens, the unlikely sprinting hero of the 1936 Berlin Olympics; Eddie Harris, author of the jazz standard ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’ (1965); and Harold Washington, the first African American mayor of Chicago and a key figure in the cultural history of black Chicago.

  4. This essay is based in part on preparatory research for an exhibition that will be organised at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in the summer of 2015 in honour of the AACM’s fifty-year existence, curated by the undersigned in collaboration with Naomi Beckwith. Originally titled ‘The Way Ahead’ (as the current essay is called), the exhibition was renamed ‘The Freedom Principle’ — an allusion to an important book by Chicago jazz critic John Litweiler chronicling the history of avant-garde jazz that takes the year 1958 as its starting point. See J. Litweiler, The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958, New York: Da Capo Press, 1990.

  5. See Adorno’s notorious diatribe ‘On Jazz’ (1936), in Theodor Adorno, Essays on Music (ed. Richard Leppert, trans. Susan H. Gillespie), Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

  6. The Chicago-based publication Negro Digest, which in 1970 changed its name to Black World — a cornerstone of the Johnson Publishing Company empire that continues to be the home of Ebony and Jet — was one of the foremost public platforms for Black Aesthetics, culminating in the publication, in 1971, of Addison Gayle, Jr’s landmark collection of essays, The Black Aesthetic (Ann Arbor and New York: University of Michigan Press and Doubleday).

  7. The musical trajectory of Anthony Braxton, an influential early member of the AACM, neatly encapsulates the many ambiguities and complexities of the AACM’s handling of tradition and, specifically, blackness in music. An admired interpreter of Charlie Parker’s music, Braxton is also known for his idiosyncratic graphic scores, the sonic effects of which are often much closer in spirit and timbre to the sound world of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Anton Webern than anything resembling the blues or swing. ‘Braxton’s work was respected across a broad spectrum of experimental fields, but he remained something of a polarising figure as far as the jazz world was concerned. For some, adjectives such as “mathematical” and “Varese-like” served to problematise his jazz bonafides, as critics suspended the more typically macho language related to swinging, punching and driving in favour of musicologically influenced depictions of the music’s structure and organisation.’ G. Lewis, A Power Stronger than Itself, op. cit., p.342.

  8. Here, an explanation of the essay’s title is in order. The Way Ahead is another one of those programmatically titled jazz albums — 33RPM manifestos, really — from the genre’s great period of experimentation: an album by New York City free jazz stalwart Archie Shepp, recorded and released in the halcyon year of 1968. One of the album’s longer tracks is tellingly titled ‘New Africa’, inspired by the redrawing of the map of the black continent in the epochal wake of the post-War independence movements. See Ingrid Monson, Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

  9. From 11 until 17 August 1965, in the year of the AACM’s founding in Chicago, the historic stronghold of the African American community in Los Angeles went up in the flames and smoke of the Watts Riots. (It was a momentous year in many regards: months earlier, in February, Malcolm X was assassinated.) An Angeleno counterpart of the AACM could be found in the Underground Musicians Association, founded by pianist Horace Tapscott in 1963, which later changed its name to the Union of God’s Musicians and Artists Ascension. UGMAA’s roots can be located in turn in one of Tapscott’s earliest ensembles, the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra (note the orthographic nod to Sun Ra’s Arkestra). See Steven L. Isoardi, The Dark Tree: Jazz and the Community Arts in Los Angeles, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

  10. Quoted in the programme for the Concert of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Association-Maison de la Culture d’Angers, France. See also G. Lewis, A Power Stronger than Itself, op. cit., p.228.

  11. This painting is the subject of a close reading by G. Lewis in ‘Purposive Patterning: Jeff Donaldson, Muhal Richard Abrams, and the Multidominance of Consciousness’, Lenox Avenue: A Journal of Interarts Inquiry, vol.5,1999, published by the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College in Chicago. Lewis states: ‘This is what the works of Muhal Richard Abrams and Jeff Donaldson ultimately address: an open-ended, polyphonic process of identity formation that comprises the social, the political, the ideological, the spiritual and the phenomenological in the service of an integrative perspective.’ Ibid., p.68.

  12. Quoted in G. Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself, op. cit., p.167.

  13. On black artists’ organised response to Picasso’s steel behemoth — which the artist himself famously never saw in person — see Rebecca Zorach, ‘Art & Soul: An Experimental Friendship Between the Street and a Museum’, Art Journal, vol.70, no.2, Summer 2011, p.78. The well-known African American poet Gwendolyn Brooks was commissioned to pronounce a dedication at the gargantuan sculpture’s unveiling in August 1967; less than two weeks later, her colleague Eugene Perkins had this to say at the unveiling of the Wall of Respect: ‘Let Picasso’s enigma of steel / fester in the backyard of the / city father’s cretaceous sanctuary. / It has no meaning for black people, / only showmanship to entertain / imbecilic critics who judge all art by / European standards... / The WALL is for black people.’

  14. Quoted in G. Lewis, A Power Stronger than Itself, op. cit., p.168.