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Chicago: The Avant-Garde - A NEW WAY OF THINKING, THE AACM, THE ART ENSEMBLE OF CHICAGO, OTHER AACM MUSICIANS

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After free jazz broke the sound barrier in New York and virtually all music rules were considered optional, it was time for a reassessment. Could jazz evolve only by becoming more crowded, dense, and dissonant? Was jazz heading towards a dead end, unable to become freer and more modern without becoming completely unlistenable?

Jazz musicians, who were finding themselves short of work with rock’s rise in popularity and clubowners’ reluctance to hire more adventurous players, were going to have to take control of their situation. New ideas were needed, ranging from alternative venues to forming artist-owned labels and somehow educating the public about the new music.

A group of musicians in Chicago came up with some possible answers in the 1960s and started a powerful organization.

THE AACM

In 1962 pianist Muhal Richard Abrams formed the Experiment Band in Chicago. Although starting out as a fairly conventional big band, over the next few years it incorporated freer sounds, adventurous arrangements, and innovative improvisations. Unfortunately the group never recorded, but it was influential within Chicago and led to the formation of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).

The AACM was formed in 1965 in Chicago. It has had many goals through the years including encouraging young musicians with technical ability and a knowledge of music history to express themselves, coming up with new types of performance spaces rather than the stereotypical smoky nightclub, documenting the music, and creating community outreach programs so the music could reach a larger audience without compromising its ideals. The organization has helped several generations of major improvising musicians through the years.

THE ART ENSEMBLE OF CHICAGO

Among the musicians in Abrams’ group was saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, an early member of the AACM. In 1966 he led the first AACM group to record, resulting in the album Sound . His sextet, which included trumpeter Lester Bowie and bassist Malachi Favors, utilized “little instruments,” some of which were toys, to add color to the music, hinted at past styles both satirically and with reverence, and contrasted silence with sound rather than sticking exclusively to high-energy ensembles. On December 3, 1966, Mitchell led a quartet at a concert that included Bowie, Favors, and multi-reedist Joseph Jarman. It was billed as the Art Ensemble, with the “of Chicago” added a couple years later. The group became a permanent band, making a strong impact in Chicago before spending 1969 to 1971 in Paris where they added drummer Don Moye.

A very theatrical performance group, the Art Ensemble of Chicago made music more accessible than many avant-garde units, thanks to Bowie’s wit, constantly changing instruments and styles, and paying close attention to dynamics and mood variations. Their motto became “Great Black Music—Ancient to the Future.”Audiences were never sure what was going to happen onstage next, particularly when scores of instruments were available to be played including all types of reeds and exotic percussion.

The band, which returned to Chicago in 1972, was at its prime during the 1970s and early 1980s. After that the individual musicians, particularly Bowie, spent as much time on their own projects as with the group, and live appearances by the band became rare. Jarman left the Art Ensemble in 1993, and in 1999 Bowie passed away. The Art Ensemble of Chicago regrouped as a trio with Mitchell, Favors, and Moye, and in 2003 Jarman returned. Malachi Favors died in early 2004 making the future of the unique group uncertain after thirty-seven years.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago, and many of the musicians associated with the AACM, showed that space could be used in the music, along with melody, catchy rhythms, and aspects of past styles, while still creating very modern, and sometimes startling, new music. Rather than reject the past, the musicians of the Art Ensemble of Chicago built upon the past innovations while feeling free to break any of the rules they desired.

OTHER AACM MUSICIANS

The AACM started with thirty-six musicians in 1965 and has grown quite a bit since, remaining an important force in the Chicago area. One of the most controversial of the AACM musicians was Anthony Braxton, who early in his career used mathematical symbols and formulas as song titles for his originals and wrote overly complex, barely comprehensible liner notes. A master at most reed instruments, but sounding especially distinctive on alto, Braxton has an original improvising style. He became a member of the AACM in 1966, played with pianist Chick Corea, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer Barry Altschul in Circle during 1970 and 1971. Since then he has recorded extensively in a bewildering variety of settings including unaccompanied solos and encounters with four orchestras at once. Among his finest efforts have been his quartets, particularly when he utilized trombonist George Lewis or pianist Marilyn Crispell.

Leo Smith, an early member of the AACM, was one of the most esoteric of the trumpeters to emerge in the 1960s, one whose brittle tone and adventurous style makes every unpredictable note count. Other major players were trombonist George Lewis, tenor-saxophonist Fred Anderson, drummer Steve McCall, and altoist-composer Henry Threadgill, who led the group Air before beginning his innovative solo career. Groups included Kahil El’Zabar’s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, Ernest Dawkins’s New Horizons Ensemble, Malachi Thompson’s Africa Brass, and Edward Wilkerson’s Eight Bold Souls.

The success of the AACM inspired a similar organization, Black Artists Group, in St. Louis, and adventurous musicians everywhere to play original music that they felt and believed in, despite the obstacles and the potential lack of commercial success and acceptance.

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