[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]
The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) was organized in May 1965 by pianists Muhal Richard Abrams and Jodie Christian, drummer Steve McCall, and trumpeter Kelan Phil Cohran. Having spread to New York City, the West Coast, and Paris since then, the AACM continues to do what it set out to do almost 43 years ago. The AACM is seriously original and formed as, and remains, an avant-garde, radical, and revolutionary musical collective. Their avant-garde sound was difficult to sell at first—the kind of jazz that was supported in the ’60s was cool and smooth—and the collective had to carve out a space for itself, often playing small shows with only other AACM musicians in the audience. Their revolution was therefore one of the less known of the 1960s, but it was also one of the more successful. Great Black Music, from “the ancient musics of Africa to the music of the future” is more than free jazz, more than black musicians playing for black audiences; AACM music is the creation of a new language uttered in the most amazing way, that encourages listeners and musicians alike to expand their horizons and challenge themselves.
Mwata Bowden, current conductor of the AACM Great Black Music Ensemble and former chairman, witnessed this himself as a young musician in Chicago in the late ’60s, and it changed his life. Like so many southern black families, Mwata’s relocated from Memphis to Chicago’s South Side where his father could find work. Mwata recalls the scene: “Along 47th Street, you had the Regal Theater, the Metropolitan Theater, clubs, bars, cabarets, everything. It was a thriving area, and we lived a block away… Musicians were visible all over the neighborhood. I would see these guys walking around with their beautiful instrument cases in their hands, I would walk by Gerri’s Palm Tavern and hear the music pouring out onto the street from inside. And when I heard that, I thought, ‘Man, I want to play that music.’”
Exposed at an early age to the jazz of Chicago’s South Side along with a classical music education, Mwata expanded his sound when he joined the AACM in the mid-’70s. “In improvised music we do everything that you do in organized music. I mean, there are layers, there’s interplay… there’s call and response, there’s an accepted tonality that’s agreed upon collectively, all of those types of things… We’re taking those extended compositional things that come out of classical music and incorporating it into improvised music, like 12-tone techniques, like graphic structure stuff, like polytonality… So we take your compositional devices and expand those techniques.”
The AACM has only gotten stronger since its first days in 1965. Anthony Braxton and George Lewis have both received MacArthur Genius Fellowships, Dee Alexander was recently named “Chicagoan of the Year,” and in 1990, AACM co-founder Muhal Richard Abrams was the recipient of the prestigious Jazzpar prize. The AACM has also been working for nearly forty-three years with inner-city youth, creating music programs for children who would not otherwise have access. Training the next generation, the longevity of the AACM has enabled its most senior members to see their influence come back around, with younger members who grew up with the AACM now joining. Flutist Nicole Mitchell is only one such example.
The past and the future make up the present, and this idea embodies the radical way the AACM has taken from past traditions and created a new idea of music. Like other grassroots revolutions, the AACM made everything themselves, never buckling under normalizing pressures and staying true to their original mission of advancing creative musicians, creating original music, and playing great black music, ancient to the future. ◊
1. http://www.aacm.org/aboutus.com, accessed February 2008.
2. http://www.aacm.org/Mwata.com, accessed February 2008.
3. All quoted material, except where noted otherwise, is from an interview with Mwata Bowden, February 13, 2008.