Creation Myth

Thirty-five years ago, a Chicago arts collective charted new territory in black music. Now, in a three-day retrospective, Minneapolis free-jazz explorers Douglas Ewart and Carei Thomas return to that land of possibilities.


The lifelong affair between a musician and his art may be a storied romance, but as the old ballad insists, "Romance without finance is a nuisance." In the Chicago of the Sixties, as in just about every American city of any decade, an avant-garde musician's aesthetic principles impinged upon his economic ones on a daily basis. So when the charismatic and idea-driven pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, in conjunction with Phil Cohran, Steve McCall, and Jody Christian, first convened the Association for the Advancement of the Creative Musician in 1965, his reasons were as much economic as they were aesthetic (as if those two categories can ever be separated).

With the rise of "creative" rock in the 1960s, there were a dwindling number of jazz clubs booking acts in town. Few of those wanted to reserve space for musicians deemed too "out" for profitable public consumption. And the future members of the AACM, with their post-bop interest in divorcing music from European harmonic constraints, their yen to jumble the visual and spoken arts into their musical presentation, and their Africanist leanings--they were way out.

Father of invention: Douglas Ewart and one of his homemade instruments
Tony Nelson
Father of invention: Douglas Ewart and one of his homemade instruments

"The AACM was, and still is, a challenge to the economic infrastructure," says George Lewis, a representative of the second wave of musicians to join the AACM in the early Seventies. Since the production-consumption model of artistic creation was deemed unfit for real improvisatory exploration--that is to say, no one would buy these jazz records--the AACM argued that another system needed to be put in place. "It was a call for artists to come together to help themselves," Lewis says.

Lewis, who joined the AACM in 1972, currently teaches at the University of California-San Diego and operates as a respected composer himself on the vanguard of computer music. In his scanty spare time, he's compiling a massive and potentially definitive tome that will serve as a history of the association that spurred him forward. "It's important to see the AACM in the context of larger economic forces," he insists by phone from his West Coast home. "The association challenged the existing distribution of wealth." This political challenge did not stand separate from their art, but in fact mirrored their aesthetics. "When you break boundaries of practice," Lewis continues. "You break boundaries of economics."

And the boundaries of practice were certainly broken under the auspices of the AACM. In 1967 Lester Bowie's unconventional suites of improvisation, Numbers 1 & 2, featuring Joseph Jarman, Roscoe Mitchell, and Malachi Favors, planted the seeds of what would sprout into the Art Ensemble of Chicago. One year later, Braxton's collection of saxophone solos, For Alto, would become the first wholly improvisational recording of an unaccompanied instrument other than the piano.

But the AACM, though collective in many ways, wasn't to be some anarchic commune. The four founding fathers immediately saw to it that the fledgling AACM would be a state-chartered nonprofit organization. In contrast to the vaunted liberties taken in their art and performances, the AACM itself was strictly disciplined. "They instituted parliamentary procedure," says George Lewis. "The initial AACM was very formal, with regular weekly meetings."

Once they felt reasonably assured of their continued existence, the members of the organization decided to pass the discipline they'd acquired on to others. Under the tutelage of Abrams, the AACM created a school in 1967, offering free instruction to promising young musicians willing to espouse the association's freewheeling, yet stringent, aesthetic. Every Saturday the members volunteered their time, carrying out instruction in performance and theory, and distributing instruments to those children who couldn't afford them. One such student was Douglas Ewart.

"There was no tuition," Ewart recalls. "We helped with publicity and working around the AACM office, assembling the magazine. The school provided lessons for everyone. There weren't age barriers for anyone. That has always been one of the strong points of the school." Because of the organization's focus on collaboration and composition, Ewart recalls, the students were quickly writing their own material and performing in coffee shops or whatever other spots would give them room to experiment.

"How does an organization remain together without a central dogma to unite them?" asks George Lewis rhetorically, posing the central question of the AACM's unique identity. In New York, after all, a similar attempt to band together musicians, headed up by Bill Dixon, Carla Bley, and Cecil Taylor, quickly fell apart. There the star system reared its own disruptive power, as individual players commanded large enough contracts to create rifts in the jazz community. Even today, Lewis insists, you see the workings of New York's "conglomerate" model in the split between Lincoln Center traditionalists and the downtown avant-garde. An organization such as the AACM remains vital, then, because the artists are forced together by economic exclusion.

Many historians mark 1969 as the end of the first incarnation of the AACM. That's the year when a number of the musicians, frustrated with the marginalized condition of the improvisatory artist in the U.S., departed for France--some, like Braxton, never to return, others, like the Art Ensemble, to make their way back to the States by the mid-Seventies. Abrams himself would soon set out for New York. Lewis, who hadn't even joined the organization until three years after the AACM's supposed demise, hesitates to endorse that verdict of premature death. No matter where these musicians traveled, he insists, they consciously remained representatives of the AACM. And many AACM graduates, including Douglas Ewart (who would serve as president of the organization for the latter half of the Seventies and has assisted in organizing the Walker event), returned to volunteer their services.

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