The AACM at 40

“We wanted an organization where we could be more in control of our own destinies.”

Roscoe Mitchell was reaching back 40 years and some 500 miles, to the climate and community that fomented the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians on Chicago’s South Side. The saxophonist-composer was seated in a well-lighted art gallery near the heart of a bucolic university town in Ontario, Canada. It was early autumn, a Friday, just after 9 a.m.–not the usual hour, one suspects, for an AACM confab–and he was taking part in the opening session of the 12th Annual Guelph Jazz Festival, a thoughtful enterprise with a cheerfully avant-garde disposition.

The AACM has been inscrutable since its formation, and the mystery hasn’t subsided over time. There are bits of background that everyone agrees upon: that a coterie of Chicago musicians began meeting in the spring of 1965 to discuss artistic self-determination; that a substantive proportion of them had participated in pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams’ Experimental Band; that the aim of the meetings was the formation of an association; and that the resulting collective produced some of the most vivid experimental music of the next four decades. But beyond that, the narrative gets too richly detailed for general comprehension. Even the panel at Guelph–Mitchell plus half a dozen fellow travelers–resisted summarizing gestures.

They did settle on some basic ideals. Percussionist Famoudou Don Moye, in perhaps his only utterance, cited a self-defining view of the association as “a power stronger than itself.” Mitchell returned repeatedly to that business of destiny. Trumpeter and first-generation member Wadada Leo Smith asserted the function of Great Black Music as an answer to turmoil. Another trumpeter, Corey Wilkes, disclaimed that he’d been an AACM member officially for just a week but ventured that it represented “creativity, freedom and unity.” This isn’t the stuff of clear definition.

The panel’s more clarifying moments came, fittingly, from confrontation. Among them was Mitchell’s withering assessment of an incurious youth culture, with hip-hop as its driving force; “I don’t see many young people here,” he retorted to an audience member, fellow iconoclast Eugene Chadbourne, who suggested that kids are often hipper than we think. Later, flutist Nicole Mitchell answered a query about internal member conflicts with a diplomatic hedge: “When we have clashes, we just have to go back to our love of the organization.” And a question about the procedure of admitting new inductees met with awkward silence before saxophonist Douglas Ewart attempted an explanation. “They have to show an interest and be recommended by people of good standing,” he said. “There’s a trial period of a year, and then it opens to deliberation among the organization.” That’s when it struck me what the AACM most resembles: the Jedi Council from Star Wars in the days of encroaching Empire.

That evening, two adjoining concerts hinted at the AACM’s vision and breadth. The first was a duet with Roscoe Mitchell and Pauline Oliveros in St. George’s Anglican Church. Oliveros, the avatar of a philosophy of “Deep Listening,” had set up a ring of six speakers around the room’s perimeter. Mitchell’s saxophonics, sampled and deconstructed by laptop algorithm, became a sound field that ricocheted around the cavernous room, in no predictable order; it was Music as Mind Trip, three-dimensional and strange. There were only a few walkouts, but they were instructive. “We came here to hear jazz music,” complained the male half of one couple, “and we don’t consider that jazz or music.” I spotted the same couple visibly enjoying the evening’s second performance, by Nicole Mitchell and the Black Earth Ensemble; the flutist’s next-generation crew couched several of its angular melodies in cool-as-a-cucumber swing.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago, that most prominent of AACM products, has long contained such multitudes in itself. Predictably, its appearance at Guelph’s River Run Centre–with Wilkes and Jaribu Shahid admirably subbing for the late Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors–marked the highlight of the festival. The group kicked off with a breakneck head, as if jolted by a starter pistol; tenor saxophonist Joseph Jarman fell into the first solo, blustery but balanced, before yielding the floor to Mitchell. In the marathon concert that ensued, the musicians brandished seemingly every weapon in the arsenal, including jangly toy instruments, chanted Eastern affirmations, insistent African percussion, even a pocket-funk groove. The heart of the performance was a descent into caterwauling dissonance that lasted probably a solid half-hour. It was hairier than anything ventured by the evening’s opening group–a quartet co-branded by Ewart and Smith–but felt immeasurably more meaningful and focused.

Guelph didn’t throw the only 40th birthday party for the AACM this year; if it had, the absence of Muhal Richard Abrams would have been more than just conspicuous. The Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art held a concert in May showcasing no fewer than nine ensembles. In Philadelphia, the nonprofit Ars Nova Workshop mounted a series that included Mitchell with Abrams, Smith’s Golden Quartet and an Anthony Braxton Sextet; the run will stretch into 2006, with Leroy Jenkins and Myra Melford (February 3) and Henry Threadgill’s Zooid (March 17). And there have been numerous concerts presented by the AACM itself, including at least two featuring Abrams: a solo piano concert in New York City and a 40th-anniversary awards banquet in Chicago on December 3.

The history of the AACM is literally still being written–or at least, hasn’t yet been published. Trombonist and scholar George Lewis, a member of the organization’s so-called second-wave, is author of the book Power Stronger Than Itself, which is slated for future release by the University of Chicago Press. (Lewis’ absorbing essay “Experimental Music in Black and White” can be found in Uptown Conversation, a compendium by the Jazz Study Group at Columbia University, where he’s now a professor in music.) In the meantime, of course, there’s the music itself–stubbornly resisting narratives but telling a story nonetheless.