Sometime in 1969, an ad ran in the Chicago Defender, the city’s long-running African-American weekly: “Musician Sells Out!”
It was typical of Lester Bowie’s sly sense of humor to use this accusation of compromise as a statement of intent; he was turning his back on a successful career as an R&B sideman to delve into the wilds of the avant-garde in the vast unknown of Europe. The trumpeter hawked most of his worldly possessions to pay his way, along with that of his bandmates, in what was then known as the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble—so named for the group’s saxophonist—on an ocean liner headed for Paris.
Bowie’s gamble was the first investment in a communal spirit that would guide the Art Ensemble of Chicago for the next five decades. Their name change, which took place shortly after the band’s arrival in the City of Light, was simply an acknowledgment of the collective ethos that would make the group so unique and influential. As Mitchell puts it now, “The Art Ensemble was five individual individuals.”
The Art Ensemble of Chicago turns 50 this year, but three of those individuals are no longer here to celebrate the occasion. Bowie died in 1999, followed by bassist Malachi Favors in 2004. In January, multi-instrumentalist and poet Joseph Jarman passed away, leaving just Mitchell and percussionist Famoudou Don Moye, who joined the band in Paris in 1970, to carry on the ensemble’s legacy.
“We made a pact a long time ago that if the Art Ensemble gets down to one person, that’s the Art Ensemble,” Mitchell says. “We all made a long-term commitment to be loyal to our vision and to stick with it to the end. That’s all that Moye and I are doing right now—we’re just honoring that commitment.
“The Art Ensemble is not finished,” he adds. “No way in the world. There’s lots of unfinished work to do.”
That work includes the release of the Art Ensemble’s first new album in more than a decade, We Are on the Edge: A Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration, to be released in April on the Pi label. The two-disc set, one studio and one live, was cut last fall in Ann Arbor, Mich., and expands the group to 16 people, allowing Mitchell and Moye to pull together several strands of the work they’ve been conceiving in recent years, from reimagined pieces to Mitchell’s vocal chamber compositions and Moye’s multicultural percussion ensembles.