The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Way Forward

As the avant-garde group turns 50, its two remaining original members have their eyes on the future

The Art Ensemble at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1984 (photo: Barbara Barefield)

The path blazed by the Art Ensemble of Chicago can be traced back to the formation of the AACM in 1965, when pianists Muhal Richard Abrams and Jodie Christian, drummer Steve McCall, and trumpeter Phil Cohran convened a meeting of the city’s African-American musicians in Cohran’s South Side home. Though the Association has since become an icon of experimentalism, the reason for creating it was more practical than aesthetic; the Windy City’s nightclub scene was withering, and the organization sought to replace lost venues with its own self-created opportunities.

Add to this the group’s wide-net conception of music, which stretched beyond jazz to folkloric traditions and contemporary developments in new music, and the result was a support system that nurtured some of the most innovative composers of the last half-century, including Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, and Wadada Leo Smith.

Mitchell, Jarman, and Favors had all met during practice sessions at Woodrow Wilson Junior College, then joined in with Abrams’ combination classroom/sonic laboratory known as the Experimental Band. When Bowie arrived from St. Louis, he found a lucrative gig backing blues and R&B stars, including his then-wife, Chess Records singer Fontella Bass. Frustrated with the routine of the work, he found a more fertile creative outlet when he was welcomed into the Experimental Band.

From that group’s sessions grew the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble, with the leader joined by Favors, Bowie, and drummer Phillip Wilson. At the same time, Jarman formed his own quartet with pianist Christopher Gaddy, bassist Charles Clark, and drummer Thurman Barker. The two bands traveled in tightly concentric circles; when Jarman’s quartet dissolved following the untimely deaths of Gaddy and Clark, and Wilson left town to join the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Jarman was invited into the Art Ensemble.

After three years together, intensive daily rehearsals had led to creative breakthroughs but disappointingly few opportunities. Rumors of a more receptive environment arrived from overseas, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago was reborn in Paris. Shortly thereafter, Moye arrived from Rome, where he’d been working with Steve Lacy, to discover a city crowded with jazz expats.

“The first day we got to Paris I walked around the corner to our hotel and across the street, sitting at a table outside a café, was Marion Brown, Johnny Griffin, Art Taylor, and Frank Wright, all hanging out,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Damn, this must be heaven.’ Our heroes were all there at that time, and we got exposed to them directly: Randy Weston, Slide Hampton, Johnny Griffin, Art Taylor, Memphis Slim. The older cats would bring the younger cats in, them seeing us develop and us seeing these masters doing their stuff.”

This generational cross-breeding flies in the face of the stylistic borders that would be erected two decades later, as the neoclassical Young Lions movement made the Art Ensemble one of its prime targets in its codification of jazz. Ken Burns’ Jazz, famously influenced by Wynton Marsalis, spread apocryphal stories about sparsely attended concerts and sneering innuendos regarding majority-white audiences.

“When we were in Europe in the late ’60s, the great masters were right out there with us,” Mitchell recalls. “All those people were still studying their music. That’s who I take my inspiration from, not from people that don’t have that kind of drive. I’d be shivering in my boots if Charlie Parker was still alive—there’s no telling what he might be doing right now. I feel like I owe something to the great creators of the music, who all were able to deal with the language and find their own way of speaking it. If I don’t be me, who’s gonna be me? There’s plenty of people around who can do that other thing.”

“How long does it take to decide something is traditional?” muses Jaribu Shahid, who has been working with the Art Ensemble since Favors’ death in 2004. “We’re talking about the 50th year, and jazz isn’t much more than 100 years old entirely. The Art Ensemble didn’t just change music; they changed the way we thought about sound. And they changed the business. Some of these young jazz police musicians who don’t deal with this kind of music still need to appreciate the way the Art Ensemble opened up some of these markets for everybody.”

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.