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

In the studio, 2018 (L to R): Enoch Willamson, Moor Mother, Christina Wheeler, Famoudou Don Moye, and Titos Sompa.
The Art Ensemble in the studio, 2018 (L to R): Enoch Willamson, Moor Mother, Christina Wheeler, Famoudou Don Moye, and Titos Sompa (photo: Barbara Barefield)

Indeed, the Art Ensemble was as innovative in its business practices as it was in its artistry. Once the group had been rechristened as a collective, its earnings followed suit, with all income pooled and channeled back into the ensemble as a whole. Its idiosyncratic approach to entrepreneurship has led to the occasional head-scratching decision—a partnership with the Odwalla fruit juice company, named for one of Mitchell’s signature compositions, resulted in flavor-oriented song titles like “Grape Escape” and “Lotta Colada” on Coming Home Jamaica—but the group has also profited from its endurance.

In practical dealings as in musical endeavors, the Art Ensemble was a perfect team, each member playing his own role, their onstage personae reflected in their real-world responsibilities. “Lester was the general,” Moye declares. “Favors was the resident spiritualist. Jarman was the voice. Roscoe was the catalyst. And I did the implementation. The combination of those elements, one mindset with five different inputs, was unique.”

Those roles were vibrantly displayed in the archetypal uniforms that the ensemble eventually adopted: the face paint and African garb of Favors and Moye, Jarman’s Asian-inspired outfits, Bowie’s lab coat, and Mitchell’s sharp suits all suggested different points along the band’s spectrum. They also became so iconic that when the membership began to fragment, the losses were immediately, and vividly, apparent.

Jarman left first, in 1993, retreating to focus on his spiritual studies of Zen Buddhism and Aikido. When Bowie died in 1999, the Ensemble continued for a time as a trio, returning to ECM and cutting Tribute to Lester (2001). Jarman rejoined in 2003, and the reunited quartet recorded two albums for Pi prior to Favors’ sudden passing: The Meeting and Sirius Calling. For the subsequent tour, they were joined by Shahid and trumpeter Corey Wilkes, as documented on the 2006 live recording Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City.

Activity became sporadic in the following years. The band was separated geographically, with Mitchell in the Bay Area—where he’s been on Mills College’s faculty since 2007 (he’s set to retire this spring)—and Moye in Marseilles. Jarman’s health prevented him from extensive touring; he joined his longtime bandmates on stage for the last time at Columbia University in October 2017, reciting some of his poetry with a newly conceived Art Ensemble that featured Hugh Ragin, Tomeka Reid, Shahid, and Junius Paul alongside the two mainstays.

“I pretty much knew then that was the last time we’d be seeing each other,” Moye says. “We’ve been memorializing and celebrating his contribution ever since he basically stopped playing.”

That, concludes Mitchell, is the primary purpose of the Art Ensemble’s commemorative activity. “Our intention on our 50th anniversary is to honor our members,” he says. “We’re all going to leave this planet, but the ones that are left have the option of going forward or dropping everything. We choose going forward.”

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.