Sweet Home Chicago: The AACM at 50

Abrams, DeJohnette, Threadgill and Mitchell recall the Windy City in the '60s

Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams, Jack DeJohnette and Larry Gray (from left), 2013 Chicago Jazz Festival
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Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, Jack DeJohnette, Larry Gray and Muhal Richard Abrams (from left), 2013
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Jack DeJohnette in 1965
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In tribute to the late Muhal Richard Abrams, we’re posting Shaun Brady’s complete AACM 50th anniversary feature from the May 2015 issue. 

When Jack DeJohnette was invited back to his hometown to open the 35th annual Chicago Jazz Festival in August 2013, the legendary drummer was given free rein to assemble any sort of program he desired. Having just wrapped up a yearlong celebration of his 70th birthday, DeJohnette chose not to reunite with any of the giants he’d made his name with, and he opted not to feature a new ensemble with some of the younger musicians he continues to challenge.

Instead, DeJohnette reached back to the first half of the ’60s, to his formative years in Chicago. At that time he was emerging from the South Side’s Wilson Junior College, along with many of the founding fathers of the soon-to-be-chartered Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Though he relocated to New York City before the AACM officially cohered and has never been particularly associated with it in the decades since, DeJohnette obviously feels an ongoing kinship with the principles he learned alongside saxophonists Henry Threadgill and Roscoe Mitchell and others in the early 1960s, as a member of pianist Muhal Richard Abrams’ nebulous Experimental Band.

Formed in 1965, the AACM was designed to support, present and encourage its members’ efforts to compose and perform their own distinctive music. Originally conceived by Abrams, Jodie Christian, Phil Cohran and Steve McCall, the group’s early membership included Mitchell, Threadgill, Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Lester Bowie and others who would go on to shape the music over the next half-century, employing an open-minded approach that encompassed jazz, contemporary classical, experimental and folk musics. By the end of the decade its philosophies had disseminated throughout the world as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the AACM’s flagship band, embarked for a protracted stay in Paris, and many of the organization’s members left for New York and elsewhere.

The music from DeJohnette’s Special Legends Edition concert has now been released by ECM as Made in Chicago, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the AACM (see sidebar).

We asked DeJohnette, Abrams, Mitchell and Threadgill to reminisce about the prehistory and earliest days of that landmark organization. The AACM continues to thrive in Chicago today, and a series of concerts, panels and exhibitions will celebrate its half-centenary throughout 2015.

Jack DeJohnette: Chicago was a stopover for people who were going to New York, so there was an eclectic music scene. Chicago had jazz, it had blues, it had classical music, it had folk music, it had everything. And I was fortunate enough to come up in a time when there were lots of places to play, music going on 24/7, day and night.

Henry Threadgill: The Chicago music scene was incredible. There were so many famous nightclubs on 63rd Street, from King Drive all the way to the lake; it was unbelievable. The Pershing Ballroom, Basin Street, C&C Lounge, the Strand Hotel, Tivoli, the Kitty Kat Club. Every night there was music, and I would be up there seeing Gene Ammons, Sonny Rollins, Ahmad Jamal, Sun Ra, Dexter Gordon. Unbelievable.

Muhal Richard Abrams: It was quite a substantial scene. You had Von Freeman, Johnny Griffin, Richard Davis, Rafael Garrett—a real who’s who. All the people in Sun Ra’s band, even before he formed the band, were just local Chicago musicians: John Gilmore, Pat Patrick, Charles Davis. And of course later on all the AACM people. But even before the AACM we were performing and composing music around Chicago—standard music, non-standard music. That’s the atmosphere we thrived in.

DeJohnette: The pace in Chicago was much slower than in New York, so artists and musicians would get together and compare notes and inspire each other to pursue the different directions they were going in.

Roscoe Mitchell: Jack was already well known on the Chicago scene as a pianist at the time when I first started to get together with him. We were all in Wilson Junior College together. It was a gathering place for us. When I went there, Henry was there, Jack was there, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors, Ari Brown. It was a rich musical climate, and on Wednesdays we would have one free hour where we organized a jam session at the school.

DeJohnette: I liked it [at Wilson] because we got the chance to jam. I was going there to get a degree in music education, but I got bored with it and I left. I decided to jump out after about a year and devoted myself fulltime to writing and performing music. But it was a great environment. It was a place for people to connect up. After school Roscoe would come to my house or I’d go to his house and we would play for hours.

Threadgill: [Wilson] was probably the most exciting place I could have been in life: the people that were there who were playing music, the artists that were there, the poets that were there, the intellects that were there. It was just a city junior college but it was quite unbelievable. It was a terribly exciting place to be at 18. … We had a music club where we brought in people [to play] concerts. We brought in classical people, not just jazz. We brought Muhal in to play; that’s where I actually met Muhal. He invited me to the Experimental Band, which was [meeting] at a club called the C&C Lounge on Cottage Grove.

Mitchell: The Experimental Band was the prelude to the AACM. This is where musicians met and everybody had a chance to write for the band. Muhal was a mentor to all of us, and we were all encouraged to write for the band, bring our pieces in and get them played. You could bring a piece in and if you didn’t like it you could take it back home and rework it and bring it back the next week and so on and so forth. At the end of the week, Muhal had a couple pieces for the big band. People getting together there was a starting point for the ideas that eventually came to set the basic fundamentals for the AACM.

Threadgill: At that point, none of the other AACM people were there in that band. The only people I remember being there were people [who would go on to form] the Pharaohs or Earth, Wind & Fire. Eddie Harris was in that band. There would be different people on a weekly basis. I only made two rehearsals, because around ’64 I left that whole scene and went on the gospel-music circuit. That was the extent of my involvement with the Experimental Band.

Abrams: I wasn’t looking for anything [in particular], but I certainly wanted them to express themselves as individuals in a manner that manifested in an original way. Because we could all learn from that, and I’m sure we all did. It certainly was important to express one’s self as an individual through one’s own original approaches or ideas. That’s just who I am. I had to do it that way. I can’t really explain it beyond that.

Mitchell: [Muhal] always seemed to have time for you. I remember when we were at Wilson, I’d leave and go over to Muhal’s house and be there until 8 or 9 o’clock. It was an environment for learning. It’s still the same way when Muhal and I get together.

DeJohnette: I used to go over to [Muhal’s] house and his door was always open. He was very helpful. He would show me things on the piano and we’d talk about life. He just inspired us to follow what we believed in. It wasn’t telling you how to do this or do that, it was just trusting and inspiring you to do what it is that you had in you. And he still does that. He’s like a kid. He has a tremendous amount of energy and curiosity. He still studies and practices and reads and helps younger players. He is the music. He just radiates that energy.

Abrams: When people speak in terms of me mentoring them, I can’t speak to things like that. Perhaps they’re speaking of something that they picked up from me from just being in my presence and also me being in their presence. There were a lot of things going on during those times. Especially in Chicago, there was an atmosphere where musicians were starting to get together and explore different approaches to composing and performing music.

DeJohnette: We were all working on different ways to pursue composition and performing. So Muhal came up with the idea that maybe we should have a place where musicians could come and rehearse and present the music. Eventually they found a place called Lincoln Center, of all names [the Abraham Lincoln Center, a social services organization housed in a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building]. So that’s where we started.

Mitchell: Things were changing [in the Chicago music scene during the mid-1960s]. There was a new [licensing law] that was coming down for the clubs, where a trio was one cost but if a club had more than a trio that was another cost. So what you saw was a lot of times during the week clubs would hire a trio, and then on the weekend it was the headliners from out of town. Also, DJs were coming on the scene. The founding members of the AACM wanted to have more control over their own destinies because they had looked at what had happened to musicians who were out there on their own, and a lot of them didn’t fare that well. We wanted to have something where we could create employment for our own selves, have a school where we could mentor young aspiring musicians and present ourselves in concerts of our own original music.

Threadgill: I didn’t have any kind of long-range hopes for what would come out of the organization. The AACM was formed while I was in the army. When I came back I was hanging out with the guys in BAG [Black Artists Group] in St. Louis, and then in 1969 the people who were involved in the AACM asked me to come back [to Chicago]. I was just getting out of the army so I was trying to get myself landed on Earth again, to pick up my music life and go forward with it. The impressive thing was they had put together an organization with a philosophy that I could become a part of, where everybody was there to develop their own music. That was enough.

Mitchell: We never went out looking for things. What we did was stayed with what we believed and worked on that, and you open up channels with other people that you’re going to be drawn to who can help you make these connections. Rehearsing in Muhal’s band I met Lester Bowie right before I was doing Sound [Mitchell’s 1966 debut album, which became the first recorded document of the AACM]. He came from St. Louis and knew all these musicians from down there, so all of a sudden things opened up to have exchange concerts with people from other cities.

Threadgill: It was an environment where everybody is there for the same reason, to develop their own music and to support other people in that pursuit. I think that was totally unique. It had nothing to do with the music of anyone else. It’s not a reflection, good or bad, on any other composers’ or musicians’ work. But it was a unique place to be and to get the support of all the musicians to develop what you’re doing. I don’t know of anything else that existed like that at that time.

Mitchell: I think the main ingredient was being around a bunch of people with the same vision. I recall going to somebody’s concert and becoming inspired by what they were doing, then going home and working real hard on my music for the next concert. If you look at the AACM members, they all have their own way of putting their music together. And to me, that’s a rich musical environment to have been a part of. I’m still inspired today by AACM members, and I see that the kind of thing that we’re involved in never stops. You’re always learning, all the time.

DeJohnette: I left shortly [before the official formation of the AACM] and went to New York. I knew of it there, but the Art Ensemble of Chicago really spearheaded that legacy and started having an influence on the music scene. They took that Chicago vibe worldwide when they started recording their music and touring.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago began life in 1967 as the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble, but the saxophonist soon ceded control to the collective, which became the AACM’s marquee ensemble.

Mitchell: In a drawer somewhere I’ve got check stubs from Champaign-Urbana, from when I was leading the band where we got three dollars or something to do a concert. There’s no way the Art Ensemble could have existed without becoming a co-op. But we carried those basic AACM principles with us. We went to Europe and played a few gigs and got us a place in the country. Then we played a few more gigs and got paid a certain amount and put some away for the future. It would not have survived any other way. But there again, you had people with the same musical vision. In the early days our rehearsals were five days a week from about 9 to 5. Nobody had to ask, “What are you doing tomorrow or the next day?”

Threadgill: [From the AACM] I gained the support and confidence to do what I was doing and to develop an ensemble that I believed in. I started putting together different ensembles and trying things with different musicians until I arrived finally with Air. At the time in Chicago—and not just Chicago, but the whole Midwestern region—there was only so much you could do. It seemed like we’d done everything that we could do, so it was time to move on. I didn’t come to New York to try to indoctrinate people into any of the thinking or practices of Chicago; we just came to do what we were doing and just kept moving.

Mitchell: When the Art Ensemble moved to France in 1969, we carried the banner of the AACM. People had heard about the AACM because they’d heard the early recordings on Delmark. Then when I went out to Michigan [in 1974] I founded the Creative Arts Collective, based on the same principles as the AACM. So that whole musical scene at that time is something that I was very proud to be a part of. When I have a look at what has happened 50 years later, it feels like it all went by pretty fast. And certainly, the lessons that I learned from the early days of the formation of the AACM I carry with me still today. JT

*****

Chicago Fire: Windy City jazz royalty reunite on Jack DeJohnette’s new ECM disc

Recorded live at the 2013 Chicago Jazz Festival, Made in Chicago documents a reunion between Jack DeJohnette and three future AACM members with whom he worked in his formative years. Muhal Richard Abrams was a mentor to virtually every adventurous young Chicago jazz musician at the time, while Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill were peers DeJohnette met while all were students at the city’s Wilson Junior College. The quintet is rounded out by Larry Gray, a bassist the drummer met in the early 1990s while playing with another band of Chicago all-stars at the Jazz Showcase.

With decades having lapsed since DeJohnette last performed with most of his bandmates, the concert takes on a rawer, more freeform feeling than one might associate with these artists’ compositionally focused mature work. The disc opens with Mitchell’s “Chant,” which spins frenzied free playing from a hypnotic, spiraling motif. The highlight of the 17-minute piece comes from a vigorous duel between the leader’s churning drums and Mitchell’s impassioned soprano, which he plays with a force that seems to strain the instrument’s range.

Mitchell also contributed the chamber piece “This,” which opens on an airy tapestry of bass flute, recorder and piano over bowed bass and whispering cymbals, and reveals Asian and minimalist influences throughout. Abrams’ “Jack 5” begins with sparse, coloristic percussion, setting the stage for the two alto saxophonists to phrase a series of abstract, meandering melodies over the composer’s chiming chords. The piece unfolds at a crawl, allowing for the sort of individual exploration that Abrams always encouraged when these legends were still his students.

DeJohnette’s own “Museum of Time,” named after a volume by metaphysical author Jane Roberts, is built on a keening melody articulated by the two-sax frontline, and draws out Abrams’ most lyrical playing. Threadgill’s “Leave Don’t Go Away” is a more conventional echo of his usual eccentric style, while the show ends on a breakneck free improvisation titled “Ten Minutes,” perhaps named for the amount of music crammed into its actual six minutes.

Undoubtedly a notable occasion with several moments of breathtaking beauty, this reunion ultimately promises more than it delivers. Still, Made in Chicago communicates the warm camaraderie and longstanding roots of these stellar artists. S.B.