Muhal Richard Abrams Dies at 87

Hugely influential pianist-composer co-founded the AACM

Muhal Richard Abrams, Manzoni Theater, Milan, Italy, January 2016. (Photo: Sánta István Csaba)

Muhal Richard Abrams, the hugely influential and strikingly versatile pianist, composer, educator and NEA Jazz Master who co-founded the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and served as its first president, died on Sunday, Oct. 29, at his home in New York City. His death was confirmed by his wife, Peggy Abrams, and daughter, Richarda Abrams. He was 87.

The cause of death is not yet known. “It was very sudden—it just happened,” Richarda said today. “He was here and then he wasn’t.”

As a co-founder of the AACM, Abrams was a major figure in jazz’s avant-garde movement and had a 50-year recording career under his own name. Unlike his fellow avant-gardists Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra, however, Abrams never maintained a regular ensemble or touring schedule. His music is also difficult to describe as possessing a single “sound,” since his musical palette was wide-ranging and ever-changing. His resultantly modest profile among audiences, however, was not representative of his towering influence. It touched not only his peers in Chicago and New York jazz circles but also several generations of younger musicians with whom Abrams worked as a bandleader, educator and mentor.

Richard Louis Abrams was born on Sept. 19, 1930, on Chicago’s South Side, the second of nine children. He attended the South Side’s DuSable High School (where his schoolmates included bassist Richard Davis and saxophonists Von Freeman, John Gilmore and Johnny Griffin), but dropped out in 1946 to study music. He soon abandoned his formal musical training as well, opting to teach himself via books, records and regular South Side jam sessions.

Abrams began a career as a pickup side pianist, working with musicians like Ruth Brown and Miles Davis as they passed through Chicago, and an arranger for the jazz pianist and bandleader King Fleming. His reputation began to blossom in the mid-1950s, when he became the pianist for the hard-bop band Modern Jazz Two (MJT) + 3. Around 1961, Abrams formed the Experimental Band out of a loose assemblage of musicians who wanted to explore radical new directions in jazz.

The band never recorded, but evolved in 1965 into the AACM through the efforts of Abrams—along with drummer Steve McCall, trumpeter Phil Cohran and pianist Jodie Christian—to organize its members into a group that would support each other’s original music against a lack of enthusiasm from venue owners and commercial audiences. Abrams served as the Association’s first president. In 1977 he moved to New York, where he founded that city’s AACM chapter.

Abrams adopted the name Muhal in 1967, in response to the emerging black consciousness movement that encouraged black Americans to recognize their cultural roots and to separate themselves from the lineage of names that extended from slaveowners. He used the name Muhal Richard Abrams for the rest of his life.

Abrams made his first recording, Levels and Degrees of Light, in 1967. Noted for its sweetness and order in the face of the often-chaotic free-jazz movement, it was followed by 26 more albums at semi-regular intervals over the next half-century, covering an astonishing range of ensembles and musical styles. Among his most acclaimed were 1976’s Sightsong, a lyrical duo session with bassist Malachi Favors; 1982’s Blues Forever, an atonal but highly structured collection by an 11-piece ensemble; 1991’s Blu Blu Blu, a rollicking abstraction of big-band swing; and 2015’s Made in Chicago, his final recording, with saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill, bassist Larry Gray and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

Abrams’ live performances were only slightly more frequent than his recordings. Because he had no working ensemble, he would craft a new piece of music and the group of musicians who were to play it with equal care.

Abrams also helped develop the AACM School of Music, an institution in which members would teach students to develop original, highly personal music by making use of the global range of devices and techniques. Thus Abrams also spread his influence as a teacher. In describing his pedagogy to composer and writer George Lewis, Abrams said that “We learn how to develop things with raw materials. … [I]n about the third session we’re composing melodies. Here’s a person who didn’t know anything in the first session, and they’re creating with full confidence in knowing what they’re doing. They know the materials they’re using.”

According to Richarda Abrams, her father was working right up to his final day, still writing and playing. His final performance was at the Ojai Music Festival in June.

In addition to Peggy and Richarda, Abrams is survived by four brothers, Milton Abrams Jr., John Abrams, Michael Abrams and Mott Christopher Abrams; two sisters, Dolorez Abrams and Alice Rollins; three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his son, Richard Jr.

In lieu of a funeral, the family will hold memorials in New York and Chicago. At press time plans had not yet been finalized. Richarda Abrams plans to make the details known through her father’s social-media accounts, and that information will also post to JazzTimes.com.

A 50th anniversary tribute feature for the AACM, featuring Abrams.

A review of Abrams’ duos album SoundDance.

Muhal Richard Abrams remembers his colleague Jodie Christian.