With its multifaceted radicalism, the Art Ensemble of Chicago occupies a singular niche in the American music timeline. That creative audacity could be found in the array of sounds the band generated, the philosophical and aesthetic underpinnings of those sounds, the virtuoso instrumentalism of its members, the self-reliant business model by which it operated and the theatrical presentation that defined its performances. Its origin story dates to 1961, when bassist Malachi Favors, then 34, and saxophonists Joseph Jarman, 24, and Roscoe Mitchell, 21, each a veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces, met at Woodrow Wilson Junior College on Chicago’s South Side. In addition to their music studies under Prof. Richard Wang, who taught the jazz and Euro canons at Wilson in equal measure, they attended frequent rehearsals in the basement of pianist Muhal Richard Abrams’ house. There, they developed the instrumental command and imaginative flexibility needed to render Abrams’ complex, far-reaching scores—works mixing elements of serial music, atonality, stark intervals, propulsive rhythms and African and other world-music motifs.
In 1966, the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet, which included Favors and recent Chicago arrival Lester Bowie, recorded Sound for the Delmark label. It became a path-breaking document, presenting a structure-oriented alternative to the aesthetic of intensity that defined much “New Thing” expression at the time. In August 1967, that trio joined Jarman—who had already performed with John Cage, and was offering performances around Chicago that incorporated dance, poetry, ritual and Fluxus-influenced theatre—for the discursive Nessa release Numbers 1&2, under Bowie’s name. After the deaths of his close friends and bandmates Christopher Gaddy (piano) and Charles Clark (bass) in the late 1960s, Jarman devoted the majority of his time to the now collectively billed group. Local gigs were scarce, and in June 1969 the four partners traveled to France, where, over the next two years, the Art Ensemble of Chicago would add drummer-percussionist Famoudou Don Moye, record 15 albums and perform extensively. Operating by consensual principles, the AEC, now internationally recognized, retained this core personnel until 1993, when Jarman took an extended leave of absence, returning only after Bowie died in 1999.