Support our under-appreciated Creative Musicians

By Howard Mandel

As far as I know, there is only one independent artist-run, artists-benefiting organization in the U.S. that has survived 45 years with scant private or public funding. It has not pushed a common esthetic; rather, it encourages successive generations of cutting-edge members to make a virtuosity of individuality and work collaboratively, too. It’s the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM)—a contingent of composers and improvisers rooted in and revering jazz, but committed to ongoing development of its forms and conventions.

Conceptual rigors usually ascribed to the “classical” field, toy instruments bought in discount stores, vigorous if not necessarily high-energy soloists, interactive groups using dynamics from super-loud to ultra-soft and extended techniques are characteristic of the AACM’s collective repertoire, but AACM-identified musicians are free, not required, to work with such elements. The Art Ensemble of Chicago reedists Henry Threadgill and Anthony Braxton and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams are among the association’s better-known adherents. To those who listen closely, they are nothing alike yet complementary. The AACM’s influence has also been affecting unaffiliated protégés to such a degree that “creative music” has become in large part an AACM world, and its stalwarts teach at Columbia University, Wesleyan, CalArts, Bard and Mills College, producing avid students and fans.

Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s Silver Orchestra and pianist-singer Amina Claudine Myers in duet with drummer Reggie Nicholson perform at the AACM’s next typically adventurous, ambitious, self-produced, sadly under-appreciated and usually under-reported concerts Nov. 19 at the Community Church of New York (40 E. 35th St.). There’s no telling exactly what the musicians will do, but here’s my rough guess: Smith, who is 69 and originally from Mississippi, has a lustrous, always bluesy tone and pointed phrasing, which he’ll deploy over an improvising chamber orchestra of our city’s most notable strings, reeds and rhythm section players, plus vocalist Thomas Buckner. Myers, 68, raised in Dallas/Fort Worth, is a soul-and-gospel steeped vocalist who plays standout piano and organ for the general public infrequently. Nicholson, in his fifties, is a hard-driving and colors-sensitive trapsman. I bet the two will unfold expansive, sometimes lush soundscapes tethered but not bound by loose grooves and underlying, even if unstated, swing.

I can speculate because I’ve been attending AACM shows since 1967, when its early joiners were viewed as outcasts in the post-bebop, pre-fusion land of Chicago jazz. Soon after first exposure I adopted what seemed to be the AACM’s imperatives—creativity, expressivity, individuality, community—as my own. I realized, however, that after the Art Ensemble and Braxton, Leo Smith and violinist Leroy Jenkins returned to the States via New York City in 1970, having been feted on the Continent, they weren’t especially welcomed here, either. I wondered why.

In those days if a jazzman didn’t come up through Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Blue Note Records or after-hour joints like Bradley’s, they might find a stage at a Soho loft, but that was the run of possibilities. Maybe the Chicagoans seemed like roughshod provincials or alien invaders to New York sophisticates. They clearly had different ideas. Then as now, audiences were hard to convene around commercially diffident originality.

It wasn’t that AACM musicians shunned fame and fortune—the Art Ensemble did well on the ECM label, and earned high fees—but most of the clan suffered from some troublesome reluctance or inability to sell out. The international community highly regards the AACM these days, a credit to its younger stalwarts, including flutist Nicole Mitchell, drummer Mike Reed and alto saxist Matana Roberts. Its New York chapter was established in 1982 by Muhal Richard Abrams, an initial co-founder and the group’s most constant guide. His accomplishments and the AACM’s are known to a growing, but still select, sliver of the jazz audience. That’s the fault of… whom?

Self-educated, Abrams has an encyclopedic grasp of past and present American musical traditions. He’s recorded more than two dozen albums, including solos, duos, a current trio with saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and trombonist/laptop computer innovator George E. Lewis, and written scores for larger ensembles such as “2000 Plus the 12th Step,” premiered at the Jazz at Lincoln Center concert by the NEA’s Jazz Masters—he’d just been named one—last January. His pianism comprises ragtime and stride references and deeply meditative minimalism; his pieces may be atonal, include electronics, flirt with space-bop or be reminiscent of Ellington.

Expect all that and more when Abrams celebrates his 80th birthday at Roulette in two contexts—with percussionist Adam Rudolph and synthesizer master Tom Hamilton, and with vocalist Jay Clayton, bass clarinetist Marty Ehrlich and bassist Brad Jones, Dec. 2. AACM music is always challenging, often fine. Its model is contemplating and perhaps emulating. Creative musicians need to support themselves and each other. In Chicago, they learned how.