The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music

George E. Lewis
(University of Chicago Press; Chicago)

cover of AACM Magazine
Cover, AACM Magazine, The new Regime, 1968                                                   Collection of Douglas Ewart

Performing Self-Determination

The first academic notice of the AACM’s activity as an organization came in a 1967 article in the Journal of Popular Culture by an African American academic historian, Leslie B. Rout, an accomplished saxophonist who had worked briefly with Roscoe Mitchell and Muhal Richard Abrams. The article’s sources included interviews done in early June 1967 with Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Lashley, and writer Bill Quinn, among others. Rout’s searching critical history and appraisal of the AACM’s early years may not have had as much public impact as the Down Beat articles, but the work is nonetheless one of the most detailed contemporaneous African American perspectives on the AACM. For Rout, the AACM was “an excellent specimen for a more scientific examination. Hopefully, such a study would provide new perception into the racial convulsions that have and will continue to sweep the country.”48

The historian sets the scene at the University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall, using a far more skeptical tone than the Down Beat writers. “After the first tune lasted one hour, I became bored and left the room,” Rout reported. Rout seemed surprised to discover that much of the audience did not share his disinterest, and honestly wondered how he, as a putative insider, could find himself somehow out in the cold. “As a musician, I wondered: Most of these people are probably not musically trained, and some of them have had no prior grounding in any form of jazz. How much of this, the most complex form of jazz yet attempted, could they understand?”49 For Rout, the question of the race and youth demographics of the audience for the
University of Chicago concerts meant that “the association’s productions are more dependent upon the support of the beard- and- sandal set than its members care to admit.”50 With hindsight, however, it seems curious that Rout did not present reports from any of the black community venues at which AACM members performed—in particular, the weekly Abraham Lincoln Center events that were going on at this same time.

At AACM concerts, according to Rout, “No tunes were announced, there were no programs and aside from an intermission announcement, verbal communication between performers and the audience was kept to an absolute minimum.”51 This very different notion of what Rout saw as jazz performance called into question the enjoyment that jazz was supposed to present: “After studying the grim looks on the assembled faces, it occurred to me that smiling or showing teeth was also frowned upon. Whatever happened to all the joy that used to be in jazz?”52 Rout was struck by the fact that there was no smoking or drinking by the audience during AACM performances. Rout interviewed jazz writer and Down Beat associate editor Bill Quinn, who complained that “AACM will hold a concert at a place where you can’t smoke or drink. You can carry the integrity bag too far. If they (i.e., AACM members) want to be abstainers, fine, but…”53
In the end, Rout felt (as did Quinn) that the future of the AACM could be assured by moving closer to the conventional jazz model—“playing a few sessions with yesterday’s rebels” from the bebop period, as well as announcing the tunes and introducing the performers.54 On the other hand, somewhat later, Rout points out something that, in his view, made the AACM unique:

It represents the only successful attempt in the U.S.A. thus far to form an avant-garde jazz cooperative which allows the individual artist to present his music in the manner he deems favor able, have it performed by empathetic cohorts, and receive a payday in the process. Most intriguing is the fact that young Chicago jazzmen have done the impossible without the assistance of the national establishment or the local tastemakers. Psychologically, the gradual emergence of AACM again gives the lie to the suspicion still prevalent among many blackmen, that the Negro can never effectively operate any thing on his own.55

On the other hand, Rout wondered how the faithful weekly tithe of a dollar per week by thirty to thirty- fi ve members could possibly produce economic viability. During the initial AACM organizational meetings, Steve McCall and Philip Cohran had been at odds over interfacing the AACM with corporate funding. Two years later, the skepticism about this course of action, in an era of black self- determination and “do- for- self ” thinking, was even greater. Speaking with Lashley, Rout suggested “(a) a loan, or (b) a grant from some federal program or private foundation. Lashley smiled and shook his head. Suggestions along this line had already been vetoed. The bulk of AACM members wanted no part of ‘Whitey’s’ dirty money because then they might be beholden to or dependent upon either the Caucasian interests or the despised black bourgeois.”56

According to Rout, “a clear majority of members felt it necessary to oppose the acceptance of any assistance from the established sources of beneficence …success was not enough. AACM has to succeed without the aid of the white- controlled power structure.”57 Rout saw this as flying in the face of reality: “Such an attitude may be popular in Negro nationalist circles, but it does not pay the freight. Unless new sources of income are tapped, growth and activity must continue at a relatively low level . . . many AACM members will have to exchange some of their ideological biases for some stiff doses of pragmatism if they hope to make relatively rapid progress.”58  On its own terms, however, the organization began to develop a pragmatic
structure for sharing work among its members, as Leo Smith recalled.

From time to time a few gigs would get called in. Somebody would say, we have this gig at so- and- so college, and we need a trio or a quartet or a large ensemble. If a gig like that came to the offi ce on the telephone, it was an AACM gig, and it had to be put on the table. If one person’s ensemble had it the last time, it was supposed to go to somebody else the next time. Of course, sometimes people would ask for special people, like the Art Ensemble, Joseph, Muhal, and occasionally Braxton. If it wasn’t their time, they would arrange for somebody else to put it together. It worked, because Muhal don’t compromise too much. “I’m sending you an AACM band. What do you want? Everybody is just as good as everybody else.”

An unpublished, fictional journal/narrative by pianist Claudine Myers, written around this time, depicts some of the dreams and aspirations that this sense of the collective produced. The narrative’s dramatic setting is a Saturday afternoon at the Abraham Lincoln Center, where AACM members are going about their creative business in an optimistic, hopeful spirit. “I was writing it as it was happening,” Myers recalled. Musicians such as Maurice McIntyre, Leo Smith, and Anthony Braxton appear among the playfully drawn characters, and nicknames are used for others, such as Malachi Favors (“Mal”), John Stubblefield (“Stub”), Fontella Bass (“Fonnie”), and Roscoe Mitchell (“The Rock”). Since the narrative carried the eponymous byline of one “Ariae,” a certain “Claudine” herself appears as a character.

A Day in the Life . . . . . . . . . . .
By Ariae

Ajaramu and Claudine went to the Center to rehearse; saw Mal and Lester on their way downtown. Mal: “Downtown?” “Yeh.” “Bring me a sandwich.” “O.K.”

Walked in the auditorium. Stub was playing the piano; Anthony Braxton sweeping. Leo was cleaning the office. Claudine proceeded to The Rock’s desk. She told Leo that she was going to study with Anthony to learn his theories on notation, sounds . . . Leo said, “Get your own thing. You don’t need someone else’s. No one can say I’m playing someone else’s thing. I went to the library, read books etc. to see what was happening. When some motherfucker (excuse the expression) asks me, I’ll tell them where.”

Stub walks in. “You people are really cleaning up. How does that bridge go on Jeanne?” “I don’t know,” replied Claudine. Braxton enters and checks with Leo about cleaning up. Sits down, crosses his legs, coat in lap, looks around, always looks innocent. Of what?

Fontella walks in. “CHECK THOSE BOOTS OUT!!” states Anthony. “I AIN’T SEEN NO BOOTS LIKE THOSE!! Ohhhhhhhhh,” he screams to show his boot appreciation. Claudine and Fonnie continue to talk.

Ten minutes passed. The Rock is still working on changing his papers. In walks Maurice looking in drawers. Claudine: “Roscoe, you’ve been looking and doing that for 15 minutes.” “So . . . might do it for 10 more.” Maurice is sipping honey.

While Maurice’s group is rehearsing, Rock, Braxton and Leo enter. “We’re stealing your song, Rock. You’ve got a hit!” (They were speaking of Rock’s composition, “Rock Suite”). Rock replied, “When we get our own record company, we’ll put it on a 45.” They proceed to the office.

After the first rehearsal, Larry Bowie is playing Straight, No Chaser with Braxton. “Can you play tempos?” “Uh- uh.” “Like this? 1–2–3–4?” “Yeh.” They proceed to play. After the tune, Claudine hugs Larry. “Beautiful!”
“Thanks!” Larry is only 9 yrs old.

Anthony came down with his contrabass clarinet, “The Rock” had his bass sax. Later Fonnie and Claudine sang and played the piano. Fonnie and Claudine threw in a little 500 Rummy to make the day complete (smile).

“BRAXTON, YOUR HAIR IS NAPPIER THAN MINE! Where’s that big horn you got?” Muhal had come on the scene.

Joseph promised to use Claudine in the second part of his “symphony.” “Oh Good.” Jarman, Bowie, Maurice continued to discuss music. “Louis Armstrong is making more money then he ever did.” “That’s what he supposed to do.”

Joseph from toilet: “Bowie!” “Yeh!” “We’re going to have a Charlie Parker festival and play the music of John Coltrane too.” “We should havea Charlie Parker festival the same day as Coltrane’s.”

Joseph: “I’ve been happy all day. The music. . . .” Everybody’s drinking herb tea.

(Signed) Ariae59

This dramatization of daily life in the AACM seems to demonstrate the foreshortening of the gulf between art and life that was being pursued by its members. Another similarly directed event, one that formed an important watershed moment in the development of organizational solidarity, was the performance of The Dream, a two- act play with music, written by Abrams and performed sometime in 1968. By turns intensely dramatic and broadly humorous, the performance process for the piece involved both musical and theatrical improvisation. “Before the play started,” Myers recalled, “Muhal would be backstage, saying, “No dialogue, nothing written. We’d sit back there for a few minutes, and he’d give us the synopsis. And that stuff worked! It ran for a month, on the weekends. We had to make up stuff for a whole month. It’s amazing. I guess there were a few white people in there, but the audience was mostly black. It was crowded.”

A 1977 narrative by Joseph Jarman, published in a book of his writings, provides an overview of each scene, as well as the overall performance process:

reach down deep inside of what you are
and bring up the reality of
the “part”—you don’t need the
“training” of the “actor”; you need the training
of yourself, what you are already—that is enough.
how to act in each “scene”;
don’t “act” at all become yourself out
of your life and do the scene, the reality
of it, as it is the facts of your life
are the only theatre needed. 60

The central characters of The Dream were “Note” ( Jarman) a struggling musician, and “Blues & Accidental” (Myers), a woman he meets at a local nightclub jam session. Note plays in a band led by a tough but compassionate singer, “B Natural” (Fontella Bass). Besides the lead actors, the “AACM Players”—Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, Lester Bowie, M’Chaka Uba, Ajaramu, Wallace McMillan, Thurman Barker, Byron Bowie, and others—served as stage extras, as well as performing both free improvisations and standard jam session tunes as part of the depiction of party scenes, love scenes, and fights.61

The play examined many of the same social and cultural tropes explored by Philip Cohran and many other black artists of the period. In the climactic moment, the sensitive artist Note leaves Accidental after realizing the folly of their adoption of ruinous, materialistic white middle- class values (symbolized by Accidental’s blonde wig):

note: Every time I look around, here you come . . . yellow wigs, red wigs, green wigs, blue wigs—

accidental: That’s right. I was wearin’ em when you met me. You ain’t
shit! You ain’t done nothin’, You ain’t a man. You ain’t nothin’.

Note starts to leave.

accidental: You know what? You should take a course on the responsibilities
of a man, baby, because you don’t have it. You don’t know
what it is to be a man. If you leave, baby, you can forget about coming

note: That’s exactly what I’m gonna do.

accidental: You want eat here and screw your whore, you know? Go
to some of your friends’ house. They don’t ever have no money for
nothing. Go on with the rest of them people that’s nothin’, You ain’t

note (shouts): You can take this house, you can take the color TV, you can
take that car . . . you can take it all, and stick it up your black ass, you

Note leaves.

accidental (shouts behind him): You ain’t nothin’! You ain’t nothin’! Shitass

The door slams.

accidental: I should have married me somebody who had a college education.

The audience guffaws and bursts into applause. 62

“The play got so real that it scared me, we got so into character,” said Myers. “Joseph was reading Down Beat looking for places to play. I snatched the magazine out of his hands: ‘You need to be reading the want ads and looking for a damn job!’ Joseph had a look on his face that killed me.” Before his performance in The Dream, Henry Threadgill was following developments in Chicago as best he could from Southeast Asia, where he was stationed as an army infantryman in 1967. Threadgill had been with the Horace Shepherd evangelism troupe for nearly two years. His musical colleagues made overtures to him to join the AACM, but he was firmly attached to the religious life. Now and then a friend would encounter Threadgill on a Chicago street corner. “I was with the radical people, them people out on the street trying to get you,” Threadgill remembered. With the draft and the Vietnam War in full and murderous effect, Threadgill thought that there might be a way to do what earlier generations of musicians had done—engage military service while avoiding actual fi ghting in favor of musical performance. He joined the army in 1966 with what he believed was an explicit contractual understanding that he would be pursuing his profession, that is, music. At the time, Threadgill saw the army as a traditional site “where you could go and practice, and get paid. That’s why cats went in there, like Trane, Wayne Shorter, Clark Terry.”

At first, Threadgill secured a rather cushy assignment as an arranger. “I didn’t even have to get out of bed in the morning,” he recalled. “I didn’t have to make reveille. I didn’t even have to put on army clothes unless it was necessary.” Stationed in St. Louis and Kansas City, Threadgill had plenty of time to hang out with Oliver Lake and other St. Louis experimentalists. He even met an army colleague who had served with Anthony Braxton in Korea. “They were telling stories about Braxton in the army after he left,” Threadgill laughed. “Everybody wanted to kill him. He would have Coltrane and Cecil Taylor blasting up to the top, and he would be playing all day and all night when cats were trying to get some sleep.”

Things were going rather well until Threadgill was asked to write an arrangement for a medley of patriotic American songs, as part of a ceremony including the state governor, the local Catholic archbishop, the head of the Fifth Army, the mayor of Kansas City, and other notables. Somehow, Threadgill used the occasion to present a coded challenge to traditional authority. “I wrote this music, but I wrote it the way I write music, and the harmony I was using at the time was very way out, twentieth- century harmony, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra and all that. It premiered in Kansas City. They said some general jumped up and the guy from the church said it was blasphemous. They cut it off .” The next morning at band rehearsal, an officer rushed in and the band members came to attention:

Announcement from such- and- such army headquarters, so- and- so- and- so, the transfer of Private Henry Threadgill to Pleiku . . .” I said, who? The cat kept on reading. “Private Threadgill will be attached to the fourth infantry. . . . He has thirty days to get his papers in order and report to . . . the upland section of South Vietnam.” I jumped up straight out of my seat and said, “Ain’t this a bitch!” I was way out of order, but I didn’t even give a fuck.

Threadgill went on active duty during the murderous Tet Offensive of 1968, widely regarded as a turning point in the way that the U.S. public perceived the war. “You can do your profession,” he rued, “but when they want you to be a foot soldier, you’re a foot soldier.” On March 12, 1968, the celebratory and optimistic mood that permeated the AACM was severely tested when Christopher Gaddy, the pianist in Jarman’s quintet, passed away, less than a month before his twenty- fi fth birthday. Jarman’s recently released Song For became his only recorded performance. Leonard Jones’s remembrance of Gaddy’s passing was all the more poignant for its directness and simplicity:

I met Gaddy when he came out of the Army. Christopher lived in thebasement of his parents’ building. I took Christopher to the hospital to have his dialysis. Christopher had developed kidney disease in the Army. Christopher was also a Rosicrucian and we were always talking about spiritual things. Young cats searching, trying to find themselves. The day before Christopher died, I’m the one that took him to the hospital. I asked him when did he want me to pick him up. He said, don’t worry about it, that he didn’t think he would be coming home. He died about 5 o’clock that morning.

Wadada Leo Smith’s story gave some inkling of the closeness between Gaddy and Charles Clark:

The first time I knew anybody that wasn’t afraid to die, it was Christopher Gaddy. He talked about it, openly. The doctors had told him that if he didn’t have a kidney transplant, he would die. He said, OK, I’m not afraid of that. Gaddy was saying that when he passed he was going to India to study with his teacher. The night he passed, him and Charles smoked some herb in the hospital together. He told Charles that he was going to take off . When they came to get him to clean his blood, he took off . When his mother called Muhal, she told Muhal that Gaddy had gone to India.

At the memorial service, AACM members Abrams, Jarman, Clark, and Barker performed. Jarman composed the piece “Song for Christopher” for his second Delmark recording, As If It Were the Seasons.63 In a sense, the entire album seemed to constitute a memorial to Gaddy.

For many in the AACM, Christopher Gaddy’s passing intensifi ed their understanding that life was fleeting, and that as much should be made of the time one has as possible. This meant that it was time to utilize the upsurge of interest in their music to take their sounds beyond Chicago’s borders. Gene Dinwiddie, an early member of the pre- AACM Experimental Band, was one of the first to test his wings. At this time, as Dinwiddie saw it, creative differences were quietly surfacing within the AACM. “Roscoe and Joseph Jarman, they were a little too hip for me. I made an effort, I played with Roscoe, but that just wasn’t something I wanted to do. In the band we had with Alvin Fielder and Malachi Favors, I always wanted to play straight ahead. Roscoe would play his part, and it would be totally diff rent.” In 1966, Steve McCall played on sessions with blues guitarist Paul Butterfield.64 McCall introduced Dinwiddie to Butterfield, and “a year or so later,” recalled Dinwiddie, “I was playing at Big John’s in Chicago with Otis Rush and Mighty Joe Young. Paul and Elvin Bishop came by. Paul approached me and that’s how I got that job.” In 1967, in the wake of the legendary, record- setting snowstorm that shut Chicago down, Dinwiddie joined the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. His family moved to New York in 1969, where they lived until the late 1970s, when they eventually settled in La Puente, east of Los Angeles.

Troy Robinson had opened his own storefront performance space at 76th and Cottage Grove. The space had a piano, and Robinson built the stage himself. “We had dancers and we’d do plays,” Robinson recalls, “but about fifteen or twenty people would show up, so I couldn’t keep up the place. Michael Davis was there, Malachi Thompson, Richard Brown, Joey [ Joel] Brandon.” Robinson described the audience as mixed. “Most of the whites were into the new music, but it was mostly blacks, with their dashikis.” Gradually, Robinson began to feel a sense of disillusionment with a certain intolerance that he detected among some members.

I’d get a chance to play once every month, or every two months, and no money was coming in, so naturally I was doing some other stuff too. I was playing with Operation Breadbasket, and they were like, I’m playing some cheap music. It was like, I had sold out. Some people got upset about it. They were saying that I wasn’t really a true creative musician, a true AACM member. I was hurt by that. I was at a rehearsal, and this was said to me, and I was asked to leave.

Soon after, Robinson decided to leave Chicago for California to become involved in writing movie scores, but he “found out that there was a line from here to San Diego” of people trying to break into that business. “I started writing music for children’s plays and teaching at a children’s center.”

Not long after Christopher Gaddy’s passing, Mitchell, Favors, and Bowie presented a “Farewell Concert” announcing their extended trip to California,65 where Mitchell met a future close collaborator, the multiinstrumentalist Gerald Oshita. A pioneer of the Bay Area’s Asian American improvisation movement, Oshita was performing in a trio with Rafael Garrett, the eternal nomad from Chicago, and Oakland- born drummer Oliver Johnson.66 Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins, and Leo Smith, who had become active as a collective ensemble, also sought out musical possibilities there.67 In November 1968, Steve McCall was touring Germany with a group led by Marion Brown, with Gunter Hampel, trumpeter Ambrose Jackson, and bassist Barre Phillips.68 Alvin Fielder moved back to Mississippi to take over the family business in pharmacy. In Leo Smith’s retrospective view, “it was a very touchy moment for the AACM around 1968.”

In an organization there are always power plays, no matter if everybody loves everybody, because somebody thinks they can do the job better, or do it diff erently, or make a diff erent kind of impact. A lot of issues were going on about how to run the AACM. The Art Ensemble had gotten a little bit of power, and so they were making the essential challenges. It was obvious that somebody from the Art Ensemble needed to, wanted to, or should be, leader of the AACM.


> more Book Cooks

> back to contents