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

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

Lester Bowie, 1975
Lester Bowie, 1975                              Michael Wilderman 2008

Lester Bowie became the second president of the AACM in September 196869 with Leo Smith as vice president. It was during this year that the AACM moved its base of operations for both concerts and the school to the Parkway Community House at 500 East 67th Street on the South Side. “The Parkway House gave us a whole theater in the round, which held about a hundred people in there,” Bowie recalled. “We had office space, we had a phone number. We had our own space, and we could represent cats so they could rent cars, get cribs, rent apartments.”

One public face of Bowie’s tenure as president was a short- lived AACM newsletter, the New Regime. Similar in style to an underground literary magazine, and published in multiple colors on ordinary grade- school construction paper, the New Regime featured personal histories, pictures of members, commentary, photographs, artwork, fi ction, and poetry. Also prominent were advertisements for the newly released AACM recordings, and biographies of associated artists, such as choreographer Darlene Blackburn. Upon opening the first issue, one is drawn to Maurice McIntyre’s ringing manifesto:

The Association for The Advancement of Creative Musicians is an organization of staunch individuals, determined to further the art of being of service to themselves, their families and their communities. . . .
We are like the stranded particle, the isolated island of the whole, which refuses to expire in the midst of the normal confused plane which must exist—in order that we may, but with which we are constantly at war. We are trying to balance an unbalanced situation that is prevalent in this society.70

Bowie offered a trenchant analysis of the situation facing not just black artists, but colonized and subaltern people around the world. For Bowie, “our music . . . is the tool with which the burden of oppression can be lifted from the backs of our people.”71 Bowie advocated the study of communication itself as an essential part of the creative musician’s struggle, recognizing that this study would inevitably have larger implications for subalterns generally: “In order for any one people to dominate, suppress or otherwise control another people, they must fi rst cut off (or at least control) the other peoples lines of communication between themselves. In other words, the oppressed people must not only have a complete lack of knowledge of themselves or anything else, but must be denied the means by which to find communication.”72

Bowie observed that artists must recognize their roles as part of a highly contested and politicized communications network:

Somehow, someway, the oppressed people must be convinced to perpetuate their own oppression. They must be convinced that they don’t want to communicate between themselves; That they don’t want to know anything about themselves or anything else. Most of all, they must be convinced that there is nothing to know about. They must be led to believe that they have no music, art, cultural sense or anything else. In order to do this, there can be no communication between the people and their Artist’s and in order to do that all lines of communication between the Artist must be eliminated, control led or otherwise dominated by the oppressor.73

Bowie’s analysis of the commodification of musicality is singularly insightful, and appears uncommonly prescient to boot:

The musicians must be convinced to fi ght, hassle and undermine each other. They must be led to believe that success (Artistic or otherwise) can only be: by being negative. They must believe, that the only way to be is negative toward their fellow musicians. They must be made to discourage rather than encourage their fellow musicians’ needs, desires and right to play. This is accomplished by several means; By far, the most eff ective means is to take the few (very few) negative cats and make them big stars. Setting them up as examples for the other musicians to follow.74 In the New Regime, Henry Threadgill took the opportunity to talk back to the media by critiquing the state of music criticism.

The question has been tossed about many times in recent years pri marily by Black artists, that the term jazz had taken on too many false and bad connotations, stigmas, etc., and in what is basically a commercialmaterialistic- capitalistically oriented country taken on a too limited conception in terms of art. Thereby setting the stage for a foreseeable dead end in terms of progressive creativity . . . derived from within what has become a preconceived Music- concept- thought- mode.75

As a solution, Threadgill advocates precisely what the New Regime was trying to accomplish: musicians taking responsibility for historicizing and theorizing their own practice.

When we look at western Music History, some of the best critics and writers were themselves fi rst musicians and composers. Why? Because they knew where the music was “at” that time—they were talking about. Not leaving the task of writing and reviewing to the “out- of- time- of- tune reviewers of society.” . . . Who else in this Aquarian Age would be better suited to speak about this product than the instrument through which it appears? Surely, if such highly creative music can come from such minds, the same minds can give some insight about it and themselves in relationship . . . not just by being its creators and performers.76

Anthony Braxton’s writings in the New Regime’s first edition included both poetry and aesthetic musings, often with a whimsical edge. Parodying one of jazz journalism’s most clichéd questions, Braxton listed his musical influences as “Desmond, Trane, Ornette, Earl [sic] Brown, Muddy Waters, Stockhausen, the Mack Truck Corporation, the streets of Chicago, General Motors and Snooky Lanson.”77 At this early stage, Braxton had not yet developed the extended conceptual vocabulary for which his later Tri- Axium Writings and his post- 1974 album liner notes became known, but the passion in his writerly voice was evident:

The acceptance and understanding of all music is necessary, if the total destruction of the idea of art in all its forms is to be brought about in our lifetime. That the West is in the eleventh hour is now undebatable. We must redefine every aspect of what we now call art. . . . We must bring spiritual awareness (not as a “thing”—a way to cash in on the cosmics) to the center of the stage. . . . Steps must be taken to show that all art is one.78

Although the magazine was projected to appear monthly, only two undated issues were ever published, both in 1968. In the second and final edition, Joseph Jarman adopted a confessional mode, and perhaps could be forgiven for portraying the AACM and the Experimental Band as something of a Synanon- like cult:

until i had the first meeting with Richard Abrams, I was “like all the rest” of the “hip” ghetto niggers; i was cool, i took dope, i smoked pot, etc. i did not care for the life that i had been given. in having the chance to work in the Experimental band with Richard and the other musicians there, i found the fi rst something with meaning/reason for doing—that band and the people there was the most important thing that ever happened to me . . . i could go on and on about Richard and Roscoe, but i’d like to keep it short.79

The release of the Mitchell, Abrams, and Jarman recordings, as well a session led by Lester Bowie, prompted considerable critical commentary, both in the United States and abroad, about the “Chicago school” of improvised music.80 In March 1968, the AACM received major notice in Europe with an extended article by Martin in the British journal Jazz Monthly. Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, and Joseph Jarman were featured on the magazine’s cover. The article begins with the context in which the music known as free jazz emerged, noting that the music “was not the creation of a single genius.”81 For Martin, the importance of this music lay in its articulation of collective form:

It is the role of the ensemble as a source of extended improvisation that seems to me to be particularly significant to the development of the new music, i.e. of jazz itself. The individual and ensemble qualities of this quartet will be the subject of a future essay, but I should perhaps mention that the tremendous tone palette available to the quartet is put to the service of a self- generating ensemble style based on individual creativity and group memory. The result is a wide ranging music, which wanders freely into all musical forms, subjecting them to its own encompassing structures, and they are empirical and organic in nature.82

It is at this point that the panoply of approaches favored by the AACM begins to exhibit a postmodern sensibility, even if Martin himself did not necessarily recognize this at the time. “Their familiarity with various musical systems,” Martin observed, “has con vinced them that no one has all the answers to their expressive needs; the best musicians can call any of these to service as the occasion demands. Their concept includes the freedom to accept as well as reject traditional values.”83 With regard to the modernist/ postmodernist divide, musicologist Ronald Radano’s critical biography of Anthony Braxton tried to draw a bright line by exceptionalizing Braxton’s work relative to the AACM as a whole:

Whereas most of his AACM colleagues remained committed to freejazz practice in the mid- 1960s, Braxton had already begun to express the liberties of the postmodern, ranging across genres and exploring highmodernist concert music and experimentalism. Soon he would transcend the jazz category altogether, actively participating in experimental- music circles, most notably in New York, where he collaborated with the composer-performers Philip Glass, David Behrman, and Frederick [sic]

As we have seen above, however, the range of issues engaged by the contemporaneous critical reception of the AACM places enormous pressure on this reading. First of all, “experimentalism” as a practice (as distinct from a genre) was not limited to white composers or histories, but was part and parcel of the AACM’s direction. Secondly, the foreshortening of historical perspective and the multiplicity of voices, emblematic of the “liberties of the postmodern,” were being worked out by many AACM composers. Indeed, the AACM itself, as an organization, could be viewed as a postmodern articulation of multiperspectivalism that, as Martin noticed, would confound attempts to ground either its genesis or its apotheosis in the work of any single AACM individual. Lawrence Kart’s review of Mitchell’s Congliptious for example, was typical in its observation that “the entire range of jazz, and other musics, too, is seen as a musical language, an historical present, which these musicians draw upon with unparalleled freedom.”85 Congliptious included three unaccompanied solos by Mitchell, Malachi Favors, and Lester Bowie. British critic Max Harrison noticed that the unaccompanied pieces avoided constructing long lines, while “the ensemble performances were completely episodic; the moods shift and flicker but their implications are never followed through.”86 Thus, the reviewer was unable to find any form that was “detectable to sustained, concentrated listening.”87 At least part of the issue here could have involved this reviewer’s evident investment in the ongoing competition between “jazz” and “serious music”—in this case, the work of John Cage, to which, in Harrison’s view, the Mitchell work was said to be related, if only in a relation of epigonality. Invoking the standard trope of competition between Afrological and Eurological worlds of music that had been active since the 1920s, Harrison, also noted as a reviewer of “classical” music, found this epigonality to be an issue, not only with Mitchell’s work, but also with “jazz” itself. Thus, Mitchell’s music was said to be “elementary” in its explorations, and “in too much of a hurry.”88

In contrast to this dour view was Will Smith’s Stateside review of the same work in the August 1969 issue of Jazz & Pop. Smith saw Congliptious as “a totality of joy—all- seeing, fun- mad dance of bursting, bristling complexity and energy . . . a wriggling mass of glad happenings—the lightning sound of mad sanity contained.”89 Even more to the point, the Smith review confronts directly what Harrison’s review omitted: Lester Bowie’s witty, explicit challenge to the authority of the critical community itself, in the spoken dialogue to his unaccompanied solo: “Excuse me, uh, Mr. Bowie! I’m Dave, uh, Flexingbergstein of, uh, Jism Magazine. Is jazz—as we know it—dead . . . yet?”90 After a solo of extraordinary ludic caprice, Bowie answers his own question, observing, “Well, I guess that all depends one what you know,” clearly implying that the critical community’s knowledge might need some revision in the face of the new realities that this music was presenting. Roll over, Beethoven, indeed.

A further case in point concerns Chuck Nessa’s first release on his own label, Lester Bowie’s Numbers 1&2,91 with Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, and Malachi Favors, which was reviewed by Michael James in a 1968 edition of the British Jazz Monthly.92 The reviewer’s seemingly unfavorable description of the album could be seen as pointing up the diffi culties with critical reception of the AACM’s incipient postmodernist fragmentation and collage strategies. James found the recording “intransigently episodic, rejecting not only the traditional jazz values of a swinging beat and a basic harmonic framework, but also the notion of delineating or developing a dominant mood.” The music exhibited “a quickfi re succession of emotional vignettes, jarring from one to the other over the album’s 46 minutes with utter disdain for any logic of development, other than that at times concealed in the musical substance itself.” Curiously, for James, the playful, quiet, gentle music on the recording somehow represented “the fears and frustrations of the Negro in American society today. The kaleidoscopic juxtaposition of emotions it offers is the more easily understood when one refl ects on the quality of life in the Negro ghettos of the U.S.A.; and likewise, the motivation behind these men’s rejection of traditional European values.”93 Given the reviewer’s valorization of traditional jazz song forms, as found in the work of the great musicians of the past—“Armstrong, Hawkins, Parker, Davis, yes, and Ornette Coleman too”—the review’s objection to the absence of such forms in the Bowie recording was understandable. Rather than taking the opportunity of “marshalling their inventiveness into significant form,” the musicians had reached “unthankful ground,” where only “a paltry crop” could be raised. In the end, the reviewer’s reference to philosopher Susanne Langer’s ideas (albeit in an unusual interpretation) found Bowie and his associates wanting.94

This review was balanced by a later, highly favorable review of the same album that appeared in the same journal. The critic, Jack Cooke, noted that due to the large number of instruments on the recording, including glockenspiel, cowbell, chimes, voices, “it’s not possible to say precisely who plays what.”95 The reviewer realized that the standard thumbnail sketch approach to reviewing musical style lacked utility in this context. Because “the cohesion and versatility of the group makes it impossible to impose quick comparisons or snap judgments. . . . In these circumstances, ‘reconciles the approaches of both Ornette and Albert Ayler’ is not only a little thin as a description but could be positively misleading.”96 In a later piece, the same reviewer listened to Abrams’s Levels and Degrees of Light and Jarman’s Song For, finding the work of the AACM musicians to comprise “a synthesis of existing techniques and methods rather than any substantially new outlook”—a common early trope in critiques of the postmodern. At the same time, despite his lack of sympathy for Abrams’s use of reverberation techniques, the reviewer noted that “the range of techniques they are using is very wide indeed.”97

One important marker of the organization’s growing visibility in its home town was a lengthy 1968 feature article in the Chicago Tribune’s Sunday magazine section, which devoted fourteen pages of descriptive text and vivid photography to “The Association.”98 Then, at the end of 1968, the first piece in the U.S. trade press analyzing the work and influence of the AACM as an organization appeared in Down Beat’s 1968 yearbook. Bill Quinn, an African American writer, presented a capsule history of the collective, calling it the “most prolifi c group of its type” in the United States. This after less than three years of existence.”99 The Quinn piece starts with a question posed at a conference on the humanities that had taken place that year: “Does the AACM have anything to do with Black Pow er?” the young man asked Richard Abrams. “Yes,” replied Abrams. “It does in the sense that we in tend to take over our own destinies, to be our own agents, and to play our own music.”100 Indeed, for Quinn, the most important aspect of the AACM was that “these black jazz musicians are organized . . . not from without by virtue of agents, the union, or promoters, but from within, through mutual respect and sheer rigid- middle- finger determination to master their destinies. This is one promise of Black Power.”101 Quinn saw a diversity of musical and political viewpoint within the AACM as an important aspect of the organization’s character: “A generation may separate one member from the next; one wears beads, a beard, and shirts of psychedelic hues, while another is in a dark suit, white shirt, and a highly introverted tie. Privately, a member may be an antiwarblacknationalmilitantsocialist or fairly unconcerned about anything outside the sphere of his musical involvement.”102


> back to contents