Power Greater Than Itself:
Celebrating the AACM in Guelph

Bill Shoemaker


Sometimes, placing two contemporaneous documents side by side can speak volumes about a moment in the history of a nation, and how that moment is reflected in the present. Such is the case with two documents dating from May 8th, 1965. The first was a memorandum written by US Undersecretary of State George Ball to President Lyndon Johnson, entitled “A Plan For A Political Resolution In South Viet Nam.” Ball called for a cease-fire, amnesty for Viet Cong who participated in the election of a new government, and a score of economic and social programs emphasizing education, medical care, agricultural support, land reform and debt cancellation that would lead to the withdrawal of all foreign troops. His recommendations were not implemented. Johnson instead went with Rolling Thunder, Search and Destroy and Pacification.

The second document was presented at the first meeting of The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Its nine agenda points for the new musicians collective were:

To cultivate young musicians and to create music of a high artistic level through programs designed to magnify creative music.

To create an atmosphere conducive to artistic endeavors for the artistically inclined.

To conduct free training for disadvantaged city youth.

To encourage sources of employment for musicians.

To set an example of high moral standards for musicians and to uplift the image of creative musicians.

To increase respect between creative musicians and musical trades persons.

To uphold the tradition of cultured musicians handed down from the past.

To stimulate spiritual growth in musicians.

To assist other complementary charitable organizations.

Unlike Ball’s memo, the AACM mission statement was implemented, and has remained operational over 40 years.

When assessing its accomplishments, it is necessary to retain a sense of the historical moment in which the AACM was conceived, particularly as it pertained to African-Americans. The AACM was founded near the chronological mid-point between the assassination of Malcolm X and the Watts Riots. Televised images of police brutality at Selma and throughout the South were in living rooms throughout the nation at the dinner hour. The Voting Rights Act and other Great Society programs had yet to be enacted. It was a perilous moment.

In this historical context, the language and import of the AACM mission statement are extraordinary. The vocabulary and tone are far removed from that of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. There are no grievances presented nor are demands made. On the contrary, every point is in essence an offer of service to the community. Even the only overt reference to economics – “To encourage sources of employment for musicians” – has a Jaycees ring to it.

Certainly, the language had a tactical purpose – the AACM incorporated in Illinois as a nonprofit organization later that year, and obtained tax-exempt status. Yet, the real brilliance of the mission statement lies in its stipulation of the marginal existence of creative music within the African-American community, and its implicit linkage of the survival of creative music with service to the community. In doing so, the AACM distanced itself from the “musical trades” and unionism, placing itself within a wholly cultural context.

The equation of service to community and the assertion of creative music into the community put the AACM on a different path than earlier movements like the Jazz Composers Guild, which focused on controlling the means of production within the existing jazz economy. However, the AACM’s emphasis on culture – “culture being the way of our lives; politics, the way our lives are handled,” Leo Smith declared in his 1973 book, notes (8 pieces) source a new world music: creative music) – did not dilute its articulation of a self determination-based agenda, to which Smith also spoke:

“…it is now time for us to take unto ourselves the process of recording our own history – to take this process from the control of those who are alien by the very being of their identity group to what it is that we are doing. we do not need our creations dissected by others who cannot know what they see. we must not wait for others to document their own distortions of that which we can say rightly for ourselves.”

Epitomized by Anthony Braxton’s rococo lexicon, without which it is impossible to have a substantive discussion about his music, the AACM’s ability to set the terms for the discussion of its music is a subtle, but far-reaching accomplishment. However, it is a mistake to view this exclusively as a barrier to outside scrutiny. Its primary function is to reinforce the culture of creative music from within, which is exemplified by the two best-known slogans associated with the AACM: the organization’s “Power Greater Than Itself,” and the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future.”

Of the two, “Power Greater Than Itself” is relatively straightforward, an assertion of the synergy that a committed community can generate. “Ancient to the Future,” however, can be read two ways. The first reading is an identification of their materials and methods; at first, “Future” may seem contrived, but given the ‘50s fascination with Space Age Jazz, particularly by the then Chicago-based Sun Ra, it makes perfect sense. The second reading infers a presumably distant Future, where the AEC’s music will be Ancient, and themselves Ancients. It is this second reading that buttresses the image of the creative musician as griot and steward of the culture.

AACM-nurtured terminological integrity is also fundamental to the creative music pedagogy promulgated by AACM members in US universities. Though they differ in terms of curriculum goals and teaching methods, the articulation of the practices of such AACM musicians as Braxton at Wesleyan, George Lewis at Columbia, and Smith at Cal Arts are traceable to Points 1,2,6,7 and 8 of the AACM mission statement. This takes the role of cultural steward into an arena unforeseen by the AACM’s founders, one that acknowledges the increasingly site-unspecific nature of the creative music community.

This modality of community has been decades in the making. The role of AACM artists in this transformation began in the 1970s, when several of the organization’s most high-profile members migrated from Chicago to, among other locations, Connecticut, Michigan and New York in the 1970s. This facilitated the creation of such network-expanding ensembles as New Dalta Ahkri, Revolutionary Ensemble, and Roscoe Mitchell’s Sound Ensemble. It is now difficult to name an eminent figure in American creative music that is separated by more than two degrees from the AACM because of these migrations and the ensuing ripple effects.

The AACM and its members have subsequently become subjects of scholarly studies and academic treatises: several books have been devoted to Braxton’s music alone. These endeavors, however, are inherently interpretative to one degree or another. Particularly on an auspicious occasion like their 40th Anniversary, the AACM required an unfiltered platform on which to discuss their past and present, while presenting musicians from several of its many waves.

This was the intent of Guelph Jazz Festival Artistic Director Ajay Heble in presenting Ancient to the Future: Celebrating 40 Years of the AACM, a panel discussion with Douglas Ewart, Nicole Mitchell, Roscoe Mitchell, Famoudou Don Moye, Matana Roberts, Jaribu Shahid, Wadada Leo Smith and Corey Wilkes at the festival’s 2005 edition. And to the degree that such a crowded rostrum can put focused light on the subject, it did. More importantly, the musicians’ narratives and commentaries prompted a lengthy Q and A with the surprisingly large audience that made the 9am call at the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre. Some of the questions were convoluted, while some reflected all but a complete unfamiliarity with the musicians, their work and their traditions. However, each exchange reinforced and extended the creative music community that the AACM established in Chicago now over 40 years ago.


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