Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

In Stomping the Blues (Da Capo), Albert Murray observed that most critics “assume that the very best thing ... would be for [jazz] to cease being dance-hall music and become concert-hall music.” Where proponents of this transition at the time of the book’s publication in 1976 saw an elevation of an art form and commensurate increases in income and stature for artists, Murray saw estrangement between the music and the secular hub of African American culture he calls the Saturday Night Function. After all, Murray argued, Duke Ellington became “Ellington the Composer” long before his first Carnegie Hall concert by writing music to be played in night clubs, ballrooms and vaudeville theaters. However, without the institutionalization of jazz – the political processes by which jazz gained parity with symphony orchestras et al in terms of funding and other measures of representation – Murray’s beloved “blues music” may well have receded in the American consciousness as its creators left the scene. Instead, Murray became the ideological compass for the neo-conservative movement identified with Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center, which became the de facto national seat of jazz beginning in the late 1980s. (It’s no coincidence that Jazz at Lincoln Center’s then-Executive Director Rob Gibson wrote the introduction to the 2000 paperback edition of Stomping the Blues.) Ironically, Murray became much more widely read because of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s successful branding of jazz as formal concert music.

Murray was right; by the mid-‘70s, jazz critics had advocated jazz’s parity with other forms of formal concert music for decades. Some, in the process, changed careers to work within the very institutions crucial to leveling the playing field. Freelance critics like A. B. Spellman and Martin Williams held jazz-related posts at, respectively, The National Endowment for the Arts, who commissioned works from a wide swath of concert hall-eyeing jazz composers, and The Smithsonian Institution, who granted considerable space in its Collection of Classic Jazz to concert hall-centric jazz. Additionally, critics became university administrators; Dan Morgenstern beginning his long distinguished tenure as Director of Rutgers University’s Institute of Jazz Studies, one of the nation’s most respected repositories of jazz artifacts, in ‘76. The long-term benefits of critics like Morgenstern, Spellman and Williams working in such cultural, educational and political institutions are incalculable. However, the one-time jazz journalist then making the most immediate impact in repositioning jazz was arguably Michael Cuscuna, who produced many of the decade’s historically resonant recordings for market-leading labels. Specifically, Cuscuna’s mid-decade success with Anthony Braxton’s first Arista albums suggested the improbable; that the post-Coltrane avant-garde was commercially viable.

The market buzz galvanized by Braxton provoked a usually latent zeal among jazz critics as they retooled their advocacy during the second half of the 1970s. They no longer just had the largely faith-based argument that the avant-garde represented the most current stage of a dynamic, constantly evolving jazz tradition; they had the justification of sales figures, jazz magazine poll data and concert and festival bookings to proclaim the post-Coltrane avant-garde jazz was now reaching a wider audience. In making their cases, they fulfilled what Murray called “the most elementary obligation” of criticism – “to increase the accessibility of aesthetic presentation,” primarily achieved through “the coming to terms with such special peculiarities as may be involved in a given process of stylization” – albeit in support of music for which Murray had no use, especially on Saturday nights. By 1979, however, the avant-garde’s great market leap forward had been tripped up by a worsening economy and the absence of a fresh rallying figure, as Braxton’s later Arista albums featured pointedly unjazzy works for woodwind trio and multiple orchestras instead of the idiosyncratically swinging quartet music that brought him initial fame.

In March 1979 – 35 years ago this month – something as improbable as Braxton signing with Arista occurred: ECM released Nice Guys by Art Ensemble of Chicago. By then, producer Manfred Eicher’s Munich-based imprint had successfully branded itself as an aesthetic statement, its advocacy of concert hall jazz buttressed by its trademark immaculate, if reverb-rich recorded sound, mood-inducing cover photography of landscapes, architectural features and textured surfaces, and an attention to detail that extended to plastic, rice paper-lined inner sleeves. However, ECM was no longer merely a boutique label, its rather spectacular success with Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny prompting competition between conglomerates to manufacture and distribute ECM titles in North America, with Warner-Elektra-Atlantic holding the license in 1979.

Given ECM’s market position and its Eurocentricism (a wobbly charge: despite its history-shaping advocacy of European artists – particularly Scandinavians like Jan Garbarek and Bobo Stenson – the label’s brand was as equally dependent on its albums by North Americans like Paul Bley, Gary Burton and a slew of former Miles Davis sidemen, including Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, Jarrett and Dave Liebman), Art Ensemble of Chicago seemed like the last band on Earth it would record. Their “Great Black Music – Ancient to the Future” not only employed methods and materials far removed from both modern jazz in the main and avant-garde jazz – they did not comport to the image of jazz as concert music ECM profoundly advanced with albums like Jarrett’s The Köln Concert.(A measure of the 3-sided LPs stature is that it is the subject of the fourth installment of the prestigious Oxford Studies in Recorded Jazz series of books, preceded only by volumes devoted to the recordings of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens, Davis’ great quintet of the mid-1960s, and Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall concert.)

Undermining ossified cultural constructs with irony was nothing new in jazz, but the early recordings of the Art Ensemble and its precursor units argue irony to be the gate to parody and satire, one which they constantly left wide open. Collected as The Art Ensemble: 1967/68 (a 5-CD Nessa boxed set), these performances employ a wide array of tactics, ranging from the witty inflections and turns of phrase of Roscoe Mitchell’s “Old” (performed by the quartet of the saxophonist, trumpeter Lester Bowie, bassist Malachi Favors and drummer Philip Wilson, it inspired Chicago critic Larry Kart’s image of Mitchell picking the lock to a museum and “jitterbugging with the artifacts”) to the broad sarcasm of “Jazz Death?,” a Bowie solo. This emphasis on irony and its blurry relationships to parody and satire is part and parcel to the AEC’s unique bead on “Art,” one more closely aligned with the Black Arts Movement’s advents in experimental theater and visual art than to contemporary jazz practice. Like Jacques Derrida, the AEC understood the deconstructive power of collage; but, instead of accumulating colorful scraps to create specific images of everyday African American life like Romare Bearden, the AEC took highly-charged sounds – everything from songs associated with minstrelsy like “Oh Susanna” to bull horns and police whistles – to create double-edged audio works. Until the AEC, avant-garde jazz was an earnest endeavor – there’s nothing nuanced about John Coltrane’s Ascension. In stark contrast, the AEC’s juxtaposition of dialogue, a foregrounding of percussion and various noisemakers that became known as “little instruments” and pre-modern idioms such as New Orleans jazz on the title track of A Jackson in Your House (1969; BYG/Actuel) yielded intriguingly layered statements.

After Bowie, Favors, Mitchell and saxophonist Joseph Jarman took their “Great Black Music – Ancient to the Future” to Paris in 1969, a year after strikes and riots brought France to the verge of civil war, the AEC manicured a provocative image mixing menace and mockery, which is well-represented by a photo for Message to Our Folks (1969; BYG/Actuel). Sporting a mauve suit and tie, Mitchell lifts a knife overhead in one hand and holds dice in the other. A straw-hatted Favors (who would add Maghostut to his last name later in the ‘70s) seems intent to break ground with a shovel, even though he’s wearing the type of long white gown worn to wade into the river for full-immersion baptism. Jarman, wearing a 19th Century, double-breasted military coat and knee-high boots, clutches what appears to be an old Bible (at least he was clothed; he notoriously performed nude at a 1969 Belgian festival). Cigar clenched in his teeth, a tuxedoed Bowie holds his trumpet in one hand and, with the other, points a pistol at the camera.

The embrace of the AEC as trickster revolutionaries by French critics, intellectuals and cultural workers documented in George E. Lewis’ A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (2008; The University of Chicago Press) is exemplified by the program for a Paris concert, which cautioned the audience to “watch out how [the AEC is] picking your pockets; you’ll be beaten, robbed, then abused and sent back totally naked and crying for your mother ... If you knew how to listen [to the AEC] you would become, all at once, a subversive terrorist. You’ll see how intoxicating it is to kidnap Boulez, to kill Berio, or to beat up Xenakis.” Political implications aside, French media was dazzled by the sheer spectacle of Art Ensemble performances, which the newsweekly Le Nouvel Observatuer called “living sculpture.” Concert reviews like Daniel Caux’s for Jazz Hot emphasized the extra-musical elements of an AEC performance: “Joseph Jarman, his naked torso and his face painted, passing slowly through the aisles murmuring a poem while the bassist Malachi Favors, wearing a mask of terror, screamed curses at Lester Bowie, and Roscoe Mitchell operated various car horns.”

The AEC’s big splash resulted in their recording a half-dozen albums in a 60-day period ending in mid-August of ‘69, including a third LP for BYG/Actuel – Reese and the Smooth Ones – two for Freedom – The Spiritual and Tutankhamun – and the album-length work widely considered to be the magnum opus of their European sojourn, the resolutely irony-free People in Sorrow (EMI France). 45 years later, this remains an astounding body of work, spanning the whimsy of the deliciously schmaltzy “The Waltz” and the mournful grief of “Song for Charles Clark” (both are included on A Jackson in Your House). While their commentary-like use of idioms remained pungent – whether rendering a close-order, tack-sharp version of Charlie Parker’s “Dexterity” or stirring up stark, raving funk on “Rock Out,” with Jarman’s assault on an electric guitar presaging generations of punks (they are heard back to back on Message to Our Folks) – it is overshadowed by what was new in their music, which is best encapsulated by the engrossing People in Sorrow: the creation of continuity through the accumulating of contrasting scored and improvised components, its integrity dependent upon each musician being a multi-instrumentalist; the full enfranchisement of “little instruments;” the subordination of individual virtuosity to the collective statement. In short, this was a new paradigm, an unprecedented conceptual leap that leapfrogged those made by Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and other avant-garde jazz icons.

With these recordings, the AEC established itself as one of the more intricately balanced sets of musical personalities in jazz history. The contrast between the two saxophonists is already stark. Mitchell has an acerbic tone, particularly on alto and soprano, and “insistent” only approximates the single-mindedness with which he kneads the core phrase of a solo. Although he is a cogent multi-instrumentalist, the tenor best conveys Jarman’s eruptive energy, slashing sense of line, and withering screams, prompting regular, if somewhat off-point comparisons with Coltrane. Bowie and Favors tend to be characterized in almost polar terms, Bowie being the epitome of avant-garde swagger, while Favors is largely – and unfairly – relegated to the back line, employing bass textures or well-placed little sounds at crucial points; however, they often played against type – Bowie was deft at shading cool, lyrical lines with a plump or a smoky tone, and Favors could muscle his way into the foreground in a manner reminiscent of a prior Chicago bass force, Wilbur Ware.

Few jazz groups achieve the collective voice and the seemingly telepathic interactions of the AEC’s 1969 albums; and when they do, the resulting music has narrower, albeit original and innovative parameters. Arguably, the absence of a drummer kept conceptual doors pinned open for the AEC; subsequently, hiring a drummer risked this chemistry, even while the addition promised an infusion of rhythmic vitality. Wilson had been their man – he had the rare ability to simultaneously be blunt and understated, which served both Mitchell’s idiomatic compositions and his sound events-based works. However, with an eye on building upon their success both In Europe and, eventually, in the US, they enlisted Don Moye in 1970 (Moye would prefix Famoudou to his name later in the decade). His immediate impact is felt on the next AEC albums – With Fontella Bass (America) and Les Stances a Sophie (EMI France), both recorded in ‘70 – although it is mitigated by the magnetic presence on both albums of the great soul singer (then married to Bowie), especially on the rousing R&B workout “Theme de Yoyo” from the latter disc. Moye’s long-term impact is most vividly demonstrated on the AEC’s last session before returning to the US in ‘71, Phase One (1971; America), particularly on the side-long version of Jarman’s searing tribute to Coltrane, “Ohnedaruth.” (Although it does not commonly prefix his name, “Ohnedaruth” is the spiritual name Coltrane gave himself.) A slashing pentatonic line taken at a sprint, “Ohnedaruth” is a classic blowing vehicle; while Moye is the only one not to deliver a full-throated solo, his relentless cross-rhythms and fills are emblematic of how he transformed a conceptually-oriented ensemble into a barnstorming jazz band.

Once the AEC returned to the US, they retrofitted a Greyhound bus so that they could tour with what had become an arsenal of instruments: more than a dozen horns, ranging in size from piccolo to bass saxophone; racks of bells and gongs; marimbas and vibraphones; hand drums, concert bass drum, traps and cymbals; and an ever-growing inventory of little instruments. Their stage personae solidified: Bowie’s lab coat became his trademark; Favors, Jarman and Moye donned traditional garb and painted their faces; only Mitchell performed only in street clothes. While AEC performances were still studded with theatrical elements – Jarman reciting poetry, Favors pantomiming, Bowie mugging at the audience – a general contour was jelling.

The timing for all this was propitious, as they were soon signed to Atlantic by Cuscuna. Believing that the excitement of an AEC concert provided the best inroad for an American audience that at most had only a scant familiarity with their music, their performance at the fabled 1972 Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival was chosen as the first release. Bap-Tizum serves as the template of the AEC’s classic concert structure: the initial establishment of a ritual context, signified on this occasion by a percussion chorus and a whirl of chanting, hollering and declaiming voices; a transition from solemnity to hard-boiled intensity, beginning at Ann Arbor with Mitchell’s hymn-like “Unanka” and culminating with another scorching version of “Ohnedaruth;” and, finally, the recessional of the celebrants announced by the sanguine swing of Mitchell’s “Odwalla,” which became the AEC’s closing theme. Although they steadily variegated this structure in the decades to come, this basic framework can be traced through the AEC’s subsequent concert recordings.

As would be the case when he produced Anthony Braxton’s Arista albums, Cuscuna moved quickly to record the AEC’s next album. As the AEC had several new pieces composed with the support of a NEA grant, and they had engaged pianist Muhal Richard Abrams as guest artist, Cuscuna booked three full days at a Chicago studio in September 1973. The regimen of recording all the compositions each day yielded powerful performances of what amounted to a single-disc distillation of the AEC’s multi-faceted music. Fanfare for the Warriors, released in early ‘74, included the first version of Mitchell’s “Nonaah,” a thicket of barbed staccato lines that Mitchell has subsequently reworked for numerous configurations, the most recent being a version for symphony orchestra that premiered in Glasgow in February 2014. However, “Nonaah” represents something of a median in terms of intensity and abstraction – Jarman’s title piece fiercely roared while Mitchell’s “Tnoona” unfolds very slowly on long, muffled tones before culminating with an arresting, sharply angled unison line. Still, the AEC had not lost its sense of humor; Bowie’s “Barnyard Scuffel Shuffel” (sic) is built upon on a house-rocking R&B riff worthy of any Saturday Night function where Murray might be found patting his foot, while Mitchell’s minute-long “The Key” ends the album with a breezily swinging theme flecked with Latin phrases, which is then capped by a grin-inducing group vocal.

Yet, Fanfare for the Warriors proved to be too powerful to widen the AEC’s audience; like Bap-Tizum, it only sold, according to Cuscuna’s recent estimate, between 3,000 and 4,000 copies. Instead of casting a wide net with a boppish romp like “Composition 23B,” which led off Braxton’s New York, Fall 1974, listeners were confronted with “Illistrum,” Favors’ texture-based setting for Jarman’s recitation of a long, mythological poem for which a flow chart is indicated to follow the relationships of deities, shape shifters and sun people. It set an indelible tone for the album, the juke joint fun of “Barnyard Scuffel Shuffel, the insouciance of “The Key,” and the gleaming, celebratory percussion of Jarman’s “What’s to Say” notwithstanding. Subsequently, Fanfare for the Warriors was praised only by the avant-garde’s amen corner in jazz magazines. Failing to garner the type of press, let alone sales, that suggested that a subsequent album would break through to a larger audience, Atlantic dropped the AEC – and Cuscuna left Atlantic to produce Braxton and other artists for sundry labels.

Still, the AEC’s association with Atlantic raised their stock in Europe; with Abrams in tow, they performed at the blue-chip Montreux festival shortly after the release of Fanfare for the Warriors. Contemporaneously, ECM’s Thomas Stöwsand had honed a new marketing strategy of organizing European tours for their best-selling artists, including Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny. A shrewd analyst of the market, Stöwsand concluded that the AEC was viable for similar cross-platform promotion. The AEC signed to ECM, going into the studio for two days in May ‘78 to record Nice Guys. By the time it was released nearly a year later, the jazz press was abuzz.

The reaction to Nice Guys by critics writing in daily newspapers, weekly and monthly tabloids, and jazz magazines is noteworthy, not because of the appearance of a national consensus, or because articles ran from coast to coast pegged to stops on the AEC’s national tour – Zellerbach Auditorium in Berkeley, The Bayou rock club in Georgetown, DC, and The Famous Ballroom in Baltimore, one of the remaining stops on the then crumbling East Coast chitlins circuit – suggesting that ECM had successfully imported Stöwsand’s marketing strategy to the US (intriguingly, Chip Stern, without citing sources or particulars in his Boston Phoenix review, claimed ECM had “all but abandoned the group on its current US tour,” a charge somewhat undermined by his own praise for the inclusion of the AEC in an ECM radio station sampler, an effort then usually reserved for rock bands). These reviews are fascinating because, in a pre-Internet era when Wang dominated the nascent business word processor market and few free-lance writers even owned a fax machine, nearly identical constructs keep popping up. This is not exactly what Harold Rosenberg had in mind when he came up with “the herd of individual minds” – but it’s close enough for jazz critics.

For starters, the album’s title and cover photo – which showed the AEC not as weapons-wielding provocateurs but a relaxed group of friends having a coffee and browsing a newspaper at a sidewalk café – were handy, if not irresistible means to counter what was by then a hardened image of the AEC in wider jazz circles. “For a group that may be as well known to many people for the fact that some of its members perform in war paint as for the quality of the music it plays,” wrote Aaron Drew in the US Jazz Magazine, “the message seems basic: Don’t be put off by external elements that might strike you as weird or frightening. Deep down inside, we’re just folks like you, just a bunch of ‘Nice Guys.’” “These guys are fun,” exclaimed Dave McQuay in the Baltimore News American, previewing a concert presented by the Left Bank Jazz Society, whose members’ idea of a Chicago jazz icon was the amiable, soulful tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons. “And whatever sphere you’re coming from, the Art Ensemble will surprise and delight you. And maybe broaden your thinking about so-called avant-garde music.”

Many critics shared Stern’s sentiment that 1979 “ought to be the Art Ensemble’s year.” (Stern’s italics.) However, few if any scrutinized their own cheerleading like Gary Giddins in his Village Voice column, “Nice Guys Are So Much Fun:” “The AEC will never break the stranglehold of radio, but you can’t help but feel that if they did they could clean the shit out of anyone’s mind. Jazz critics are notorious propagandists. They’re so paranoid they’ll do anything to get the intransigent to listen – lie (“it’s accessible”), cheat (“it’s like funkadelic”), and kill (“you can dance to it”). Do it myself all the time. But if I’m brought up on charges of misrepresentation, let it be for the Art Ensemble. They should get blunderbuss exposure, not because they nourish the soul (okay, they do that too), but because they’re so much fun.”

All of this begs the question: Was Nice Guys all that different from Fanfare for the Warriors? The albums actually match up fairly well. Arguably, it is the sequencing of the respective LPs – particularly on the crucial A side – that makes Nice Guys more approachable and durable. Both albums have a generous dollop of Bowie’s panache; while it doesn’t have the unhinged exuberance of “Barnyard Schuffel Shuffel,” “Ja,” which brackets a jaunty calypso (nattily sung by Jarman) with smoldering, Bowie-highlighted themes, is a far more inviting opening track than “Illistrum.” Each album has a pithy Mitchell-penned miniature; but the album-closing “The Key” does not shape Fanfare for the Warriors like the trundling “Nice Guys,” which punctuates the A side of the ECM disc. A tripartite work, Moye’s “Folkus” begins with shrill long tones – with melodica and sopranino and soprano saxophones supplying the dominant reedy timbres – followed by a tranquil episode for tinkling bells and celeste, marimba spatters and swells of cymbals and gongs, and ending with a buoyant drum chorus; like “What’s to Say” from Fanfare for the Warriors, “Folkus” benefits from a combination of iridescent colors and steady pacing.

While Nice Guys – or Fanfare for the Warriors, for that matter – doesn’t follow the ceremonial arc of Bap-Tizum, the ECM and the Ann Arbor concert albums have comparable relationships between their respective LP sides in that the A side sets up a heavy pay-off with the B side. Jarman’s “597-59” doesn’t have the bark-stripping force of the saxophonist’s previous B side-opener, “Fanfare for the Warriors,” but it relocates the thrust of the music away from the pastiches of the A side and towards intensity, abstraction, and jazz: an opening chain reaction of phrases begins with a sputter and culminates in a roar, setting up Mitchell’s bluntest alto solo of the set; however, instead of going out in a blaze, the final ensemble passage is quiet, on the verge of delicacy, which lets Favors slip in a short solo of well-turned phrases before petering out into silence. Silence is the sixth man on “Cyp,” the first AEC recording of one of Mitchell “Cards” pieces, where, instead of a conventional score, the minimal materials are distributed on a set of cards to each musician; each musician then plays his set of cards in the order and in the manner of his choosing, resulting in a performance that is tightly reigned, even austere, yet accommodating of the occasional horn screech, percussion rumble and bike horn honk to distinguish it from reimagined Webern.

Two names reappear in many of the reviews of Nice Guys in their discussions of the album’s finale – and the other great anthem Jarman penned for the AEC – “Dreaming of the Master:” John Coltrane and Miles Davis. The reasons are obvious: the piece’s initial walking tempo, and the rhythmic feel and puffy phrases in Bowie’s opening solo – particularly when he employs a mute – point towards Davis, while the driving pentatonic line that triggers the double-time section and Jarman’s ensuing solo indicate Coltrane. However, too much emphasis on Coltrane and Davis leads to a simplistic hagiographic interpretation of the piece. There are other elements which contribute to a richer reading of the piece: the riffs and counter-lines that snake through the piece; and the bulk of the transitional ensemble lines midway through the piece. While the opening riff drapes over the half step-based harmonic movement Davis pioneered with his modal music of the mid-1950s, which Coltrane extended in the early ‘60s, it has an earthy shuffle feel, one likely to make even a scold like Murray pat his foot. The saxophones lay out when Bowie removes the mute and raises the temperature with jabbing phrases and well-placed smears; when they reenter, the saxophones have an increasingly broad attack, the original pair of three-note phrases morph into a rolling, ascending five-note phrase to prime the dramatic onset of the transitional ensemble.

Even though this ensemble represents only 40 seconds of the nearly twelve-minute performance, it disrupts the mood of the piece with Brechtian efficiency. An initial quote from “Ohnedaruth” and the original riff speed by, with blaring horns, serrated phrases and an avalanche of Moye in hot pursuit. Any semblance of Milesian cool is atomized. Beyond that, the juxtaposition of these elements and the ground-shaking power with which the ensemble ends, serves as a metaphor if not for the traumatic passing of Coltrane, then the passing of the Coltrane era. The double-time riff emerges from the cataclysm, spurring on Jarman’s tenor solo; though it is Coltrane-inspired, there’s at best a murky connection in terms of materials. It is more useful to locate Jarman’s well-designed exposition of hard-hitting phrases, gnarly growls and passionate shouts in relation to contemporaries like Fred Anderson (a member of Jarman’s mid-‘60s quintet) and Kidd Jordan, stylists who provide evolutionary continuity between Coltrane and such latter-day fire-breathers as David S. Ware. The intensity spills over into a short Favors solo based on the opening riff. When the ensemble reenters, it morphs the opening riff into the type of bright, effervescent line that jazz groups in the ‘40s and ‘50s used to announce the end of a set; a reassertion of the opening riff, with Mitchell’s alto in the lead, soon fades out.

A textured reading of “Dreaming of the Master” emphasizes the act of dreaming, and the reimagining of jazz history by the dreamer. The piece’s episodic structure, the sudden intrusion of materials seemingly from far afield, and the intense resulting collisions of emotions support such a reading. In this regard, there is a line, conceptually, that leads backto the AEC’s earliest recordings; it may be more elegantly and jazz-centrically constructed than the AEC’s first collage pieces, but it is a collage nevertheless. Unlike earlier AEC works, however, there is no obvious irony about “Dreaming of the Master,” which surely contributed to it being proclaimed “an instant classic” by Stern and a chorus of critics. Usually, critics give such monumental status to recordings with pronounced spiritual or social gravity – jazz that speaks to the times and which, coincidentally, dovetails with the movement to make the concert hall jazz’s preferred, if not primary habitat; therefore, the reader is left with the inference that this was the AEC’s agenda. Additionally, the type of cursory listening that led commentators to say with certainty that the “Master” in question was Davis allows “Dreaming of the Master” to be placed alongside a long list of esteemed tributes like Duke Ellington’s “A Portrait of Bert Williams” and Charles Mingus’ send-off to Lester Young, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” Subsequently, it is understandable how “Dreaming of the Master” caused Nice Guys to be viewed as a signal recording, announcing one of those moments in jazz history when artists far removed from the mainstream – even those who snicker at it – suddenly become viable in the mainstream jazz market. And it’s these signal recordings that ultimately, if not instantly, are deemed classics.

Granted: jazz critics confer classics status to recordings on an almost daily basis, and almost always without Murray’s rigor. Rarely are these overnight anointments validated by the type of consumer buy-in that occurred with Nice Guys, which proved to be what the record industry used to call a breakout album, reportedly selling more than 40,000 copies initially in the US alone. The consensus among the press grew, leading to the AEC winning the Down Beat Critics Poll for Acoustic Jazz Group from 1980 through ‘82, and Jazz Album of the Year honors in ‘81 for their second ECM album, Full Force, which reportedly outpaced Nice Guys in sales. (ECM continued to organize tours for the AEC into the ‘80s; a Munich concert they produced was released as the 2-LP Urban Bushmen in 1982.) Even rarer are those instances when a gaggle of critics meets tough standards like Murray’s, who insisted upon “an understanding of what is being stylized plus an accurate insight into how it is being stylized. Each masterwork of art, it must be remembered, is always first of all a comprehensive synthesis of all the aspects of its idiom. Thus to ignore its idiomatic roots is to miss the essential nature of its statement, and art is nothing if not stylized statement.” That task is complicated further when an artist’s idiom is pan-idiomatic like the AEC’s “Great Black Music – Ancient to the Future.” Some agent is required to clear the way for the music to be heard without prejudice. And, therein, was the genius of Nice Guys, as it made the AEC’s music accessible by presenting most, if not all of the aspects of their idiom and its roots.

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