The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
Spirits Rejoice!: Jazz and American Religion

Jason C. Bivins
(Oxford University Press; Oxford and New York)

from Chapter 5
The Magic of Juju: Improvising Ritual

The Machine Contracts: The Art Ensemble of Chicago

Such assertions of identity were never simple for the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC). African percussion, street refuse, innumerable horns, and assorted toy noisemakers crowded their stage as surely as genre significations. There was Roscoe Mitchell, stone-faced, his street clothes standing out as perhaps the deepest of ruses. There was Lester Bowie in his lab coat and hard hat, up for the grind of tone science. There were the robed and face-painted Joseph Jarman (later a Buddhist priest and martial arts expert), Malachi Favors Maghostut, and Famodou Don Moye. They whirred and clicked like a Partch composition, played the dozens, groaned as one. Young, gifted, and black covers it to a certain extent but this music was miles away from Aretha. Except when it wasn’t.

Favors, Mitchell, and Bowie had come up in the AACM and decided to start their own band based on their shared commitment to experimentalism and multi-instrumentalism. They got plenty of gigs, but almost always got fired when they finished playing. Their set-long suites stitched together heated free improvisations with mutated versions of standards. They got deeper into the “little instruments” as a way of conveying their Africanism, but also contended that “African” was a lineage vast enough to encompass any music that was expressed in the proper spirit. And when Jarman joined, their theatrical performance grew into ritual or ceremonial music. With face painting, chanting and recitation, the pacing of the suites, and percussion circles, the group performed what George Lewis calls “multiple mode expression,” incorporating “extramusicality.”[125] Their transgressive performance crashed the barriers separating “high” music from “low,” vernacular culture from “art.” Mitchell’s Sound and Jarman’s Song for appeared in 1966, the latter noted for its “magic feel for theater, martial airs and the spoken-word ‘Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City’.”[126] They rehearsed daily but, after a promising start, it was “impossible for us in the States.”[127]

Hearing that Europe was more open to new music, they relocated to Paris in 1969. Soon joined by percussionist Moye, the AEC became known for their combination of sonic maelstroms, unexpected humor, and “ritualistic percussion jams.”[128] They crafted an elaborate, theatrical blend of melody and non-idiomatic sound, hot solos and collective improvisation, song-form and sheer splenetic mess. And in them they blended biting humor with commentary: on jazz, on blackness, on social conditions. For example, “People in Sorrow” has an ominous, nearly spectral feel that is punctuated by a childlike voice crying, “Mommy, there’s a rat scratchin’ in the walls,” followed by a police siren. Certain Blacks (“certain blacks ... do what they wanna!”) is poised, Philippe Carles notes, “between political slogan and hymn.”[129]

The group began to signify on religion too. On “Old Time Religion,” Favors sawed away on a pedal point, while Bowie spoke as a holiness preacher. Half drawl, half old-man mutter, the performance is spectacularly piss-taking and sincere all at once: “And God said unto Jacob (yes he did), a-rise ... and go up to Bethel, and lay up there, and make there an altar . . . That’s what he told him!” The sermon – and the responses of the “congregation” – came untethered in under a minute, with barely intelligible syllables, growls, ragged cries, all signifying on centuries-old misrepresentations of black sound and religion. “Yes he did!” “Mm-hmmm.” “Gwa’head.” “Save me, Jesus!” And then to the rocking motion of the bass, a rolling “mm-hmmm,” “a-men,” as the group intoned, “Give me that old time religion.” Or consider Jarman’s poem tucked inside Reese and the Smooth Ones, which writes of the “return to history” on “a nigger/slave/ship” from out of “godless seasons” in Europe’s “hollow cities.” Jarman instructed, “as the master (ONEGOD) watches,” the true struggle is not to forget “ALL that is beautiful in this universe and the next.”

Upon returning stateside, their polyphonic performance emerged as a kind of sonic distillation of African American culture and religion. White counterculture freaks loved the AEC, as they lurched and stalked the stage, making guttural noises, eructations, vomiting out pure sound, and goading participation from an audience who may not have known they were participating in self-mockery, recycling the stereotypical reception of the “savage” musician’s sweating brow. Amid sincere, tuneful moaning, a bicycle horn or gong might pull the rug out. Jarman bellowed verse: “The sun done got maaaaad. The moon is sad. The flowers, they cry aaaaaaaallll daaay. Drums!” Thwack! Horns, whirrs, and clicks. Alongside shrieking/sobbing confessions as if from a madman in the corner, another voice shucks, “You know I love you baby.” These contrasts were central to the AEC’s aesthetic, as dulcet sustained tones, unison vocal weeping, or declamatory notes over small percussion articulated their riotous commitment to “Great Black Music” and also their resistance to settling or codification.

Such performances were jumbled enough to take you out of your comfort zone, but they were always formalized. Performances might open with a solemn, solitary gong and proceed from there into what the AEC called an “ancestral meditation” (which could mean anything from a drum circle to a meditation on a powerful ancestor like Bob Marley).[130] A 1979 Washington, D.C., concert opened with all members standing “in silent prayer, facing the east.”[131] Bowie’s mad-eyed mischief compelled visually, bedecked as he was in not just his lab coat but sometimes garish suits and gold-rimmed glasses (Bowie, when leading his Brass Fantasy, sometimes playfully referred to himself as Niggerace). Stoic Mitchell and rapt Favors and Moye (both in face paint, the latter often wearing a coolie hat) listened to Jarman’s invocation to “the spirit of the heavens and the earth working inside your body.”[132] As they exposed audiences to the range of Great Black Music, the AEC’s ritual would also keep listeners on their toes. Indeed, part of their purpose in performing exclusively in the theatrical, processional, ceremonial mode was to hold together contrasts and apparent tensions in the sort of sonic space anthropologists once referred to as liminal. What could account for the simultaneous use of megaphones and djembes? What were audiences to make of the “theatrical mix of shamanistic ritual and funny noises, African face paint and weird space bop”?[133] The AEC reveled in such code-scrambling, making long hushed passages as integral to the performance as the free jazz freak-outs.[134]

Some called it “Dadaist theatre,” dressed up with a ritualized tour through “jazz’s history and pre-history – music from the sanctified churches, minstrel shows and bawdy houses of late nineteenth and early twentieth century America.”[135] Others described it as “an odd mixture of sacrament and blasphemy ... ritual and riot.”[136] And of course, there was an undeniable, in-your-face pranksterism to their carefully constructed performances: at the most solemn moments, Jarman’s hands stretched skyward, one member might mug at the audience or let loose a mighty raspberry.[137] Bowie once strode menacingly across the stage with a shotgun in his hands, followed by a sequence where another member “danced with an oversized Raggedy Ann doll, accompanied by Malachi Favors’s banjo.”[138] The group romped through “Hail to the Chief” while an actor dressed as a four-star general in an LBJ mask gesticulated on a podium until “one of the musicians hurled a cream pie in his face.”[139] Later, Jarman read the Gettysburg Address and, when he reached the passage insisting “all men are created equal,” “disgustedly threw away the script.”[140] Yet another performance featured a backdrop of posters depicting Klansmen and Southern sheriffs, and a playacted murder onstage, ending with a body dragged off.[141]

Into the 1970s and 1980s, the AEC fine-tuned these juxtapositions sonic, ritual, and instrumental. They collaborated with the South African choir Amabutho and began to explore more thoroughly non-American expressions of Great Black Music. Bowie traveled considerably during this period, drinking deep of reggae and ska in Jamaica, and jamming with Fela Kuti on one of his multiple trips to Africa.[142] It was Favors who most carefully articulated the ritual, ceremonial properties of their music. Deeply informed by his study of African music and culture, Favors insisted that when you “go back in our history as black Americans ... you will pick up the sound of African ceremonial music.”[143] They romped playfully through reggae on “Ja,” or rocketed through an “Old Time South Side Street Song,” always insisting that the music had an experiential quality that, as Bowie insisted, “you just can’t explain” precisely because it was “heavily spiritual.”[144] The inescapable, uncatchable, ineffable qualities of “religion” remained a subject of ritual play, as the AEC “set up situations” (though refused to resolve them) highlighting this wordlessness.[145] The whole of their performance was designed to stage – through improvisation, reference, jarring combinations – a context wherein the very problematic nature of these key terms like “black” and “religion” could be explored, if only in tweaking the audience’s expectations.

The whole shebang, Bowie agreed, “is a ritual ... we are there for that moment only, and we try to spiritually condition ourselves to be open to receive whatever conflicts may happen, and shoot our way that particular evening.”[146] For Jarman, the performance “space is TRANSFORMED into ... a beautiful shining sound object waiting to tone the infinite sound.”[147] Rituals aim to bring about “[s]alvation through music,” and when it works “[t]he machine contracts. We remember only the infinite experience of the joy, the sound, the music.”[148] While AEC performance signifies continually on religion, there is also the clear sense that they believe their music also constitutes it. Moye believed that the sheer otherness of this spiritual music might foment “a good, old-fashioned revolution” or at least cut through “[t]he bullshit.”[149] Jarman “went off and became a Buddhist priest” who runs a Brooklyn dojo, until “the voice needed me back.”[150] Even when back, Jarman made sure that his improvisational activities both with and without the AEC included opportunities for him to perform as a Buddhist (he often recited or chanted Buddhist sutras where he once read his own incantatory verse).

More than simply what happens onstage, the sound itself constitutes a ritual connection between time and idiom. Playing sets up a space where the very presence of history and culture enables a move outside of culture, elaborating codes beyond the codes. Many have likened the AEC’s “mythic ritual elements” to those performed by West African griots: “a revision (as opposed to a repetition) of traditional African oral poetry in a distinctive and contemporary aural narrative instrumentalism.”[151] According to Bruce Tucker, their use of contrast, juxtaposition, humorous play, and multi-instrumentalism generates “an epic myth of identity in a diasporic context of profound discontinuities.”[152] Robin Kelley hears in their riotous avant-garde stew “a self-conscious sonic memory of the Middle Passage, the overthrow of slavery, dance halls in the age of Jim Crow, migration and city life, rebellion against brutality, and black love.”[153]

But of course and as always, the AEC also delighted in improvising on the very idea of Africanism, too, confronting audiences with expectations about essential blackness and spirituality, the reality of the sweating brow here evoked and disassembled ritually. While there was an undeniable pedagogical element to their performances, it is perhaps more fruitful to see ritual as winking furiously when it posits any essence to identity. This, after all, was a group whose early (and, to most, obvious) parodies of minstrelsy led to the musicians being accused of – what else? – minstrelsy.[154] They teased audiences with the veneer of authenticity, with the real, with truth itself. Here, they insisted, was a pipeline to the past. See this face paint? Authentic. Hear these drums? Traditional. But while they really meant it, they also didn’t mean only it. The masks they often wore should be understood not just as traditional ceremonial garb but as metaphors for the group’s disposition. Nothing was out of place in their ritualism, each horn-honk, leer, or chant a moment in a temporal flow that cannot be reduced to mere continuity but constantly regenerates the hot, dense, multitudinous moment of creation itself.

Any point in the history of “jazz” could emerge at any moment, perhaps even any point in history itself; so performance became a sonic staging of these histories, not with the intention of framing or fixing them but instead enacting a simultaneous engagement with and distance from its modern origins. As Norman Weinstein wrote, these efforts were integral to the music and meant to “invok[e] spiritual powers.”[155] Through the imaginative linkages with Africa the Art Ensemble plays with impossibility, not just trying to shoehorn all music into a single expressive tradition but the impossibility of categories themselves when faced with the surpassing energy of the spirit. The experience of being an African American creative musician, dislocating and often cruel, is addressed through what Tucker calls “a living ritual rather than a simple ceremony” (referring here to Victor Turner’s well-known distinction: “Ceremony indicates, ritual transforms.”)[156] And transformation cannot occur with over-planning, strict limits, or any attempt to confine sound and spirit. Once immersed in the totality of performance, players could then respond at will, since, for Jarman, “they are free, [and] there’s no separation between these forms.”[157] Or as Bowie put it, “You rehearse, practice just to enable you to be able to receive the spirit and you just kind of follow the spirit.”[158]

Weinstein traces such practices all the way back to “the peacock pageantry of the cakewalk, that signifying on European country airs, and before that, the African village royal procession,” and notes, too, the precedent of “the Garveyite parades of 1920s Harlem as a multimedia art event.”[159] But he also cautions that the griot was traditionally no mere repository of cultural memory but, significantly, “offers the spiritual entertainment that gives the illusion that all has been woven together.”[160] Cultural critics might be tempted to locate in such crosscutting interpretative performances, subversive as they are, something like the revenge of the subaltern. But as Lewis points out, the AEC more accurately expresses Zora Neale Hurston’s “will to adorn.”[161] Equally rooted in African American signifying practices, Hurston’s playful acknowledgment of the literary, imaginative quality of all human experiences captures the AEC’s Africanism (and their desire to extend it) alongside their discomfort with essentialism and reductionism. And as Lewis aptly points out, the AEC’s use of “traditional” instruments hardly links the group to Africa alone: their “expressions of auditory and visual iconography” might conjure up gamelan processions or Hindu sacred epics as surely as the idioms of the African diaspora.[162]

The AEC takes “religion” to the stage, placing it in the center, in everyone’s view, and unpacks its multitudes. Their ritual allows for confession, theater-cum-history lesson, and perhaps even a sacrifice of “authenticity” itself in the name of a more fluid, improvisatory form of identity, one that encompasses the beauty of ugliness, the scars inevitable on the face of even the most carefully crafted art, the sublime coherence of chaos, and the entropic in the most careful composition. Life itself is a stage, perhaps, and even the audience becomes a kind of instrument in helping the AEC establish frames allowing them and us to color outside their lines, and to see where categories break down. In establishing ritual contexts for “blurring ... the edges between music and environmental sounds,” they also blur the lines separating entertainment from history, satire from spirituality.[163] These evocations effectively write the group into American religious history, not simply because of their associations with AACM communitarianism or their participation in post-1950s Pan-African spirituality.[164] They also give voice, as Robin Kelley notes, to W. E. B. DuBois’s identification of a persistent “new song” sung by successive generations of African Americans, each remaking culture and history and religion in ways that are “improvised and born anew out of an age long past.”[165] That they use these same materials to call attention to their limits simply reminds us that this is all as slippery as “religion” itself. An AEC ritual may go back thousands of years, but it also slips into the future, always receding, erased like a sand painting, evaporating like water. For Bowie this was the point: “Some things work, some things don’t.” And Favors concurred: “Just like life.”[166]

 

Footnotes:

125. George Lewis, “Omar’s Song: A (Re)construction of Great Black Music,” Lenox
Avenue, 4 (1998): 69.
126. Ibid.
127. Ibid.
128. Chris Forbes, review of Americans Swinging in Paris, http://www.cosmik.com/
aa-november04/reviews/review_art_ensemble_of_chicago.html.
129. Philippe Carles, liner notes to Certain Blacks (America/Universal, 2004).
130. Mike Joyce, “Art Ensemble of Chicago,” The Washington Post, September 26,
1984.
131. W. Royal Stokes, “Art Ensemble of Chicago,” The Washington Post, May 5, 1979.
132. Jesse Hamlin, “Art Ensemble’s Shtick,” The San Francisco Chronicle, February 5,
1990.
133. Ibid.
134. See Geoffrey Himes, “Art Ensemble,” The Washington Post, October 18, 1980.
See also John Fordham, “Black Within Blue: The Art Ensemble Play at the Union
Chapel,” The Guardian, July 13, 1993.
135. “Art Ensemble of Chicago: Anti-Jazz: The New Thing Revisited,” http://www
.arsnovaworkshop.org/events/art-ensemble-chicago-03-06-2010.
136. Paul Davison, “Great Black Music Comes of Age,” The Harvard Crimson, May 10,
1979.
137. Ibid.
138. George E. Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American
Experimental Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 151.
139. Ibid., 151–52.
140. Ibid.
141. Ibid., 153.
142. Interview with Ted Panken, WKCR, http://www.jazzhouse.org/nlib/index.php3?
read=panken8, November 22, 1994.
143. Interview with Fred Jung, http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=621, October 2003.
144. Interview with Ted Panken.
145. Ibid.
146. Ibid.
147. Joseph Jarman, notes to Urban Bushmen (ECM Records, 1982).
148. Ibid.
149. Interview with Fred Jung.
150. Ibid.
151. Bruce Tucker, “Narrative, Extramusical Form, and the Metamodernism of the
Art Ensemble of Chicago,” Lenox Avenue 3 (1997): 35.
152. Ibid.
153. Robin D. G. Kelley, “Dig They Freedom: Meditations on History and the Black
Avant-Garde,” Lenox Avenue 3 (1997): 13.
154. Allan M. Gordon, “The AEC as Performance Art,” Lenox Avenue 3 (1997): 57.
155. Norman Weinstein, “Steps Toward an Integrative Comprehension of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Music,” Lenox Avenue 3 (1997): 6. See also, Michael J. Budds, “The Art Ensemble of Chicago in Context,” Lenox Avenue 3 (1997): 59–72.
156. Tucker, “Narrative, Extramusical Form, and the Metamodernism of the Art
Ensemble of Chicago,” 40.
157. Paul Steinbeck, “‘Area by Area the Machine Unfolds’: The Improvisational Performance Practice of the Art Ensemble of Chicago,” Journal of the Society for American Music 2, no. 3 (2008): 401.
158. Interview in Cadence 5, no. 12 (December 1979): 14.
159. Weinstein, “Steps Toward an Integrative Comprehension of the Art Ensemble of
Chicago’s Music,” 9.
160. Ibid., 10.
161. Lewis, “Omar’s Song,” 77.
162. Ibid., 88.
163. R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the
World (Rochester, Vt.: Destiny, 1993), 111.
164. Kelly notes that the AEC paid attention to Kwame Nkruma and the Mau Mau uprising just as surely as Randy Weston and Art Blakey did.
165. Kelly, “Dig They Freedom,” 16.
166. Interview with Ted Panken.

© 2015 Oxford University Press. Used with permission.

Spirits Rejoice!: Jazz and American Religion by Jason C. Bivins

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