The AACM at 50

“The AACM intends to show how the disadvantaged and disenfranchised can come together and determine their own strategies for political and economic freedom, thereby determining their own destinies.” –Muhal Richard Abrams and John Shenoy Jackson

The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) is without question one of the most influential music collectives of the 20th and 21st century. As individuals, its members have created singular visions and musical languages that draw on evolving traditions of Jazz, European classical music, and other world music traditions. They have created distinct music that elevates and advances what Robin D.G. Kelley refers to as “the black radical imagination.” As a collective, the AACM has been at the forefront since its inception of community-based, grassroots music education. Its musicians have long recognized the liberatory power of improvisational music to lift up communities and imagine new possibilities when there seems little hope. Historically, the AACM’s members have been active in some of the most revered moments in the development of jazz and experimental music: Chicago in the late-‘50s and ‘60s, the American ex-patriot scene in Paris in the ‘70s, the ‘70s Loft scene in New York, and New York’s Downtown scene of the ‘80s. Today, AACM members teach at some of the most esteemed, progressive music schools in the country, including Columbia, Wesleyan, University of California Irvine, and CalArts.

So much of the music that Ars Nova presents would not exist were it not for the tremendous living legacy of the AACM’s individuals. In 2005, Ars Nova celebrated the AACM’s 40th anniversary of “Great Black Music – Ancient to Future.” Over the past decade, Ars Nova has regularly presented AACM members and their students. To name a few: Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Joseph Jarman, Henry Threadgill, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, George Lewis, Leroy Jenkins, and Matana Roberts.

This year, we help celebrate the AACM’s 50th anniversary with two very special concerts. On Friday, June 5, we welcome back Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet, featuring Anthony Davis (piano), John Lindberg (bass), and Pheeron akLaff (drums). On June 12, Nicole Mitchell (flute), Tomeka Reid (cello), and Mike Reed (drums) make their Philadelphia debut. In addition to their tremendous musical outputs and critical accolades, this trio served on the AACM's executive board from 2009-11, holding the positions of Chairperson, Treasurer and Vice Chairperson respectively. These very special performances are not to be missed.  

Additionally, this spring we are presenting musicians who are direct descendents of AACM members. Tyshawn Sorey and Steve Lehman both studied composition under Anthony Braxton while students at Wesleyan College. Sorey credits Braxton with helping him find his voice as a composer. As a PhD student in composition at Columbia University, Lehman worked extensively with George Lewis. Jonathan Finalyson, in addition to numerous credits on Steve Coleman recordings, has tenured in Henry Threadgill’s groups. These three artists all have developed distinct languages and approaches to composing and improvising, as well as furthering the AACM’s commitment to educating and lifting up the next generation of musicians.

We need the AACM and other individuals and organizations like it – not only for the musical innovations they produce, but because of their commitment to transformation and self-determination. As AACM member and Columbia professor, George E. Lewis reminds us in his must-read 2008 music history, A Power Stronger than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, that the organization coalesced during an urgent time in Chicago’s history. Schools in black areas of Chicago were in a dangerous state of decay: the buildings were literally crumbling, and overcrowding lead to students attending only half-days with no additional  public programs to make up the lost time. Rising property values due to gentrification in Chicago’s South Side resulted in the closing of many of the area’s jazz clubs. While the rest of Chicago was experiencing a time of relative prosperity, 20 percent of the black labor force was employed at wages below the poverty line (Lewis 86).  In the midst of all of this, the AACM created spaces on the weekends and after school for young people to study not just Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus, but Stravinsky, Varése, and Ives, filling the gaps of a struggling underfunded public school system. Still today, Nicole Mitchell sees the AACM as “a movement, part of the whole Black Arts Movement, part of a movement to uplift a people, to help us heal ourselves as a people… That was the purpose of the music” (Lewis 513).

Philadelphia in 2015 sounds a lot like Chicago in 1965. Just this week the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities released a report saying that in gentrifying areas of South and West Philadelphia the African-American population has decreased by as much as 29% since 2000. Our school system is notoriously underfunded, with schools trying to run on barebones budgets, while dedicated parents and teachers join together to ensure futures for young Philadelphians. We need this music now because it teaches us how to create beauty from within community when resources are scarce. Here in Philadelphia, both Bobby Zankel and the Warriors of the Wonderful Sound and the Clef Club have, through the improvisational language of jazz, developed what former AACM chair, Nicole Mitchell describes as a “practice that allows you not to be focused on the smallness of who you are and your reality, but to actually experience the greatness of possibility and surprise and spontaneity” (Waterman). Countless Philadelphia musicians, including Christian McBride and Jaleel Shaw, credit the Clef Club with their musical development. Likewise, Zankel’s near-decade-long monthly residency at the now-shuttered Tritone was fertile ground, where young players learned to cut their teeth alongside Philly greats like Rick Iannacone, Craig McIver, and Elliot Levin – not to mention Zankel’s work for years leading residencies in the Philadelphia prison system.

We celebrate this music not only because its contents and forms urge us forward in creating new aesthetics, but because as artists and cultural workers the AACM’s artistry helps us see that, to quote Kelley again, “the most radical ideas often grow out of concrete intellectual engagement with the problems of aggrieved populations confronting systems of oppression” (qtd. in Fischlin et al. 36). It is the artistry of the AACM, the Clef Club, Zankel, Lehman, Finlayson, and Sorey that “invites dreaming, urges us to improvise and invent, and recognizes the imagination as our most powerful weapon… to see life as possibility” (Kelley, Qtd. in Fischlin et al. 36). 

Recommended reading / Works Cited:
Abrams, Muhal Richard, and John Shenoy Jackson. “Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.” Black World, November 1973, 72-74. Print.
Fischlin, Daniel, Ajay Heble, and George Lisitz.The Fierce Urgency of Now: Improvisation, Rights, and the Ethics of Cocreation. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013. Print.
Kelley, Robin D.G. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Boston: Beacon Press, 2002. Print
Lehner, Daniel. “Tyshawn Sorey: Composite Reality.” All About Jazz. All About Jazz, 26 June 2012. Web. 9 April 2015.
Lewis, George E. A Power Stronger than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2008. Print.
Waterman, Ellen. “’I Dreamed of Other Worlds’: An Interview with Nicole Mitchell, May 8, 2008.” Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation 4.1 (2008): n. pag. Web. 9 April 2015.