A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music

By George E. Lewis
University of Chicago Press

Home from his studies at Yale University in 1971, trombonist George Lewis was walking to his parents’ home on Chicago’s South Side when he heard unusual sounds coming from a nearby brick building. Peering inside he saw a group practicing what he calls “fascinating” music. Asking if he could attend future rehearsals, Lewis was grudgingly welcomed into what he soon found out was the disciplined but inventive milieu of the Association of the Advancement Musicians (AACM).

Shortly afterwards he became a member, and subsequently an official of the organization, founded by a group of Chicago’s most accomplished, jazz-directed improvisers in 1965. Forty-three years later the AACM – which one European critic describes as “a guarantee of quality” for improvised music – is recognized world-wide as “the first [successful] avant-garde co-operative in the United States”. A music professor at New York’s Columbia University, Lewis uses his insider’s perspective to write this comprehensive history of the organization. Knitting together 92 interviews and extensive research, A Power Stronger Than Itself stands out as exemplary jazz scholarship that also appeals to the non-academic.

Basically, the reason why the AACM has managed to survive into its fifth decade, while similar organizations have disappeared, is because as Lewis writes, “the collective conception that dominated the AACM both institutionally and artistically challenged the commodification of individuality itself – the ‘star system’ with its sharp division between ‘leader’ and ‘sideman’ that has been authoratively written into the discursive cannon of jazz”.

That doesn’t mean that some AACM members aren’t internationally renowned – reedists Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams come to mind. It’s just that the association’s growth has always been predicated on its collegial connection with the working class Black community of Chicago’s south side where it spawned. AACM members still promote its original nine-point program from 1965 that promises to stimulate cultural tradition, increase employment opportunities for creative musicians, provide composers’ workshops, like the one that impressed Lewis, and operate a school for aspiring musicians. AACM bands such as reedist Ed Wilkerson’s 8 Bold Souls and flautist Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble are still a constant Chicago presence.

However Lewis also notes that as significant for the ACCM’s survival, and its influence – which has gone past jazz’s boundaries to affect what he calls “whiteness-based” musics such as rock and so-called classical – is the decision from the beginning to emphasis the primacy of original music and the composer. Many first-generation AACMers – including, Lewis, Abrams, Braxton, violinist Leroy Jenkins, reedists Henry Threadgill, Joseph Jarman and others who left Chicago and formed a New York chapter in 1982 – deal with idioms that move across genres. Involved with theatre, poetry, sound collage and multi-media, the post-modern art music composed by these individuals is as likely to include references to minimalism and neo-classicism as the jazz tradition. As Lewis writes: “AACM musicians felt that experimentation in music need not be bound to particular ideologies, methods or slogans.” Musically, the AACM’s paramount contribution to experimental improvised music is a sense of dynamics. Unlike the New York-based New Thing of the 1960s, “the Chicago people got intense, but they also got soft and they were also incorporating other sounds into their music,” Lewis quotes Mitchell saying.

Describing the parallel development between the self-described “more conservative” Chicago-based AACM and the experimental New York wing is another way in which this volume supersedes earlier studies of the association. Lewis does situate the AACM in relation to other avant-garde collectives such as New York’s Jazz Composers Guild, St. Louis’ Black Artists Group and Los Angeles’ Underground Musicians Association (see Musicworks #96). He outlines how a supportive group of writers, music presenters and record labels allowed the collective to become better know. Braxton, Jenkins and the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEOC) – which included Jarman and Mitchell – gained greater recognition during a two-year, late-1960s relocation to France.

However the French romanticizing a link between the association and radical Black Nationalism was discursive. These players’ intra-musical experiences plus resentment from Chicagoans, who felt that the AEOC was monopolizing the AACM, necessitated a separate New York chapter.

A Power Stronger Than Itself is also universal enough to deal with topics usually ignored by others. Lewis’ penultimate chapter itemizes how the ACCM has finally evolved from being a literal “old boy’s club” into addressing its gender imbalance. From first-hand accounts, he doesn’t sugar-coat the situation that initially any female musician had a hard time being accepted into the AACM, and that it wasn’t until 1992 that Samia, become the association’s first all-woman band. Even today female AACM members are more the exception than the rule, although Nicole Mitchell is the association’s co-chair

Recalling his experience and those of his AACM peers such as Braxton he also exposes the barriers that Black composers like themselves face when they write music outside the codified jazz tradition. Neither fish nor fowl, their creations are rejected by jazz purists for not swinging or being blues based, and by the classical establishment for being African-American, even he says, in the so-called downtown New music world. Such aids to experimental composers as university professorships, endowed chairs, performance ensembles and electronic music studios are monopolized by musicians hostile to improvisation and African American music.

Although he was only one of three African American composers affiliated with important experimental efforts such as 1992’s New Music, New York, since then the subsidy situation has improved, with several AACM composers are beneficiaries of major fellowships. Slightly beyond this volume’s purview, grant politics should be examined in the context of post-modern music in 21st Century. However readers of A Power Stronger Than Itself discover how the AACM, a grass roots association, evolved to participate in these discussions.

Considering that an AACM-organized, 50-member ensemble was available to play Abrams’ orchestral composition as part of the association’s 40th anniversary celebrations in Chicago, composers and performers from the ACCM will sure to be involved in whatever constitutes modern music for decades to come.

— Ken Waxman

In MusicWorks Issue #101