A Power Stronger Than Itself
George E. Lewis
Hardcover; 690 pages
University of Chicago Press
A long time coming, George Lewis' AACM tome is an in-depth socio-musicological study of a cooperative of musicians, the economic and political factors that gave rise to its existence, and the path it has charted since. Though a number of authors have written intelligently on the subject of vanguard Black music in Chicago, Lewis enjoys the advantage of having been a member of the AACM as trombonist-composer since the 1970s. This gives him unique insight into the group's machinations, as well as unprecedented access to the participants. Such immersion in the subject necessarily presents problems, but Lewis is mostly objective in his treatment of what sometimes verged on becoming a saga.
Lewis' characterizations of the urban blight that beset Chicago after the Depression serves to set the stage. Not only were the AACM's founding members children of the Depression, but the economic and social stumbling blocks faced by Black Chicagoans bordered on the insane: it's a wonder that the group was able to get off the ground when members could barely eat, let alone pay dues. As a self-empowerment organization that presented original musicand opportunities for self-betterment through this musicthe AACM was a galvanizing force on the South Side. And the originality of the music was especially key, since originality and aesthetics became tangled in the AACM's early days. Yet it was plagued by the fact that most of the music presented was neither "audience-friendly" nor economically viable.
Particularly interesting in the study of the collective's early days are transcripts of meetings, taken directly from Muhal Richard Abrams' tape cache. The meetings were clearly contentious and difficult, especially when the topics addressed were musical content, or whether white musicians could be allowed to join (as in vibraphonist Emanuel Cranshaw's case). The organization's history is traced through members' varied reception in Europe (not the "salad days" one assumes) and the move to what would be, for some, greener pastures in New York- -a move that eventually split the collective into independent regional branches.
Lewis' writing can be a bit jumpy, as when he moves from the theoretical to the biographical, or when he uses the first person. A few sections seem cobbled together from previous papers (especially those on European concert music), and the influence of AACM music in Europe isn't significantly dealt with. Still, for the discussion of the organization's rise, and for the stories woven therein, A Power Stronger Than Itself is an unequaled volume on both its subject and on Black creative collectivity.