George Lewis: A Power Stronger Than Itself
As an improviser, educator and an explorer of musical expression, George Lewis has become one of the significant contributors towards the respect and recognition Jazz is finally receiving as one of America's most notable and distinguished cultural achievements. He recently published what I consider to be one of the most critical books on Jazz and African American culture. I also consider the AACM to be the most culturally important group of artists that ever came together in the history of the United States. The following interview took place prior to the publication of his book, A Power Stronger than Itself - The AACM and American Experimental Music.
Lloyd Peterson: Was the AACM established out of a common interest amongst peers or out of a feeling of necessity?
George Lewis: My impression was that it was more a question of necessitybut then, what was the necessity? The people that formed the AACM seemed to be extremely diverse, from Melvin Jackson, who made the record Funky Skull, to Betty Dupree, who played with Earth, Wind and Fire, and to the people that we now recognize as being a part of the AACM. At a certain point, the idea was to try and find a way to support the activities of the creative musicians. You can tell that from the purposes [paraphrases from the AACM set of nine purposes]providing an atmosphere for the creative musicians, making a workshop, forming a place for people to get free musical training, and so on. Those ideas were formed pretty much from the beginning.
As far as I can see, people needed to have venues surrounding their workwhatever their work was. The work was really diverse. Having listened to tapes of the meetings, no one spent any time at all arguing about the stuff people thought they were arguing about. The standard histories of the AACM say that it was designed to promote free jazz. No one ever talked about anything like that.
They seemed to be pretty concerned with whatever their music was, and I really don't think they had a simple definition of what it was. And whatever it was, people felt that they were not in control of the venues and the circumstances surrounding the production of the music, and so that made it difficult to do certain things that you wanted to do. So the necessity really was to assert control.
LP: Was there a mutual search for wisdom and spirituality?
GL: No, I don't think so, because the people were too diverse. Everyone had their own idea of what that meant, so you couldn't really say that. I would imagine that if you spoke to another member but that was exactly the thing about the AACM. People came together as a collective to support whatever individuals wanted to do. If individuals were concerned with issues of spirituality, then you would support that, but there were people who weren't that concerned with it. Basically, you couldn't say that there was any mutual anything, other than that they should support each other in whatever their explorations happened to be.
LP: So it appears the membership was hugely diverse in many aspects of individuality and creativity.
GL: That's the thing, because individuality usually means competition, cutting each other's throats, or something. But it was mainly a matter of, well, what is it you would like to do, and how can we sustain and support thateven if only morally, by working for your concert, to do what needed to be done to promote your music and to make sure that it gets a hearing, that your work receives a hearing. These were the important things, and there were also certain people who were noted for being more concerned with issues of the spiritual than others. But in terms of an overall, generally agreed upon quest, no.
LP: During the civil rights movement of the 60s,' it has been said that the political powers that be, feared free improvisational music because it elevated the consciousness of the individual. Were you and the other members of the AACM aware of this phenomenon?
GL: So, in order to answer that, I would have to assume that that was a real phenomenon that people believed in? (laughs)
I think that there were people who really believed that powerful social structures were "afraid" of Black music or certain kinds of African American music. But I'm not sure that that's something that I could really sustain. In a certain way, I think there is a kind of flattery associated with that, the idea that someone in Washington, J. Edgar Hoover is quaking in his boots at what you are doing with your saxophone. But at the same time, it was obvious that great pains were taken to infiltrate a lot of these organizations, to try to cause problems for them in various ways economic censorship of various kinds, political censorship when necessary, or termination with extreme prejudice in some cases. There are always rumors.