George Lewis: A Power Stronger Than Itself
GL: When someone's music, or a variety of approached to music, suddenly touches a number of people, that's the time when it was supposed to do that. In a way, it's its own self-fulfilling prophecy. Particularly in certain corners of the jazz community, people seem terribly exercised about whether they're reaching mass audiences, and I think most of them have no idea how stochastic those processes really are. At a certain point, you start to see that there are two million identical products and one person gets selected. It's been shown to be practically random, so in a sense one can choose on the basis of whether a particular person who becomes famous had a better deodorant than the other person.
So it's better to skip all the talk of timelessness, and then you find yourself asking questions, like, What was the time this music was in? Who was the audience? What was their interest in it? Instead of tying the whole experience and story of the music to some kind of demographic number.
I think there is a stronger message there, and I think the message has to do with the possibilities for mobility and diversity that the music symbolizes. I think people got that from it, and I think there's still a place for that.
The idea that we don't know what it's going to be is critical. If we know what it's going to be, maybe we shouldn't even bother doing it, because in a way, we've already done it. This sense of surprise and portent to the music seemed to be important as an experience, even prior to hearing a note. It's just the expectation level, that now, these people have come here to present us with something that they don't think we've heard before. That's what we're coming to get, to perform this mind melt with this other part of the community which is trying to present us with these ideas that they feel are new.
LP: In our society today, we go to hear music or go to listen to music. But in many African societies, music is a part of everything in everyday life. Is there a chance that at some point over the generations we became a more visual kind of society and placed less significance on various elements of sound?
GL: It's hard to escape that impression. Whether it's called logocentricity, or visual hegemony, or whatever, there is a sense of power of the visual. If you look at new media technologies, the largest impressions are always from the visual technologies, and the sonic technologies seem to be rated second.
Music is a part of everyday life here too. In most places, music is a part of everyday life, so I don't think that separation between traditional societies and so-called advanced societies really works for me. A more salient distinction could be the extent to which music becomes separated from the other senses. In other words, somehow the visual aspect gets separated from the sound, and we're expected to go to concerts but not to intermedia spectacles.
This is where you come across groups like the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Those who only read the press release that said Great Black Music and didn't actually look at the visual iconography of the group didn't get the Asian references, or the Native American references but collapsed it all onto the textually signifier black. So that kind of logocentricity actually gets right into the way in which the music is received. It's a kind of lazy logocentricity on the part of some commentators, and an easy one. If you don't like the idea of Great Black Musicit's overly black nationalist, or racist, or whateverthen it's easy to simply go with the phrase as something that you have problems with.
But when you start looking at the sounds, you start to say, boy, this Great Black Music has to be pretty diverse stuff, whatever it is. You've got people doing Buddhist chants in the middle of it. What does that mean? I guess what it means is the idea of a people who are looking outward, rather than navel-gazing. It's really a globalizing riff.
LP : The creativity of the AACM arrived at a time of the civil rights movement. But we are now at a different type of crossroads, which is more global in nature. Is it possible that a new creativity might come out of the conflict and strife that is happening globally today?
GL: The first thing to consider is that the AACM will be forty years old in 2005. It was conceived in a formal way, it had elections, officers, a governance structure and a business structure. It wasn't just a band. It was a group of people that came together to form an institution, and the institution still exists while going through generations of change.