Amina Claudine Myers: From Mozart to Miles and Beyond
Composer, pianist and singer Amina Claudine Myers is a part of the first generation of the famed Chicago collective the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Coming north from her native Blackwell, Arkansas, she was an unusual presence in the organizationnot just as one of the few female members, but as a singer and songwriter willing to, at times, employ traditional song structures. Outside of the AACM, Myers has played in bands led by Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Haden, Bill Laswell, Sonny Stitt and James Blood Ulmer, and has released nine albums as a leader. She continues to be an active member of the New York chapter of the AACM.
All About Jazz: While your recordings have mostly highlighted your jazz piano and songwriting, you have also done a lot of choral and theatrical work with bigger ensembles. How difficult is it finding opportunities to present large-scale works?
Amina Claudine Myers: I'm doing workshops and seminars in the States but most of my work is being done in Europe, the voice choir and pipe organ work. Improvisation Suite in 1979 was one of my first pieces for choir and organ. I wanted to showcase the operatic voice in an improvisational setting. That was performed at Saint Peter's Church and that's how I started playing the pipe organ. I have music for choir, but it's too much for a small group, I need a larger group.
Diane McIntyre, the choreographer, and I are doing an ongoing project where I was able to conduct an orchestra in a piece called How Long Brethren by the great dancer Helen Tamaris. She came along during the Martha Graham days. She took black protest songsHow long, how long, must my people suffershe took these songs and made a piece that played for a month on Broadway. Diane McIntyre wanted to recreate this piece. I had to recreate the scores, some of these pieces were missing. We did that in 1991 and in 2006. Those are giant productions; those chances don't come along very easily.
AAJ: But theatrical productions weren't anything new to you, even back in 1991. Weren't theater pieces a part of the AACM's early work?
ACM: Muhal Richard Abrams wrote a play called The Dream, back in Chicago [in 1968] with no written dialogue, with Lester Bowie and Roscoe Mitchell in it. It ran every weekend for a month. I played Joseph Jarman wife. He was a musician and I was a real materialist, always on him about earning more money.
It was so creative back thenMuhal painting, Joseph doing his theaterthey were all just creating and writing. Roscoe would be running around with a stovepipe hat and a cigar box and he'd reach in the box and give you something and then the next week he'd ask you for something to put in the box. I started writing poems and painting. And everybody encouraged you, people would play with you. That was very inspiring. Something was going on all the time.
And then when I came to New York, Amiri Baraka had written a play called Primitive World. The world had been destroyed by the primitive money-makers. They put me behind the stage playing piano for that, but I thought of myself as an actor and a singer. Piano just came natural to me.
AAJ: You've worked in so many styles, from composed music to jazz and even leaning toward rhythm and blues. Where did your music education begin? What was the first music you performed?
ACM: I started studying European classical piano when I was five or six; I'd go over to the next town from Blackwell, which had a population of about 5,000. That was a very rare thing back then, a little black girl studying classical piano. At age seven I moved to Dallas with my aunt. There was a vacation Bible school and for some reason the pianist they had couldn't play these simple songs they had and I could play it and they thought it was wonderful. I was Methodist, but these ladies from the Baptist church got a group of us together; they were putting on Christmas plays and we were trying to emulate the gospel quartet singers.
We could get the country and western stationsthat Hank Williams was bad!but the quartet singers would travel around and come to the church and we'd try to emulate them. Those quartet singers would come to town and everybody in town would come. All the white people would sit in back! But that music brings people together. Then I got into high school and I began to sing in the choir, that's how I got into choral music. There's something to that sound, all those voices together, that I try to get in my choral music.
And then when I was about 15, we moved back to Arkansas and put a group together with my childhood friends. When we sang gospel we were called the "Gospel Four" and then we'd be called the "Royal Hearts" when we did popular songs. We opened for the Staple Singers when they came through.
I went to college to be a schoolteacher but then this girl came up to me and said "I got a job for you playing in a nightclub." I said, "Girl, I can't do that." I knew "Greensleeves," "Misty," a few other things. But I went down there and I learned the blues. And the people kept bringing me in and it was like God was hitting me on the head and saying, "You're supposed to be a musician." And my family was always very supportive. Here I was, 18 years old, and I had a rhythm and blues band. One time Rahsaan Roland Kirk came in. I didn't know that, but then years later we were playing in one of the clubs in New Jersey and he came up and said, "Are you Claudine Myers?" He remembered me by my voice. I couldn't believe that.
I got jobs with Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt. I worked with Dexter [Gordon]. And this guy came in, Cozy Eggleston and we got together and [drummer, AACM member and Sun Ra Arkestra alum] Ajaramu heard me and he said he wanted to form an organ group. So I got with Ajaramu and Cozy always said he stole me away! But that's how I got to the AACM.
AAJ: You've recorded piano duos with Muhal Richard Abrams and then you've recorded songs that could be done by Alicia Keys. How do you balance those different approaches to writing and performing?
ACM: It can be very hard, but it's a system. First I was writing poems and those songs came out of those. The first songs I remember doing were in [her stageplay] I Dream, around 1975. It was supposed to be a story told just with songs.
I never thought of my music as avant-garde, but other people do. Now I'm writing this piece for viola, piano and voice and I'm concentrating on how to showcase the full range of the voice. I purposely want those kind of operatic voices for the kind of sound I want. I was raised around the gospel, the country and western, I love John Lee Hooker, the rural blues. But then I was in love with Miles Davis. I fell in love with Mozart's Requiem and all that choral music. I've been fortunate to be exposed to a lot of forms of music.
Jim Pepper, Afro Indian Blues (PAO, 1991)
Amina Claudine Myers, The Circle of Time (Black Saint, 1983)
Frank Lowe, Live From Soundscape (DIW, 1982)
Muhal Richard Abrams, Duet (feat. Amina Claudine Myers) (Black Saint, 1981)
Amina Claudine Myers, Salutes Bessie Smith (Leo, 1980)
Amina Claudine Myers, Poems for Piano: The Piano Music of Marion Brown (Sweet Earth, 1979)
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