A Fireside Chat With The Art Ensemble Of Chicago
“ We need a good, old-fashioned revolution somewhere to shake things up. There is not that much cutting edge. Everybody is afraid to take a chance. ”
I once read how Sam Rivers heard Billie Holiday and, listening to the anguish in her voice, wept. Jazz can be just that profound because it is history. But along with history comes the inevitable politics and prejudices. Jazz is not beyond such human frailties, but it can be. As exemplified by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, jazz can be more than individuality, more than self-aggrandizement, and more reflective of the times. Without Lester Bowie, the Art Ensemble didn’t relegate itself to becoming history – it evolved and continues to change history. Now, with the return of Joseph Jarman, the Art Ensemble (unedited and in their own words) is fulfilled and both jazz and history are better for it.
Fred Jung: Was there any doubt that the Art Ensemble would continue after Lester Bowie’s passing?
Malachi Favors: Oh, no, there was no question. The Art Ensemble and the AACM, we all started with that idea that if one can’t make it, we would just continue on. If somebody dies, we just continue on until we can replace him, if we want to replace him. In this case, the promoters seemed to demand a replacement. I think we would have went on with just the trio of Roscoe, Moye, and myself. And we did do that for a while. In fact, we have recordings coming out to that effect.
Roscoe Mitchell: The Art Ensemble is an institution. The way it was always run was that we dealt with whatever was there. You will notice that throughout our history, way back from when we had Phillip Wilson and he left to go with Paul Butterfield. We moved more towards the direction of developing as percussionists before we took on another drummer. Of course, it is what Lester would have wanted anyway.
Joseph Jarman: After Lester’s passing, the voice needed me back. After he made his transition, this year, 2003, ten years after I had left, I had a conversation with the other guys and they sort of convinced me that I should return. That was a worthy thing for them to do for me. I had not been with music and had been missing it because it had been a vital part of my whole life.
Famoudou Don Moye: We were committed to the Art Ensemble in whatever state it is in at the time.
Fred Jung: ECM is releasing the trio session, Tribute to Lester . Where does the recording stand in the epic that is the Art Ensemble?
Roscoe Mitchell: I think it was a good thing because we had to redevelop ourselves. It is different if you’re playing as a trio or quartet because as a quartet, we had harmony with two horns. After that, we didn’t have that. It caused us to be able to step up so that we’re not like piano, bass, and drums or something like that. It made the trio step up to the plate for that. It helped us to develop in that setting. We never have been a group that went out looking for people and certainly, we weren’t going to run out and try to replace Lester. From that standpoint of view, I think it was very important for us.
Famoudou Don Moye: The trio was what that formation represented at the time as the Art Ensemble. So it is not a headcount. It is whatever we say it is. We were committed to a trio, as opposed to how were we going to replace Lester. The trio record is reflective of our commitment to furthering the music of the Art Ensemble in that format. It is always a challenge because the music changes. When it was four people, there wasn’t the second saxophone. When it was three, it was a singular saxophone, so you didn’t have the same kind of voicings. We didn’t rework the music. We just had a different approach to the songs we always play anyway. Thirty-five years, where do we start?
Malachi Favors: We miss Lester now. I do.
Fred Jung: What do you miss most about Lester?
Malachi Favors: His whole general appearance. He was a buddy. He could play. He was just an all around good cat. He stuck with the music when he could have went on and did something else and left the group alone. He formed a band and he did things with Bill Cosby, but he was always there like day one. How can you get over a person like that?
Joseph Jarman: Everything really. We were neighbors. We lived very close together, so I saw him a great deal more than the other members of the ensemble. I miss his sense of humor, his sense of style, and of course, his wonderful music.
Roscoe Mitchell: It is so hard to say. When someone is gone, you think about all these different things. Someone was here and now they’re gone. You can’t replace them. There will never be another Lester Bowie. That part is over and you have to come to grips with it. A lot of times when people are around, a lot of things get taken for granted.
Famoudou Don Moye: I miss the sound of his voice as a human being. The voice of his trumpet is as unique as it is an extension of his personality. We miss his personality more.
Fred Jung: What prompted Joseph Jarman’s return to the Art Ensemble?
Malachi Favors: It was sort of a culmination of things. The group liked to see him come back, but I think, this was promoted by people requesting that. We could have went on with just the three of us until we made up our mind that this is what we wanted to do. We did do concerts with just the three of us. That was the unwritten policy of the Art Ensemble and the AACM.
Roscoe Mitchell: He had done what he went out to do and he was starting to feel like there was something missing in his life. He figured it out that it was music. He went off and became a Buddhist priest, but he had been doing music for so long that he felt like there was something missing in his life.
Famoudou Don Moye: He never actually left the group. We always felt that at some point, he was going to come back. People put more into that singular incident than what it actually was. Our agreement in the group was anybody that had critical issues in their life, they have to be addressed and we respect and support their ability to do that. He had to take care of some things that were critical in his life, which would make him be able to come back and play.
Fred Jung: And the Art Ensemble celebrates the return of Joseph Jarman with a new recording on Pi, The Meeting .
Roscoe Mitchell: That was done in February of this year. What it is for us is the bringing back of Joseph Jarman to the Art Ensemble.
Joseph Jarman: I loved it. It reminded me of the old days and had many new days in it.
Famoudou Don Moye: The record represents the moment that Jarman felt that he had addressed his issues and was ready to come back and contribute a hundred percent of what he could contribute. It is a work in progress. The music goes on.
Fred Jung: Was it like riding a bicycle?
Joseph Jarman: Yes, it was an easy transition because I had been practicing and focusing for that period time.
Roscoe Mitchell: Well, we had done some concerts before and now, it is all redefining itself. It is all a work in progress for me.
Fred Jung: The group could have remained the Roscoe Mitchell Quintet, why the Art Ensemble of Chicago?
Roscoe Mitchell: Well, it was very necessary for us to be able to survive. When it was the Roscoe Mitchell Quartet or whatever it was, we had receipts where we were getting like three dollars. Clearly, I was not paying the musicians. In order for it to really work out, everybody had to feel like they were really involved in it. We weren’t making any money. In order for it to stay together that long, everybody had to have some share in it.
Malachi Favors: Roscoe was the founder of the group and he had the option at one time to be the leader of the group, but he refused. That is when we became a co-op group because Lester and I offered him the leadership because he was the founder. This is how we ended up a co-op.
Fred Jung: Are today’s musicians missing the criterion of the proactive community that was the AACM?
Roscoe Mitchell: Yeah, I think they are. The way I look at it is that you have Chicago. Chicago has always been a place where musicians get together and rehearse and so on. New York, on the other hand, is not like that at all. Musicians are scattered all over the place. It is the same with Los Angeles. In L.A., everybody is scattered all over the place doing this and doing that. In San Francisco, however, people really do get together and rehearse. They have a tradition.
Famoudou Don Moye: It is a cycle. Cooperatives and collectives are part of the musical history. At any given time, you don’t have that many. Somewhere out there, there is a young group of musicians facing similar issues in their lives that we had to deal with in our lives. They are addressing them in similar ways. Hopefully, they will look at us and be able to find some meaning. We need a good, old-fashioned revolution somewhere to shake things up. There is not that much cutting edge. Everybody is afraid to take a chance. The bullshit is even thicker now.
Fred Jung: During the late Sixties and early Seventies, the Art Ensemble had a pronounced theatrical element to their performances.
Malachi Favors: I have to say that I initiated that. It came from, as you know, Fred, we’re African people here in the States and my first encounter with African music and African musicians was a concert downtown and I went to see it. This was before the Art Ensemble. I was taken down by it. It refreshed my spirit and I wanted to be into that some kind of way. At the time, I was with the Andrew Hill Trio and of course, that was a strictly jazz group, but I started bringing bells there. This is how it got started. When I got with Roscoe, anything went in music. You be the way you want to be and that’s how I started to get into the paint and all of that.
Fred Jung: Members of the Art Ensemble are all versed in multiple instruments, seemingly emphasizing you were great musicians, not merely great bass players or alto players.
Malachi Favors: It just overtook us that we could do what we wanted to do. After seeing African groups and how they would be great dancers and great on the congas. You have the feeling that you have to do anything to enhance the music. Don’t hold the music back. Let it come on out in any kind of way that you feel.
Roscoe Mitchell: That’s on all of us now because we’re living in the age of the super-musician. That is what is emerging right now, musicians that defy categories because you have a whole group of musicians that really study music. Logically, that is really the next step. I think that is why you have musicians that have diversified to playing different instruments. Not only do they specialize in several different instruments, they specialize in several different areas of music. The super-musician has to be concerned about not only learning his instrument, but they have to be a good performer and composer. Everybody is being faced with the problem of improvisation and it is really difficult to be a good improviser if you don’t know anything about composing.
Fred Jung: Then can someone who strictly plays standards be considered a valid improviser or is that person merely a lounge act?
Roscoe Mitchell: No, I don’t think they are. I didn’t make up the rules. The people that are really studying, they are happening. Nothing is by chance. To really be a good improviser, you’ve got to study music. You’ve got to study composition. You have to know counterpoint. You have to know that if somebody’s playing eighth notes, you can play triplets or half notes. You have to be trained and know how to orchestrate. You have to know dynamic ranges of certain instruments. You have to work on a scale of moveable dynamics. If I am playing with a violinist, my dynamics are different than if I am playing with another saxophonist. The thing about it is that it takes a long time. I have realized that it takes a long time to get to be what I am trying to be. It is a lot of study.
Fred Jung: How imperative is it for future generations to inherit the significance of African music?
Malachi Favors: It is very important because the rhythm base is from Africa. If you listen to African drums, no one can switch rhythms in the midst of rhythms like they can. The melodies, if you notice and go back in our history as black Americans, you will notice the sound of so called negro spirituals, you will pick up the sound of African ceremonial music. You will notice a great tie there.
Joseph Jarman: It is universal music. When you listen to Art Ensemble music, you’ll find elements from all the musical tones of the whole universe within it. Even though its roots are Afro-American oriented, it is a universal expression. You will find every possible form of expression through music that exists within the contexts of the music that the Art Ensemble plays.
Fred Jung: And the future?
Malachi Favors: I am working on something. It could be out in a year, maybe less. I’m working on something.
Joseph Jarman: I will be in Los Angeles with Milford Graves and a Los Angeles percussionist. I also work with Leroy Jenkins and Myra Melford in a group called Equal Interests and we will have a recording at the beginning of next year.
Roscoe Mitchell: I’ve just finished three solo CDs. I am working on a record of written compositions that will also be released next year on Mutable Music.
Selected reviews at All About Jazz: