AACM: Together We Are Stronger

AACM: Together We Are Stronger
Chris May BY

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Creative musicians should not consider themselves entertainers. Their purpose is to enlighten: themselves first and then the audience
—Muhal Richard Abrams
With the passing in 2017 of the pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and trumpeter Phil Cohran, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, formed in Chicago in 1965, lost the last two of the four musicians who organised its inaugural meeting. But with two succeeding generations of standard bearers stepping up to the plate, the AACM continues to influence the character of jazz and its members continue to be a major presence in album of the year polls. Meanwhile, the idea of brotherly and sisterly community which the AACM champions continues to be an inspiration for us all.

In a tribute to Abrams published in The New Yorker magazine, the trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum wrote that he was introduced to the AACM as a teenager in the early 1990s, at a concert in a downtown Manhattan church hall. "Honestly, I don't remember who was playing," said Bynum. "What I do remember is that Muhal Richard Abrams was selling tickets at the box office, and [AACM member] Amina Claudine Myers was handing out programs at the door."

Bynum said he was amazed to see two of his musical heroes engaged in such mundane tasks. "It was a message I took to heart. You don't wait for anybody to give you anything if you can do it yourself. You do what you have to do, with hospitality and grace, to make the music happen.... You support your fellow-musicians, and your fellow-musicians will support you."

In 1965, when Abrams and Phil Cohran, with pianist Jodie Christian and drummer Steve McCall, assembled a group of young Chicago musicians in a run-down Southside basement for the first meeting of the AACM, African American jazz was facing an existential crisis. Hard bop, the core inner-city soundtrack of the 1950s and early 1960s, was on the verge of becoming a museum piece (a fate from which it ultimately rescued itself). Sun Ra, himself based in Chicago until 1961, when he moved to New York, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and others were exploring new territory— but, while critically acclaimed, they had yet to connect with sizable audiences. Jazz clubs were closing from coast to coast. Paid gigs for professional jazz musicians were becoming ever harder to find. The future looked like it belonged to rock, funk and soul.

Abrams and Cohran had nothing against these cresting styles, but they were not going to sit around and let the jazz baby get thrown out with the stale bathwater, not in Chicago anyway. They envisaged the AACM functioning as a self-help booking agency, organizing the gigs that club owners were reluctant to offer—and also as a rehearsal band to which members could bring along their own compositions (arrangements had to include a part for every musician present), a community music school for local youth and an avant-garde musico-cultural movement.

The AACM would fulfil its mission, said Abrams, on its own terms, free of commercial pressures. In a manifesto printed following the inaugural meeting, he stated uncompromisingly: "Creative musicians should not consider themselves entertainers. Their purpose is to enlighten: themselves first and then the audience." Then as now, a musician joining the AACM is told they are expected to keep faith with this fundamental principle all their life.

For 55 years, the AACM has invigorated jazz. Its outreach and mentoring programmes have nurtured a steady flow of second and third generation stars, notable among them the saxophonist Matana Roberts, trumpeter Corey Wilkes, flautist Nicole Mitchell and violinist Renee' Baker. Its members continue to stretch the boundaries of the music. In 2016, saxophonist Henry Threadgill, a member since 1969, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his album In For A Penny, In For A Pound (Pi). In 2017, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, a member since 1967, swept the US album of the year awards with a host of number-one slots for America's National Parks (Cuneiform), including in The New York Times critics' poll. Nicole Mitchell's Mandorla Awakening 11: Emerging Worlds (FPE, 2016) and Maroon Cloud (FPE, 2018) also made strong impressions in the polls, as did Matana Roberts' Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis (Constellation, 2019).

A high proportion of the AACM's founding and early members have gone on to become major figures. Alongside Abrams, Myers, Cohran, Smith and Threadgill prominent names have included the trumpeter Lester Bowie, trombonist George E. Lewis, reed players Joseph Jarman, Roscoe Mitchell, Kalaparusha and Anthony Braxton, violinist Leroy Jenkins, bassists Malachi Favors and Fred Hopkins. These musicians have been driven by a variety of musical agendas. At one end of the spectrum are Anthony Braxton's abstract, intellectually demanding compositions, at the other are Amina Claudine Myers's soul-drenched gospel mutations. Other members' styles have fallen somewhere in between, as exemplified by the Art Ensemble Of Chicago with its tagline Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future.

What, Abrams was once asked, is the AACM sound? "If you take all the sounds of all the AACM musicians," said Abrams, "that's the AACM sound. But no-one's heard that yet."

Despite their varied aesthetic emphases, more has always united AACM musicians than has divided them. Above all, they share a belief in unfettered self-expression. In most artistic revolutions, a single leader or elite vanguard defines a new aesthetic, and members are expected to express themselves within its template. Sun Ra, for instance, ran an extremely tight (space)ship, in which the Arkestra's trajectory was dictated by him alone. In the AACM, by contrast, each member is required to develop their own paradigm. This has enabled the organisation continuously to replenish both itself and jazz in general.

Long may that continue.


Because AACM members frequently form not-for-profit record labels, and also attract labels operated by enthusiasts rather than business people, they have between them racked up a catalogue of hundreds of discs. This list of 10 recommended albums, which kicks off in 1966, barely scratches the surface, but it touches all bases from Anthony Braxton's abstractions to Amina Claudine Myers' downhome roots.

Roscoe Mitchell Sextet
Delmark, 1966

On record, the AACM begins here. The line-up includes graduates of the Experimental Band which Muhal Richard Abrams formed in 1961, and which was the spiritual precursor of the AACM, plus founder members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. First track is the shout-out "Ornette." Still out there after all these years.

Leo Smith
Divine Love
ECM, 1979

One of several Leo Smith masterpieces preceding his poll-winning America's National Parks. Standout track by a short neck is the muted "Tastalun," on which Smith is joined by fellow AACM trumpeter Lester Bowie from the Art Ensemble of Chicago and ECM stalwart, the Canadian-born trumpeter Kenny Wheeler. A dream weaver.

Henry Threadgill
X-75 Volume 1
Arista Novus, 1979

After co-leading the groundbreaking trio Air with Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall, Henry Threadgill made his own-name debut with this blinder featuring four reed players and four bassists. Sonically dense, immersively intense.

Amina Claudine Myers
Salutes Bessie Smith
Leo, 1980

Amina Claudine Myers' gospel and blues drenched keyboard style is both traditionalist and forward looking. Here, on piano, organ and vocals, and accompanied by bass and drums, she performs a mixture of originals and blues attributed to the immortal Bessie Smith. Simultaneously down home and in orbit.

George E. Lewis
Chicago Slow Dance
Lovely, 1980

By the late 1970s, George E. Lewis was exploring electronics as well as the trombone and tuba. He is heard here on alto and tenor trombone and, alongside Anthony Braxton collaborator Richard Teitelbaum, on synthesisers. Pioneering acoustic-electronic jazz (from the label, not so incidentally, who released trumpet and synthesizer futurist Jon Hassell's first own-name album in 1977).

Art Ensemble of Chicago
Urban Bushmen
ECM, 1982

From the band's inception, AEC albums have suffered in varying degrees from the fact that the group was and is as powerful a visual experience as it is an auditory one—a situation that pertained right up to 2019 and its 50th anniversary tour and album We Are On The Edge (Pi). This early 1980s hi-res concert recording gets closer than most to communicating the onstage excitement.

Anthony Braxton
Composition N.96
Leo, 1989

Criticised by some jazz commentators throughout his career for his fascination with European conservatoire music, Anthony Braxton's Composition N.96 is dedicated to Karlheinz Stockhausen and performed by a 37-piece orchestra. Cerebral? Undoubtedly. Demanding listener concentration? Definitely. Rewarding? You got it.

The Muhal Richard Abrams Orchestra
The Hearinga Suite
Black Saint, 1989

Writing for an 18-piece band, Abrams evokes the swing era. Echoes of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Fletcher Henderson run through the idiosyncratic arrangements—but this is much more than a nostalgia fest. Reimagining is an overused word but it is appropriate this time out.

Matana Roberts
Coin Coin Chapter Three: River Run Thee
Constellation, 2015

Matana Roberts has also paid tribute to Ellington and Stayhorn. She debuted in 2006 with Lines For Lacy (Self Produced), an adventurous solo performance of standards by the composing partners. Coin Coin Chapter Three is another epic solo outing, which includes synthesised soundscapes, self-made Mississippi field recordings and samples from a Malcolm X speech.

Nicole Mitchell
Mandorla Awakening 11: Emerging Worlds
Fpe, 2017

Former president of the AACM and leader of the Black Earth Ensemble, Afro-Futurist Nicole Mitchell fronts an octet including violinist Renée Baker, thereminist Alex Wing, cellist Tomeka Reid and shakuhachist Kojiro Umekazi. As spacey as the title and instrumentation suggest. Beam yourself up.

AACM anniversary photo: Lauren Deutsch

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