George Lewis: A Power Stronger Than Itself

Lloyd N. Peterson Jr. By

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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 necessity—but then, what was the necessity? The people that formed the AACM seemed to be extremely diverse, from Melvin "Li'l" Son 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 work—whatever 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 that—even 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.

In the end, oppositionality could certainly be inferred from the seeming refusal of many of the artists to embrace whatever the mainstream modes of thought were supposed to be at that time—or not even a refusal of anything, but simply embracing oneself, one's colleagues and community, and to connect one's musical expression with the community in some way. This didn't necessarily mean to find out what the community thinks is interesting and then to produce more of it. Since you come from the community, your work is already rooted. This just showed how diverse and mobile the community of artists could really be. So if there's any fear there, it might be fear of that sense of diversity—that the music could range from Minnie Riperton to the Art Ensemble Of Chicago. Rather than some particular music that everyone's supposed to be afraid of, I think it's the composite nature of creativity that's the scary thing.

LP: Did the music of the AACM reflect the struggle of African or Black Americans during the time of the civil rights movement?

GL: The simple answer is "of course," and the problem with that is that no one ever goes past the simple answer. I suggest that if someone really wants an answer to that question, they watch the DVD of the movie Medium Cool by Haskell Wexler. It was a cinéma vérité documentary about the 1968 Democratic Convention, and the story, which was done with actors, was filmed within and around the intricacies of the event itself. The actors were placed in the middle of these real events as they were unfolding.

The DVD included commentary by Wexler and his associates, and they're talking about a scene in which Studs Terkel had promised them that they would be introduced to Real Black Militants.

So I was wondering who these people would be, and when I got to that part of the movie I found that the "Real Black Militants" turned out to be Muhal Richard Abrams, Jeff Donaldson, one of the founders of the Africobra art movement; John Jackson, who was a trumpeter with the AACM, and several other people who were associated with the more progressive African-American art scenes of the mid-1960's. These scenes were definitely concerned with community uplift, and certainly in the case of Muhal, spiritual uplift as well.

It was interesting to me that Wexler and the others had no idea who these people were, even today. So for them, these were Real Black Militants from the community who had these amazing powers of performance. And the reality was that these were people who had been performing and acting in the visual and performance world longer than the filmmakers themselves.

They were improvising their parts right while the movie was going on. The filmmakers were astonished at their ability to improvise, but that was what they had been doing anyway. That was the nature of their art—involved improvisation and performance. But it also involved a real sense of community rootedness and involvement.

Every music is reflective of the situation that you find yourself in, but the idea that it has to be continually framed as reflective of one thing is the oversimplification that people really don't like. A lot of these musicians were trying to express the diversity of their experiences. And when you see a group as diverse as the AACM, the civil rights movement and its struggles were just one part of a very complex reality. I think that the easy assignment of this music as a kind of simplistic reflection of the tenor of the times that's compatible something you might read in a history book—well, too much has been collapsed onto that sign.

LP: I have also heard AACM members say that they felt there was a relationship with the music and the messages that were being expressed by Black Leaders of that time.

GL: I feel that this was only one of the things that was reflected, and you would have to really talk about the total diversity of the messages. What I don't like is the collapsing onto the same signs, because it gets to be a kind of cliché. It might be comfortable for people who really want to be remembered as having been identified with all that ferment, but in fact there was no monolithic direction to the so-called civil rights movement. There was just a great deal of debate—over dress, culture, political direction, and debates over how expressive culture could be manifested in support of objectives that no one even agreed on. So if the music was reflective of a particular debate and reflective of some monolithic set of black leaders, well, which black leader was it? Was it Whitney Young or was it Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King or Ron Karenga? I mean, no single music could be reflective of all those leaders, but it could be reflective of the debate and the ferment of the period.

I thought the music reflected the sense of possibility and the possibility of change. People really felt that social change was around the corner and could be achieved, and I think the music certainly reflected that, along with the audacity and fearlessness of it. It was the willingness to take risks—to take chances. And one of the biggest chances was in making silence in the midst of all that screaming. In a certain sense, it was the ability to create unstable silences and incorporate that into the music. It seemed to be a statement of possibilities. That would be my retrospective take on it.



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