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Muhal Richard Abrams: The Advancement of Creative Music

AAJ Staff By

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Although Abrams attended DuSable High School, where the legendarily stern band director Walter Dyett held sway, he preferred sports to school-sponsored music programs. But by 1946, he decided to enroll in music classes at Roosevelt University in the Loop. "I didn't get too much out of that, because it wasn't what I was hearing in the street, he says. "I decided to study on my own. I don't know why, but I've always had a natural ability to study and analyze things. I used that ability, not even knowing what it was (it was just a feeling) and started to read books.

From there, I acquired a small spinet piano and started to teach myself how to play the instrument and read the notes—or, first of all, what key the music was in. It took time and a lot of sweat. But I analyzed it and before long I was playing with the musicians on the scene. I listened to [Art] Tatum, Charlie Parker, [Thelonous Monk], Bud Powell and many others and concentrated on Duke [Ellington] and Fletcher Henderson for composition. Later I got scores and studied more extensive things that take place in classical composition and started to practice classical pieces on the piano, as I do now.

Abrams documents all his New York performances. Still, the decade between 1996 and Streaming (Pi, 2006), a compelling triologue between Abrams, Lewis and Mitchell, shows only one, self-released, issue under Abrams' name. As of this writing, no releases were scheduled for 2007. "That's okay, Abrams says. "I think things that are supposed to reach the public, eventually will. I understand that people want to be able to hear whatever is happening at any given time. However, the recording industry has ways that it does things and sometimes this may not be consistent with what the musician wants to do.

Business has a right to be whatever it is and the artist has a right to be whatever the artist wants to be. I also think the fact that musicians can do these things themselves today because of technology causes output to come out a little bit slower. But the quality is pretty much equal, often higher, than it used to be, because the musician can spend more time preparing the output. It's important for people to hear what I do, but the first point of importance is my being healthy enough to do it. I don't worry about whether it gets distributed right away.

"I always felt that you need to be about the work you need to do and that's to find out about yourself. That's pretty much a full-time job. You pay close attention to others, but the work that you have to do for yourself is the most difficult. I seem to move forward every time I reflect on the fact that I don't know enough. If you feel you have something, it's very important to get that out and develop it. Health is first. But your individualism I think is a close second.


Selected Discography

Muhal Richard Abrams/George Lewis/Roscoe Mitchell, Streaming (Pi, 2005)

Muhal Richard Abrams Orchestra, Blu Blu Blu (Black Saint, 1990)

Muhal Richard Abrams Octet, View From Within (Black Saint, 1984)

Muhal Richard Abrams, Mama and Daddy (Black Saint, 1980)

Muhal Richard Abrams, Levels and Degrees of Light (Delmark, 1967)

Creative Construction Company, Vol. 1 & 2 (Muse, 1970)

Photo Credit
Courtesy of AACM

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