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The Creative Music Improvisers Forum: New Haven's AACM

Daniel Barbiero By

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Not long after he settled in Connecticut, Smith began to work with some of the younger musicians he met there and who he felt shared his attitudes toward music. He formed what was to be the first of his long-term groups, New Dalta Ahkri (sometimes called New Delta Ahkri), with pianist Davis, bassist Brown, and drummer Paul Maddox (later known as Pheeroan AkLaff). The group would go on to make several recordings that Smith put out on his own Kabell label—happily, all four LPs, along with some previously unreleased recordings, were reissued by John Zorn's Tzadik label in 2004—and to feature a flexible membership that would include saxophonist Oliver Lake, Naughton, and others. It was during this same period that Smith also got involved with post-secondary education, teaching improvisation during the 1975-1976 academic year at the University of New Haven and studying ethnomusicology, particularly the musics of West Africa, Indonesia and aboriginal North America, at Wesleyan.

Naughton started out closer to New Haven. Originally from Boston, he played piano as a child, and prior to an Army stint in the 1960s, played keyboard in rock bands. In 1966 he switched to vibes and shifted his attention to free jazz, which he discovered through his manager's record collection; within a few years he was playing with clarinetist Perry Robinson and studying George Russell's theory of Lydian tonal organization. By the early 1970s he, too, was in New Haven, where he formed a friendship with Smith and played in New Dalta Ahkri.

Originally from Detroit, Andrews studied classical clarinet at the University of Michigan, where he earned a master's degree in woodwind performance. It was as part of the school's marching band—playing in it was a requirement under the terms of his scholarship—that he took up saxophone. After Michigan Andrews came to New Haven to begin studies at the Yale Divinity School, where he obtained a Master of Divinity degree in 1977. While at Yale he led a kind of double life, studying theology on the one hand, and continuing to play music on the other. He formed the band Déjà Vu with fellow Detroit native akLaff, vibraphonist Jay Hoggard, keyboardist Nat Adderley, Jr. and vocalist Phillipa Overstreet; akLaff remembered it as a "hip" R&B cover band that, at one Yale gig, found itself on the same bill as a trio led by Leo Smith.

Brown, a multi-instrumentalist playing double bass, percussion and flute had, like Smith, studied ethnomusicology at Wesleyan. In the early 1970s, he was playing in groups with Anthony Davis and trombonist George Lewis, who was then at Yale working toward a degree in philosophy. It was through an ad that Hemingway placed in Rolling Stone magazine in 1972 that Brown and he met; the drummer was seeking a bassist and pianist for a trio inspired by the example of Chick Corea's album Now He Sings, Now He Sobs. New Haven native Hemingway had been a professional drummer playing jazz and bebop since dropping out of school at age 17; now, through Brown, he met Davis and began playing in Davis' group Advent. Shortly after, Hemingway went to Boston to the Berklee College of Music but soon dropped out and returned to New Haven, where through Davis he met Smith. It was also during this period that he audited classes at Wesleyan and took private lessons in West African drumming from Wesleyan adjunct professor Abraham Adzenyah, and studied South Indian drumming with mridangamist Ramnad V. Rhagavan, a Wesleyan artist-in-residence.

By the mid-1970s, then, an informal network of creative musicians was in place in New Haven. All that was needed to solidify it was a stimulus. One such stimulus came by way of a 1975 concert dedicated to the music of Duke Ellington. The performance had gone well and helped convince some of the participants of the desirability of perpetuating its success in a more permanent form. And in fact the ensemble that had been put together for the occasion, which called itself the Creative Improvisors Orchestra, would go on to become CMIF's associated performance group.

More generally, the idea of starting an artists' organization seems to have been in the air, given the difficulties facing New Haven's creative musicians in finding work and in disseminating their music. In an interview published in the September, 2014 number of The New York City Jazz Record, Naughton recalled that he and some others had talked about doing something to promote working opportunities and to get their music out to a broader audience. That something turned out to be CMIF.

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