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The Creative Music Improvisers Forum: New Haven's AACM

Daniel Barbiero By

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In addition to promoting its members' creative activities, CMIF was also projected to have an educational function. Teaching, whether in terms of formal lessons or simply the transmission of the key concepts of a tradition, was an important part of Smith's musical practice even if his early involvement with teaching at the university level was short-lived and ultimately disappointing. (As Smith recalled in his 2014 oral history interview, his improvisation class at the University of New Haven attracted a large number of students but the music department refused him a permanent position because he lacked a Ph.D.) More successful was an eight-week course he taught not long before CMIF was organized. Called "The Art of the Improviser," it took place outside of a formal academic setting and was based on his understanding of the blues and the role of the blues in improvisation. During its lifetime CMIF did have an educational component that consisted of outreach visits to schools, churches and community centers throughout Connecticut. As percussionist Ralph Yohuru Williams described it in a December, 1982 video of a Creative Improvisors Orchestra open rehearsal made for Bridgeport's WUBC-TV, CMIF even visited nursery schools in order to show children that musicians could play in an ensemble that wasn't a symphony orchestra.

Beyond its basic educational program, Smith also called for CMIF to establish a conservatory as well as what he described as an "aesthetic research center." The latter was of a piece with the group's stated interest in developing a creative music drawing on global musical traditions which, Smith's manifesto asserted, meant acquiring knowledge not only of specific musical techniques but of the "social, philosophical and religious systems" in which they were embedded. CMIF, in effect, saw itself as a kind of ethnomusicological program that would foster a more than superficial fusion of the world's musics; rather, it would look at the sources of those musics, something Smith in another context referred to as the spirituality within them. What the collective aimed for was, as Smith emphatically put it, a "CREATIVE WORLD MUSIC."

As Smith described it, CMIF's was essentially an ecumenical vision of a compositionally-structured, improvisation-pervaded music informed by the musical cultures of Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe—an admirably broad-minded vision that was inclusive in the most generous sense of the word. Although at its founding CMIF was made up of musicians working with Western instruments within predominantly Western-developed forms, one of the group's goals was eventually to incorporate into the Creative Improvisors Orchestra instruments and performers representing the world's various musical traditions. Some of the members had already taken steps in that direction: in New Dalta Ahkri, for instance, Brown played Ghanian flute in addition to bass and Smith played Indian and bamboo flutes as well as various percussion instruments; in addition, the Creative Improvisors Orchestra percussion section included gongs and other non-Western instruments as well.

The music on The Sky Cries the Blues finds the group playing works that, featuring structures more complex than the basic head-improvisations-head arrangements of much mainstream jazz, integrated elements of composition and improvisation in organic and sophisticated ways. Composition was an important part of what CMIF was about and was emphasized by Smith in particular; as Pavone remembered it, Smith encouraged members to compose. In a 1991 interview with Robert Spencer of Cadence Magazine, double bassist Joe Fonda, who recalled becoming a part of CMIF in the early 1980s—after having seen a flyer advertising for new members—also credited Smith with having had a decisive influence on his own emergent musical concepts. Encouraged by Smith and by their own backgrounds, CMIF's composer/improvisers didn't restrict themselves to a narrow set of influences but instead looked to a variety of models and sources. Although most of the musicians on the recording were rooted in the jazz tradition—and some, like Andrews, who doesn't appear on the recording, had had classical or conservatory training as well—the influences of contemporary art music were noticeably present as well.

The four compositions realized on The Sky Cries the Blues were performed by a large orchestra: sixteen pieces on three of the four tracks, with guitar added to make seventeen on the other track. The instrumentation consisted of four brass, four reeds/woodwinds, three double basses, and five percussionists including vibes. The makeup of the orchestra ensured a broad compass and a wide gamut of instrumental colors, all of which were used to good effect. Of the four compositions on the album, two were contributed by Smith and one each by Hemingway and Naughton.

Smith's "Black Fire in Mother-Land My Soul," the opening tracks, is an art song that plays on the contrasts of instrumental voices by setting out short, asymmetrical themes that serve to separate the choirs of brass, woodwinds and strings, to which is added Harryson Buster's voice. "Return to My Native Land II," also by Smith, provides further evidence of his skill as a colorist. The piece begins with the rattle of percussion and moves into sets of dissonant chords built up from the fused timbres of brass and woodwinds. Lines for vibes and a drum interlude add a further layer of timbral contrast, as do the series of sparsely accompanied solos for saxophone and bass clarinet. The percussion-thick passage towards the close makes an effective allusion to the group's interest in non-Western traditions of polyrhythms.

Hemingway's "The Interstices of a Dream (for Henry Miller)" is a tension-maintaining piece built on the dark undertow of a recurring drone played by the basses. Like a dream it proceeds as a montage of uncannily juxtaposed and changing moods. Hemingway mixes composed and improvised parts to create introspective and expressive passages, which are thrown into relief by a duet for guitar and saxophone and solos for drums and bass clarinet.

A Phrygian figure in a steady pulse played by the three-bass section of Wes Brown, Joe Fonda and Mario Pavone opens Naughton's "Picnic Wobble," the final track on the album. In contrast to the predominantly episodic pieces that precede it on the album, it largely maintains the continuity of its steady pulse throughout, while allowing for breaks into brief solo statements from many of the players.

In all, The Sky Cries the Blues presents an ensemble playing music embodying an ambitious admixture of modernist art music's harmonic vocabulary, the forceful expressivity of avant-garde jazz improvisation, and the polyrhythmic textures of African and South Asian musics. These elements are present as well in Smith's "Two Pieces for Orchestra Set No. 3," performed in concert in December, 1982. The main melodic themes are based on pentatonic scales with a distinctly non-Western flavor, while the orchestral parts supporting the soloists feature dense, chromatic harmonies and complex blends of instrumental color. Here once again, the composed and improvised elements are set up in a fruitful relationship of correspondence and mutual illumination.

The concert at which "Two Pieces for Orchestra Set No. 3" was presented was held to mark the fifth anniversary of the New Haven collective. The concert, which was sponsored by the Hartford Jazz Society, took place on 5 December 1982 at the Hartford Holiday Inn on Morgan Street and was notable for its having brought together CMIF and AACM—a meeting of two branches of the same musical family, in a sense. The ensemble for the occasion was billed as a 25-piece orchestra composed of sixteen members of CMIF plus members of AACM; representing the latter organization were Muhal Richard Abrams, Amina Claudine Myers and Leroy Jenkins, as well as Anthony Braxton—who by the mid-1980s would himself be resident in the New Haven area. In addition to featuring music by Smith, Naughton, Hemingway, Abrams and Braxton, the concert—in a kind of echo of the 1975 concert that provided the early impetus out which CMIF was formed—included arrangements of compositions by Duke Ellington.

The CMIF/AACM joint concert was just one of many concerts and performances that the New Haven group presented during its seven year existence. As with the joint concert, some featured invited work by non-CMIF artists such as Carla Bley, Slide Hampton and Randy Weston. A particularly ambitious presentation—the '81 Autumn Fest—took place over the course of nine days in October and November, 1981 and was held at venues in the Connecticut cities of Bridgeport, Litchfield and Waterbury in addition to New Haven and Hartford. Underwritten in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, this series of concerts featured CMIF's Creative Improvisors Orchestra as well as performances by individual members under their own names, and also included outside artists such as Peter Kowald, Henry Threadgill, and Fred Hopkins. In the Cadence interview Fonda even recalled one memorable program that included a string quartet.

CMIF's exchanges with artists outside of the New Haven area—many of whom were then based in New York—is emblematic not only of the strength of community binding creative musicians from different parts of the country (although it certainly was that), but of New Haven's peculiar geographical situation and the ramifications that situation has had for the city's artistic life. About halfway between Boston to the northeast and New York City to the southwest, New Haven has often served as a point of transit for artists ultimately going elsewhere. This, combined with the status of Yale students as temporary residents—and consequently as temporary participants in local artistic communities—helped give the New Haven creative music community a transient character. Even during CMIF's peak, the creative music community saw a good deal of turnover as musicians moved around, many of them to New York. Thus although transience was one of the factors that helped make CMIF, it also ultimately helped to undo CMIF. By the time the organization was disbanded in 1984, many of its members had relocated to New York and beyond.

Not only the transience of the artists, but the effort needed to sustain such a self-reliant collective—what we now would call a DIY organization—helped bring about CMIF's end. That effort was considerable, and consisted of the work that had to go into writing grant applications and pursuing other fundraising activities, securing performance opportunities, and arranging for out-of-town artists' participation in CMIF activities. And all of this on top of maintaining the creative work that was the organization's reason for being in the first place. Naughton, talking to the New York City Jazz Record, remembered CMIF as something "time-consuming and difficult to sustain;" it isn't surprising that by 1984 he'd had enough of the administrative burden of keeping a non-profit organization viable.

Although relatively short-lived, CMIF left a rich legacy. Part of that legacy survives in recordings done at the time by its members, some of which have recently been reissued. Beyond the intrinsic value of the music they contain, these recordings capture some of the spirit of collaboration and connection that the organization helped to create and nurture. The other, longer-lasting aspect of CMIF's legacy is the formative influence it had on a generation of creative musicians many of whom continue to be active and who themselves played a role in influencing new generations of artists, whether directly through teaching and personal example or indirectly through their recorded work and live performances.

Photo credit: New Dalta Ahkri at Yale's Sprague Hall (left to right: Leo Smith, Wes Brown, Bobby Naughton, Dwight Andrews). Photo by Ian Straker.

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