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The Creative Music Improvisers Forum: New Haven's AACM

Daniel Barbiero By

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The Creative Musicians Improvisors Forum was formally organized in March, 1977 as a non-profit educational entity. The new organization quite naturally took the AACM as its model—Smith, describing CMIF in a 2014 oral history interview for the California Institute for the Arts, likened it to having sprung from a seed given off by the AACM that had fallen to the ground in New Haven. Double bassist and Connecticut native Mario Pavone, an early member, recalled in a 2002 interview that Smith was CMIF's "guiding force" and that the New Haven organization's principles were "loosely based" on those of the Chicago collective. With a racially mixed membership that numbered up to twenty at a time, CMIF could fairly claim to be representative of the diverse local creative music community. The organization attracted federal funding as well as Connecticut state money; private support came from local businesses. On the program side, CMIF formed alliances with other arts organizations, the Hartford Jazz Society among them.

Once established, CMIF set out an ambitious agenda that found expression in Smith's "CMIF: Toward a World Music," a manifesto which also served as the liner note to the group's LP The Sky Cries the Blues. In the manifesto Smith articulated a program of self-reliance and collective action intended to support members' creative and career development. Clearly inspired by the example of the AACM, the group was envisioned as a body that would "sponsor, encourage and promote the production and performance" of its members' musical activities by staging concerts, issuing recordings and commissioning new work. As CMIF's performance unit, the Creative Improvisors Orchestra was the collective's vehicle for getting its members' work played. The group also established a record label and publishing company. The Sky Cries the Blues, recorded in Southbury, Connecticut in 1981 and issued in 1982 with the catalogue number CMIF Records 1, appears to have been the label's sole release.

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."

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