THE Book for 2008

Jazz… oops Creative Music Book-Of-The-Year:


A Power Stronger Than Itself


By George Lewis ( University of Chicago Press)



As trombonist-composer and now author George Lewis, Director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, describes the members of the renowned musicians’ collective born in Chicago in 1965 known as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), they are the “…musicians who extended the discoveries of bebop…”  And that’s about where the majority of these stalwart musicians cheerfully deposit their relationship to what some view as the constricting and others as the objectionable musical universe known as “jazz.” 


Regardless of where one chooses to categorize (and let’s face it Americans are willful categorizers) the musicians of this African American collective, many around the globe have long admired their inclusive approach to what they long ago termed their music: “Great Black Music… Ancient to the Future” (a tagline about which Lewis details more than a little contention within the ranks).  This writer fully admits to having a much deeper and more satisfying listening investment in the music of the AACM originators than in the concurrent often freely improvised music of their New York and Europe-based peers.


          The most rewarding aspect of this heroic tome (676pp) is the individual profiles of the AACM musicians as they entered the organization down through its roughly four generations.  These often intimate profiles serve to demystify the AACM.  For example, though this writer has visited the homes of and dined with such key AACM musicians as founding member Muhal Richard Abrams and second generation Douglas Ewart (including a long friendship with Ewart’ and his wife Janis Lane-Ewart, a former AACM administrator, and several years serving as director of the now sadly-defunct National Jazz Service Organization of which Muhal was a founding member), I learned many things about both of them from this book not only as musicians but as people than I ever knew previously.  Such personal insights as the Northwestern University matriculation of 2nd generation AACM saxophonist-composer Chico Freeman and pianist-composer Adegoke Steve Colson and later his spouse vocalist Iqua Colson were equally insightful.


          Having long been on the frontlines of the evolution of local, state, regional, federal (National Endowment for the Arts), private foundation and corporate support for jazz endeavors myself, Lewis’ excellent chapter on how the development of the AACM as a not-for-profit dovetailed with that development is also quite illuminating. For example this passage from Chapter 10 detailing Abrams’ early role in NEA jazz funding as panelist and policy-maker:”…The guidelines used to describe what they fund – music that’s done in the African American tradition, and that shows proper knowledge about chord changes…  We took that out.  I said ‘to some people these guidelines tell them, don’t apply.  This is the NEA, a government wing.  We have to invite all these people in here.  The so-called jazz world is producing all kinds of innovations.  We have to recognize that.  We cannot sit here and resist based on some empirical notions concerning swing and tempo and chord changes.  The music has developed out of that into other things.”  Such witnessing by Muhal and others enabled the gradual funding of musicians and presenting organizations working on the leftward fringes of what the NEA categorized as jazz and even opened funding doors for musicians so-identified to be supported in other categories. (And isn’t it about time Muhal Richard Abrams finally achieved a NEA Jazz Masters fellowship.)


          Unlike many who write jazz-related books, Lewis understands the territory from a variety of viewpoints – as musician, composer, educator, curator, presenter, grant recipient, and intellectual, making him uniquely qualified to write this excellent chronicle.  Lewis also evidences a keen sense of how creative music has evolved not only in the not-for-profit realm but also in the at times prickly relationships between the black composer-musicians of the AACM and their white counterparts in “downtown” New York and Europe; relationships which he details warts and all.


Undoubtedly AACM musicians are more often than not people who invest a sense of humor in their enterprise and their response to the music – an essential element in creative endeavors which may not go down quite so easily as the concurrent mainstream.  On pg. 130 first generation saxophonist-composer (and cleric) Joseph Jarman describes his mom’s reaction to a performance he gave with John Cage: “…DownBeat didn’t like it, and my mother didn’t like it either.  She said [imitates] ‘Joseph, if you ever play with that man again don’t tell me, please.  I love you, I love your concerts, I come to all of them, but if you’re going to play with him don’t tell me;’ ‘Yes ma’am!”


Lewis leaves no stones unturned, which he makes clear in his introduction, including the various disputes, disagreements, misunderstandings, and even rivalries between members.  An example of the latter would be that between such distinguished early members as Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton.  He details the personality schisms that arose when the Art Ensemble of Chicago literally beat a co-op band that included Braxton, Leo Smith, and Leroy Jenkins to the punch at the leading edge of AACM migrations to Europe.  Lingering rivalries and generational resentments have boiled between the organization’s Chicago and expat New York factions.


Lewis details both the triumphs and failures of the AACM, making this a very humanistic chronicle, highlighting both with equal candor.  He also pulls no punches concerning thorny issues of race and gender.  There are those who would suggest that somehow “the music” has been taken or outright stolen out of the black community.  Here’s Braxton’s take: “The music was taken out of the community, that’s a great phrase, but in fact that’s not what happened.  The musicians go where the gigs are.” 


A later chapter examines the issues women members have encountered being viewed as equals in such a male-centric organization.  He achieves this through the voices of such intimates as Iqua Colson, pianist-composer Ann Ward, flutist-composer Nicole Mitchell and the other members of the AACM’s lone female ensemble Samana.  Ms. Mitchell has risen to become the first female AACM co-president.


A Power Stronger Than Itself makes clear what a diverse and splendid group of African American musicians the AACM has always represented; they’ve emerged from both the projects as well as black middle class backgrounds literally all strata of the black experience in America, which has served to make the collective all the more remarkable in its 43+ year existence. 



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