Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Book Review: A Power Greater Than Itself

Not that George Lewis heard it from me, but I have often argued that musicians, particularly jazz musicians, should write more. We have heard their voices and opinions mostly second hand, through interviews with people like me who are not musicians or, at best, through “as told to” autobiographies. With several notable exceptions we seldom get to read their written opinions about the world and times that they have lived in, their music criticism or their musicology.

George E. Lewis has written a different kind of book with A Power Greater Than Itself; different, that is, from any other text that I know on jazz history. This essential book is music history from the inside: inside the birth and evolution of the seminal Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (or AACM) inside the biographies of the musicians who comprise it, inside the music that it has made, and the situation of that music inside the racial and economic politics of the world of modern serious music. That is a lot to attempt, but Lewis, who took nearly a decade to complete this work, has accomplished it in admirable fashion. His book is both scholarly and personal: while he has done careful and deep research on the factors, historical and contemporary, that shaped the many themes that he treats in A Power GreaterThan Itself, there is no pretense at objectivity. He loves and values the AACM, its members, and the music that it has made. Some might see a weakness here for Lewis is never critical of these men and women and they are not equally brilliant, as no school of artists can claim to possess uniformly accomplished members, but Lewis is honest about his stance. He is writing about, and often defending, his family.

Industrial Chicago was the central stop for those African Americans who moved north from Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Arkansas in the massive Great Migration of the 1920’s and ‘30s. This is a point of some importance to the author, for he takes great pains to establish that the first generation of AACM members were all born between 1927 and 1932 and thus were a part of, or at least the children of that Migration. Thus he establishes their working class bona fides, which in turn explains the autodidacticism that was the normal way of musical development for jazz musicians before the conservatories drifted into jazz pedagogy in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

The AACM was officially founded in 1965, but its genesis, as with all great movements, is more difficult to nail down. Lewis sets its origins within the context of the fertile but seldom discussed bebop, hardbop, and avant garde mid-century jazz scene in Chicago that produced such important artists as Gene Ammons, Ahmad Jamal, Sun Ra, Wilbur Ware and many others. The ultimate precedent of the AACM was the Clef Club, the cooperative that was organized in the early 20th century by James Reese Europe and Will Marion Cook, two of the most important American musicians that most readers probably have never heard of. A more proximate model was local 208 of the musicians’ union, the black Chicago local, as the union, save for 802 in New York City, was segregated in those days. It was at 208’s Union Hall that the young Richard Abrams (not yet Muhal) was able to meet and learn from accomplished instrumentalists and composers as he taught himself to be their peer. Union Hall also offered free rehearsal space, a not insignificant factor in the making of the Experimental Band, the unit that assembled most of the musicians who would found the AACM.

The Experimental Band was a remarkable phenomenon. In the early ‘60s, it met most often at the C & C Lounge in the afternoons. The musicians who attended had developed in various ways: many had learned their instruments under stern and dedicated high school band leaders, particularly the heroic Walter Dyatt of DuSable High. Some had gone on to study theory at Woodrow Wilson Junior College with Richard Wang, who introduced them to the systems of Hindemith and the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Webern, Berg et al). Among Wang’s students were such noted jazz modernists and future AACM members as the bassist, Malachi Favors and the saxophonists, Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill. Other participants in the Experimental Band included the late pianist Andrew Hill, the saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarmon, and Eddie Harris; and the percussionist, Jack DeJohnette, to mention only some of the most famous of them. At the center setting artistic direction was the wise young mystic pianist, Muhal Richard Abrams.

A spiritual, unassuming man, Muhal established some principles of freedom that the Experimental Band and it’s members must follow and these became the musical tenets of the AACM: the Band would play only original music, which all participants would be encouraged to compose; musicians would encourage and assist each other in their development; everyone must be musically curious: any and all sources of music were open to exploration. Of contemporary models, Ornette Coleman was by far the most influential for his excision of chord changes from his unique discipline of collective improvisation.

Having seen the New York based Jazz Composers’ Guild fall apart to form again with less black participation as the Jazz Composers’ Orchestra, the charter meeting of the AACM was democratic to a fault. Every issue was debated to exhaustion though Muhal, the undisputed leader, drew the lines when they were needed. Governing principles were adopted that would commit the organization to community service, self-sufficiency, and continual enlargement of the methods and practice of free jazz performance. The AACM would strive for self-sufficiency in finances, management, promotion, and bookings. Gigs would rotate among the members. Strict standards of professional behavior were set. A school was planned for youth and others that would eventually feed new musicians into the organization. Dues were set at $1, which members sometimes had a hard time making.

In describing the making of the AACM, Lewis painstaking makes a corollary with the Society for Private Music Performance that Arnold Schoenberg founded in 1918. This describes an important value of this book: George Lewis will not allow the music and musicians of the AACM to be left out of the discussion of modern serious music, to be limited to conversations about jazz. Though an early concert entitled Imperfections In A Given Space which had Joseph Jarman performing with John Cage left Cage unimpressed, Lewis considers the modernist master to be a peer, and he pursues this point of peerage when he writes about funding, criticism, precedents, and other themes. He rightly believes that twenty-first century “experimental” (a very unsatisfying term) concert music must include practitioners from the jazz tradition.

The first recordings of AACM members were sonic disasters. Engineers who were accustomed to a standard jazz format of a group statement of the tune followed by a sequence of solos and a closing recapitulation, all in a fixed dynamic range, had no idea of what to do with the multiple tools that even a trio might employ, including the dozens, if not hundreds of “little” instruments that the collective so valued. There were instruments that the musicians had made and found objects that made useful sounds. Dynamics might change several times in a short period, and all of the musicians might not be playing at the same volume. Solos were deemphasized in favor of group improvisation.

The concerts were nearly as theatrical as they were musical. Joseph Jarman’s extended composition Bridge Piece featured his band performing against a recording of itself playing the same work. Any errors that the musicians made added texture, and the improvised sections were entirely different. A woman moved through the audience wrapping some in aluminum foil while others strolled around blaring a top forty radio station. Other listeners were given sacks to put over their heads and then moved around and told to sit and stand. All this plus a juggler and a tumbler flipping over people in a disco setting with film on the walls.

The collective developed a loyal following in Chicago during the ‘60s, mostly among young white people, but also with a reliable base in the African American community. Their reviews varied as the jazz press was firmly and at times acrimoniously split over avant garde music. Aware as they were of a greater appreciation of modernism in Europe, many of the more prominent AACM members tried Paris. The first were the quartet of Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, the trumpeter Lester Bowie, and Malachi Favors, important musicians all. They would become the brilliant Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC). (Famadou Don Moye joined the band in 1970). The AEC flourished in Paris to the degree that artists can flourish while staying broke. With their faux tribal makeup, theatrics, and musical creativity, audiences loved them, and critics couldn’t praise “l’ecole de Chicago” highly enough. The drummer Steve McCall was there; Braxton would follow with the violinist Leroy Jenkins and the trumpet player Leo Smith. This was a mighty collection of artists who were wide open with youthful creativity. They were a big draw at festivals.

And they were different from the New York avant garde, which emphasized hard, intense blowing. Lewis writes that the AACM players changed mood quickly: “a quiet, sustained ‘spiritual’ texture offered by one musician might be interrupted by an ‘ah-ooh-gah’ horn or a field hollar from another. A New Orleans style brass fanfare would be quickly dunked in a roiling sea of tuned trash cans.”

During the ‘seventies many of the stalwarts of the first generation of the AACM drifted to New York City where they found a layered, combative musical scene. Uptown (actually, midtown) was for the symphony, opera, and chamber music. Downtown housed the younger composers and jazz. Funding went uptown, a situation that several jazz modernists, black and white, challenged in 1971 at a “play in” at the Guggenheim Foundation protesting racism and artistic narrowness in grantmaking.

Furthermore, the downtown scene subdivided into factions, a waste of leverage and resources. The best development for new jazz was the rise of the Loft Jazz scene, led first by the saxophonists Ornette Coleman and Sam Rivers, who hosted concerts of free jazz in their lofts. Other musicians followed. This was a vital and exciting movement for a while, and some excellent and important recordings survive as evidence. Many AACM members were prominent in these performances, but even so they felt that the New Yorkers saw them as interlopers.

Meanwhile, back in Chicago, a second generation of AACM artists led the organization including Lewis, the trumpet player Douglas Ewart, the percussionist Kahil El Zabar, and Steve and Aqua Colson, saxophonist and singer. The school was at capacity and the concerts continued. The New York members, many of whom were by then commanding large fees, formed their own chapter. Eventually a certain stress developed between the two units as one might expect, though eventually a measure of comity prevailed.

A kind of 19th century positivist imperative to isolate phenomena into fixed categories that can be observed independently still holds in contemporary criticism, and the AACM artists have suffered from this balkanism since the ‘eighties, when several of them received commissions to write for ensembles that are associated with Western classical music. One critic wrote, “one of the hazards this music may be facing is the ingestion of a fatal dose of root devouring Western intellectual hunger.” AACM composers were attacked from the left and right sides of the esthetic-political cultural divide as lacking authenticity. But it seems to me that in the communication age “authenticity” is a shaky premise to argue in any art form that can’t be defined as “folk”, and even there the ethnomusicologists often struggle with it.

Lewis’ defense is studied, tightly argued, and fair. He is never captious, never goes for anybody’s jugular, even when they have gone for his. Duke Ellington is with him in this fight, for that grandmaster always strove to make music that is “beyond category.” Or, as he put it, “if it sounds good, it is good.” The author offers a sound summation of the bilateral influences of jazz and Western classical music. (Though if I may be permitted to cavil, for many reasons, I wish that he had chosen a work other than Ernst Krenek’s opera Jonny Spielt Auf as an example of a jazz influenced classical composition. Darius Milhaud’s La Creation Du Monde would have been a much more sympathetic selection.) He discusses how African-American composers who wrote in classical forms included jazz elements, and how jazz musicians have historically paid attention to useful theoretical advances in Western music. He finds jazz in Minimalism and sees a more organic and evolutionary movement toward extended composition in the AACM than in the Third Stream movement of the ‘fifties. Above all, George Lewis considers the AACM musicians, though soundly grounded in canonical jazz, to be uniquely prepared to expand the conception, even the definition of composition for they have been trained all of their musical lives, even as children entering the AACM school, to begin and end with composition, and to approach it by giving honor and respect to all forms of music making from anywhere in the world. This is sound argument, not done justice by my precis, and any riposte should be as thoughtful.

The postmodern ‘80s and ‘90s were unkind to the AACM. There was an economic and esthetic retrenchment as the record companies, after the success of the trumpet prodigy Wynton Marsalis, went for the “young lions”, who were decidedly mainstream in their music making. The new musicians were out of the conservatories, taught for the most part by mainstream musicians, and were more standard in their playing. The new fledgling jazz institutions, museums and repertory orchestras, looked backwards. The AACM artists still find work, but they are less often seen as central to the conversations on where jazz is going.

The last chapter, Transition (read “death”) and Reflections, is poignant. Beginning with the funeral of the saxophonist John Stubblefield at St. Peters, affectionately called the Jazz Church, it tenderly tells of the deaths of AACM members. The last story is of the brilliant Leroy Jenkins who in his last hours awoke and joked to those at his bed side that at his funeral he wanted “improvisation… and white horses.” Then the last time he regained consciousness he said, “Well, I’m ready. Where are the horses?” We should all ride out so well.

A Power Greater Than Itself is a good read though it does possess a few bumps. Don’t be daunted by Lewis’ threat in the introduction to write in the kind of Post Deconstruction academic prose that has denuded so much of art and literary criticism of elegance in the last three decades. There actually is very little of that kind of writing here, and when it does appear it is quite accessible. A strong editorial hand could have eliminated some of the repetition and smoothed out those points at which the reader can recognize the fact that the writer has been away from the text for an extended time. These are small complaints though; George Lewis is telling an interesting and important story here and telling it well. Anyone who is interested in modern serious music will learn from and enjoy this outstanding book.

A Power Greater Than Itself

The AACM and American Experimental Music

George E. Lewis

University Of Chicago Press

676 pages; $35.00