Art Ensemble of Chicago
Art Ensemble of Chicago
Called “the premier avant garde free improvisational ensemble of the day” by the New York Times’ John Rockwell, the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC) has been a major force in experimental music since the middle 1960s. The group’s music combines elements of traditional and avant garde jazz, African music, modern classical music, and popular forms such as blues, rock and reggae, with other art forms like performance art and theater. All AEC members play more than one instruments, including percussion, and they switch instruments frequently during performances. Bird calls, bicycle horns, kazoos and thousands of other “little instruments” also make up part of their sonic arsenal and have helped erase many traditional jazz boundaries and introduce another element of fluidity into their work. Finally, the Art Ensemble has provided a model for cooperative musical endeavors, first within the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), and second as a performing unit that, despite fluctuating finances and the diverse interests and far-flung personal projects of its members, has remained intact for more than thirty years.
The Art Ensemble’s roots lie in the turbulent jazz world of Chicago of the mid-1960s. At a time when the nightclub jazz scene was dying, a group of young musicians organized by pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, started playing informal weekly sessions together. The group, which became known as the Experimental Band, attracted promising, young Chicago musicians like Jack DeJonette, Anthony Braxton, and Henry Thread-gill, as well as three students from Wilson Junior College, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, and Malachi Favors.
The Experimental Band’s music was heavily influenced by the “free” playing of players on the forward-most fringes of jazz: Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Eric Dolphy, and Cecil Taylor. Playing avant garde jazz in Chicago, practically guaranteed the Experimental Band would not find any paid gigs. But it also meant that they could play whatever and however they wanted in their weekly rehearsal sessions. The group soon became tightly knit musically; it would have a lasting impression on the artistic lives of its young musicians. “In having the chance to work in the Experimental Band with Richard and the other musicians there, I found the first something with meaning/reason for doing,” Art Ensemble member Joseph Jarman told Sam Ottenhoff, “That band and the people there was the most important thing that ever happened to me.”
In May 1965, the group, again led by Abrams, founded a nonprofit musicians’ cooperative, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. The organization’s purpose was to organize opportunities for public performance of members’ music and to help ensure that member musicians worked. AACM groups began playing theaters, coffeehouses, churches, bars and universities around Chicago.
Bassist Malachi Favors and sax players Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell, of the Art Institute, met in the AACM scene. Favors, whose playing was heavily influenced by Chicago bassists Israel Crosby and Wlibur Ware Jarman, was an early participant in the Experimental band sessions. Jarman’s interests ranged over many art forms; he wrote poetry, studied the theater, played a variety of reed instruments, and he incorporated them all in his concerts. Mitchell began playing sax and clarinet as a teenager. In the early 1960s, he met Albert Ayler playing in the Army band. He heard his first Omette Coleman records around that time as well, but by his own admission neither Coleman nor Ayler struck a particularly strong chord at first. “I didn’t quite understand, because I was caught up in Art Blakey, the Jazz Messengers, things like that,” he told Downbeats John Corbett. “Some of what [Ayler] was playing I didn’t understand until a blues got played; when he played the first couple of choruses relatively straight, that started to make a connection to me.”
Delmark Records producer Chuck Nessa heard Mitchell play a concert in 1966. The next day Mitchell had a Delmark contract. The record he made, Sound, had, in
Members include Lester Bowie, (born 1941, Frederick, MD, raised St Louis, MO), trumpet, cornet, percussion, “little instruments,” divorced, remarried, four children; Joseph Jarman, (born Sept. 14, 1937, Pine Bluff, AR), raised Chicago, IL, saxophones, percussion, “little instruments,” Education: Wilson Junior College, Chicago, IL, School of the Art Institute, Chicago, IL Malachi Favors Maghostut, (born August 22, 1937, Chicago IL,) acoustic bass, electric bass, percussion, “little instruments,”) Education : Wilson Junior College, Chicago, IL. Roscoe Mitchell, (born August 3, 1940, Chicago, IL), saxophones, percussion, “little instruments,” Education: Wilson Junior College Famoudou Don Moye, (born 1946, Rochester NY), drums, percussion, “little instruments,” Education: Wayne State University, Detroit, MI
Career: Mitchell, Jarman, Favors, and Bowie meet as members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in the middle 1960s; form the Art Ensemble c. 1968; moved to Paris name is changed to Art Ensemble of Chicago, 1978; Moye joins group in Paris the same year.
Addresses: Home —Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman, Brooklyn, NY; Malachi Favors Magostut, Famoudou Don Moye, Chicago, IL; Roscoe Mitchell, Madison, WI; Management and Record Company —Art Ensemble of Chicago Operations, A.E.C.O. Productions, PO Box 53429, Chicago, IL 60653
critic John Litweiler’s words, “a monumental impact.” It turned its back on the “energy music”—“all out blowing,” in Chuck Nessa’s words to Sam Ottenhoff—being played by Coltrane and Ayler. Silence was as important to Mitchell’s music as sound. Sound and his Mitchell’s second album Congliptious seemed to point to a new path for jazz, at a time when the prevailing free jazz was being increasingly seen as a dead end.
The group on those two groundbreaking LPs consisted of Roscoe Mitchell on reeds, Malachi Favors on bass, Robert Crowder on drums, and a young trumpet player from St. Louis, Lester Bowie. Bowie had played with a number of R&B artists, including Little Milton, Ike Turner; Oliver Sain and the soul singer Fontella Bass, who was also Bowie’s wife. In 1965, he moved to Chicago where he was doing session work at Chess Records and playing advertising jingles, when a Chess employee took Bowie to one of the Experimental Band’s rehearsals. The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s thirtieth anniversary booklet quoted Bowie: “I never in my life met so many insane people in one room!” But within a few days he and Roscoe Mitchell were playing together. After Sound was completed, Bowie had his own record session and made Number 1/Number 2 accompanied by Mitchell, Favors, and Jarman.
A short time later the four men formed the Art Ensemble—the group on Congliptious was called Roscoe Mitchell’s Art Ensemble. For about two years they played gigs under that name, they first became known as the Art Ensemble of Chicago in Paris. They played coffeehouses and university venues, primarily in and around Chicago. Many things about the group were unheard of at the time. They were a jazz quarter without a drummer; the members took turns playing percussion. They fused aspects of traditional jazz with cutting edge experiments. At the same time, however, they incorporated a heady amount of humor in their music, with the so-called “little instruments” introduced by Joseph Jarman: toy musical instruments, bicycle horns, bird calls, rattles, kazoos and other diverse noise-makers. The Art Ensemble made avant garde music that you could have fun listening to.
Jarman brought theater to Art Ensemble performances. They might parade around the hall before or during a concert. Once they booked one site and performed at a completely different one. Another time, as the audience entered, they were given paper bags to wear over their heads. Jarman and Favors took to wearing traditional African clothing and painted faces during performances. At the height of the civil rights movement the gesture was highly confrontational and together with the Art Ensemble’s revolutionary music, helped identify them with radical black politics. “Guerrilla jazz,” is what critic Gary Giddins called their music. And that political element was highlighted by the motto they adopted: Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future.
Lester Bowie explained to L. “Chicago Beau” Beauchamp what led the Art Ensemble to move to Paris in 1969. “We wanted to be professional musicians playing jazz. We found that we had a unique style... a unique way of playing together, and we wanted to do that exclusively for our whole living. We felt the only way we could do that would be to pick up as a unit and start developing out concepts together, somewhere else. Since some people had expressed interest in us in France, and we had records out over there, and they were pretty popular, France was the natural choice.” In June 1969, the group told their last concert audience “America is in your hands now,” packed up, and sailed for Europe. They were a sensation from the time they arrived in Paris. In two years there, they recorded eleven albums, including A Jackson In Your House and Message To Our Folks, did three film scores, made countless radio and television appearances, and had a constant schedule of concerts, many sponsored by the French government.
Once in France they found a drummer, Don Moye. Moye had come to Europe in May 1968 with the Detroit Free Jazz Band, had studied native drumming in North Africa and played in Paris with Steve Lacy, Pharaoh Sanders and Sonny Sharrock. His arrival changed the direction of the Art Ensemble’s music and brought mixed responses from the group’s fans. Some lamented that Moye’s often furious drumming eliminated the large role silence had come to play in Art Ensemble music; others appreciated Moye’s unifying presence, especially during the Art Ensemble’s more abstract moments.
The group returned to the United States in April 1971, determined to work together on large scale productions and to pursue their individual projects. With the high praise they had won from jazz critics while in Paris, they also decided to start demanding performance fees in line with their new reputation. Bowie told Downbeat’s Larry Birnbaum “We damn near died.” They were able to find a meager two to three gigs a year. Most of their time was spent rehearsing and working on their own projects. They played their homecoming concert at the University of Chicago in 1972, a performance Delmark Records released as Live at Mandel Hall. Much of the group’s income came from government grants—an NEA grant supported the production of Fanfare for the Warriors (Atlantic), for example—and university workshops they offered. Their fortunes finally picked up after a long-term engagement at the Five Spot in New York and a well received west coast tour.
In 1978, the Art Ensemble formed their own label, AECO. The idea for the label was not a new one Don Moye told Downbeat’s Birnbaum at the time. “The label has been in existence for about six years, at least on paper. We’ve been compiling and cataloging our music ever since we’ve been together, but it’s only now that we’ve been able to pull together all the necessary factors, the economic factor, the time element, etc.” AECO’s first release—and its only Art Ensemble recording—was a performance at the Montreux Festival in 1974. Since then it has released solo work by Jarman, Favors and Moye.
Blending group and individual work is an important part of the Art Ensemble’s basic philosophy. “We’ve got our basic structure to the point where it continues on and people still have time to develop their own individual careers and realize some of their personal projects,” Moye told Downbeats Birnbaum. “That’s one of the necessary elements of afunctional cooperative, to allow everyone room for personal development and expansion.” Lester Bowie agreed. “All the members of the Art Ensemble have special areas of expertise—so between us we can operate over a wide range of music. We have five different people with five different lives and sets of experiences which are brought in to make up the music,” he told Mike Hennessey on the occasion of the Art Ensemble’s thirtieth anniversary. “This isn’t a band where a leader dictates the way everything should be done.”
In the late seventies the Art Ensemble also signed a recording contract with the label ECM. The deal that was considered a minor controversy in some quarters. Why was a group whose music and persona was so intimately bound up with black music and experience, who often explicitly rejected ties to the white classical musical heritage, on a label comprised mainly of white European artists? Such questions were put to rest when the Art Ensemble released some of their most acclaimed work on ECM, including, Full Force and Urban Bushmen.
In the middle 1980s, the group signed with the Japanese label DIW, where they have recorded ever since. Their recordings with DIW have taken the group into hitherto unexplored territory. On Ancient to the Future: Dreaming of the Masters Vol. 1 the Art Ensemble interpreted the work of other composers for the first time, music by Otis Redding, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, and Duke Ellington. It was followed up with two other Dreaming of the Masters albums, one dedicated to John Coltrane and one to Thelonious Monk. The latter was a landmark collaboration with another master, Cecil Taylor. It was only the second time the Art Ensemble had recorded with a piano player. Their 1990 release, Art Ensemble of Chicago Soweto, was another collaboration, this one with the Amabutho Zulu Male Chorus.
In the 1990s, the members of the Art Ensemble have devoted more and more of their time to personal projects: Roscoe Mitchell’s Sound Ensemble and Note Factory, Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy and the Leaders, Malachi Favors Maghostut’s Projections, and Famoudou Don Moye and Sun Percussion Summit. Joseph Jarman retired from the group completely in the mid-nineties. But after thirty years and more than forty albums—not counting bootlegs—the Art Ensemble has not given up the ghost—it continues to perform occasionally as a quartet, in the United States and Europe.
While realizing the Art Ensemble will never achieve mass popularity, Malachi Favors believes there is a potential for greater interest in their music. In America, Favors told Downbeats John Litweiler, “we have different music for different purposes, but it just so happens that the sex part of music—the rock or rhythm & blues—is overdone. Travelling in the States, the response in the colleges and the different places where we play has been tremendous. People are waiting to hear what the artist has to say, and eventually they come around to hearing what’s going on in the music.... if people could hear our music, they would respond.”
Bap-Tizum, Atlantic, 1972
Live At Mandel Hall, Delmark, 1972
Fanfare for the Warrior, Atlantic, 1973
Nice Guys, ECM 1978
Full Force, ECM 1980
Urban Bushmen, ECM, 1980
Ancient to the Future, DIW, 1987
Dreaming of the Masters, DIW, 1990
Art Ensemble of Chicago Soweto, (w/Amabutho Zulu Male Chorus), DIW, 1990
Dreaming of the Masters: Thelonious Sphere Monk, (w/Cecil Taylor) DIW, 1990
Malachi Favors Moghostut, Natural and the Spiritual, AECO, 1974
Lester Bowie, Numbers 1 & 2, Nessa, 1967
Lester Bowie, Rope-a-Dope, Muse, 1976
Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy, Serious Fun, DIW, 1989
Roscoe Mitchell Sextet, Sound, Delmark, 1966
Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble, Conglipitous, Nessa, 1968
Roscoe Mitchell, Nonaah, Nessa, 1978
Roscoe Mitchell and the Sound and Space Ensembles, Black Saint, 1983
Roscoe Mitchell, Hey Donald, Delmark, 1995
Famoudou Don Moye, Sun Percussion Solo, Vol. 1, AECO, 1975
Famoudou Don Moye, Jam For Your Life, AECO, 1991.
Beauchamp, L. “Chicago Beau.” “Interview with Lester Bowie,” 30 Years Art Ensemble of Chicago, AECO, undated
Hennessey, Mike. “The Art Ensemble of Chicago,” 30 Years Art Ensemble of Chicago, AECO, undated
Litweiler, John. The Freedom Principle,
Downbeat, May 3, 1979; April 1997; June 1992.
Ottenhoff, Sam. “The Sixties, Chicago, and the AACM,” Available at http://www.kenyon.edu/projects/AACM/
Chuck Nessa Interview, Available at http://www.kenyon.edu/projects/AACM/
Additional material provided by the Association for the
Advancement of Creative Musicians and AECO
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