Muhal Richard Abrams
"I am honored to be chosen as an NEA Jazz Master. It is humbling, as well as encouraging, to have my name placed among the illustrious list of previous NEA Jazz Masters."
Muhal Richard Abrams—pianist, composer, administrator, and educator—was predominately a self-taught musician. He was highly respected by critics and musical peers as both a pianist and composer in a variety of musical styles, including jazz, extended forms of improvisation, and classical music.
In the 1950s, Abrams wrote arrangements for pianist King Fleming's Jazz Orchestra. From 1957-59, he played hard bop in Walter Perkins' group MJT + 3 (Modern Jazz Two Plus Three) and accompanied leading jazz performers during their visits to Chicago, including Kenny Durham, Art Farmer, Hank Mobley, Ray Nance, Max Roach, and Sonny Stitt. In 1961, Abrams began his foray into extended forms of composition and improvisation in his Experimental Band, which included musicians such as saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman.
Abrams was a cofounder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in 1965, founder of the AACM School of Music, and president of the AACM New York Chapter. AACM, which has played a crucial role in the development of original approaches to extended forms of composition and improvisation, has produced such distinguished members as Anthony Braxton, Kalaparush Ahra Difda, Leroy Jenkins, Steve McCall, Amina Claudine Myers, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, and members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
Abrams first traveled to Europe in 1973 while still residing in Chicago. After relocating to New York in 1977, he traveled extensively to Europe and Japan, gradually acquiring a greater international reputation. In 1990 he became the first recipient of the prestigious Danish JAZZPAR Award, and almost a decade later Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley issued a proclamation declaring April 11, 1999, to be Muhal Richard Abrams Day. In 2008, he was chosen by United States Artists to be a Prudential Fellow in the field of music. In 2010, he was selected for the DownBeat Jazz Hall of Fame.
Abrams' compositional prowess was evident even beyond jazz. His Tranversion Op. 6 was performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and his String Quartet No. 2 was performed by renowned chamber ensemble Kronos Quartet.
During the last 30 years, Abrams taught jazz composition and improvisational classes at Columbia University, Syracuse University, Stanford University, Mills College, University of California in San Diego, the New England Conservatory in Boston, and the BMI Composers Workshop in New York City. He also taught internationally in Finland, Canada, and Italy.
Levels and Degrees of Light, Delmark, 1967
Spiral Live at Montreux 1978, Novus, 1978
Rejoicing with the Light, Black Saint, 1983
UMO Jazz Orchestra, Plays the Music of Muhal Richard Abrams, Slam, 1988
Streaming, Pi, 2005
Interview by Molly Murphy for the NEA
July 24, 2009
Edited by Don Ball
NEA: You were born in 1930 in Chicago.
Muhal Richard Abrams: Yes.
NEA: Was music a significant part of your environment growing up? Were you going to clubs and hearing people playing in bars, or was it mostly recorded music?
Muhal Richard Abrams: [Music was] just about everywhere. I mean, musicians were playing in the neighborhood. There were musicians that had instruments like saxophones and stuff like that. And a lot of these people weren't actually professional musicians in the sense that they were out actively making a living playing music, but they were people who aspired to sound like Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. So they'd buy these saxophones and they would play them. So my contact to the idea of performing music sort of started there, although I didn't start then.
NEA: When did you start?
Muhal Richard Abrams: I started very late. I started in 1948 actually. Prior to that, I was dealing in sports and stuff like that.
NEA: What made you decide to start?
Muhal Richard Abrams: Well, I guess it grew in me through all those years. I would encounter on occasion professional musicians playing, and they had a lot of clubs near a 43rd Street. It's a big street in Chicago, on the south side. And they had a lot of clubs. Muddy Waters, all those kind of people, were playing, and I would go stand at the door. I was too young to go in. They kicked the door open in the summertime, wide open, so I would just stand there with my mouth wide open, listening to him. I had no idea that I would be a musician later. This was very early, but every time I'd hear the music, I was like a magnet. I would just go right and just stand there, mesmerized and would wonder, "How did they do that? " -- How were they were making those notes? What are they doing? What do they know to do that?
By '48, I decided one day, it just came over me. I walked out of the high school, third year or something like that, I walked out of the high school and I said that I wanted to go to a music school. I was never going back to a regular school again, and that's what I did. I went downtown to Roosevelt College and enrolled to study music.
NEA: Anybody could enroll?
Muhal Richard Abrams: No, they were just classes. You didn't have to be in the school as a full time student. You could take the music classes. I enrolled in the Roosevelt and I decided after a short time that wasn't enough for me because, by that time, I had started to perform, you know, improvising. I started to perform in the street with the musicians, just on the scene with the musicians because, at that time, jazz music wasn't in schools then. You learned it from recordings and being on the scene playing with other musicians, and that's the way you learned jazz music. So the university, Roosevelt, they didn't have the street approach. They had a more technical approach, which was okay.
The thing that really caused me to decide to leave was I was in a class once with a harmony teacher, and the teacher asked me did I know some standard piece. He knew I was playing locally around town and he asked me did I know some piece. I told him yes. So he said to me, "Yes, well a friend of mine was on a gig last night and they called this piece, and he didn't know it."
So he asked me, "How do you chord that piece? How do you make the chords to that piece? " So I showed him and then it dawned on me at the time that he was really talking about himself. He knew this theory but he didn't know [how to improvise on the song]. So I decided to leave the school. No offense against him but I decided it wasn't what I was after.
So from there on, I taught myself.
NEA: How did you have access to a piano? Did you have a piano in your home?
Muhal Richard Abrams: Not originally. What did I do for that first piano? Somehow, I scared together some money and bought a second-hand piano. I did odds and ends, jobs and things like that. I bought a second-hand piano, and that was the first piano I had. It was a studio upright piano, and I also used to service the piano because I didn't have money enough to have someone tune it or to make repairs. I taught myself to do that.
NEA: Do you remember the first time you played a really incredible instrument, like a grand piano that was in fantastic condition and the difference in that feeling and that touch?
Muhal Richard Abrams: Yeah, in later years, as I can't pinpoint a year, but it happened when I began to travel. The first very great piano that I played was at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago, Joe Siegel's Jazz Showcase. That was the first year. In fact, some of us were the first musicians to participate. They started as jam sessions, and then Joe Siegel developed them into concert performances, first with local musicians, then he started to bring in national musicians -- you know, Max Roach, Miles Davis, those kinds of people. It grew into a very educational venue with a good instrument to play on. So I advanced my musical education further by participating in those sessions.
NEA: In your late teens, were you gravitating mostly towards jazz or were you playing whatever was available?
Muhal Richard Abrams: Let me say this. Blues and jazz were all the same then. It was all the same. There was no separation. There were musicians who only played blues and musicians who only played jazz. But the jazz musicians mostly all played blues because you had to learn the blues, rhythm and blues, to really qualify in a jazz setting. You had to because the blues, to most so-called jazz musicians, the blues is basic to what the feeling is that they feel they need to express jazz music.
So it wasn't separate. We played blues gigs, especially around Chicago. We played blues gigs and regular jazz gigs, dance gigs and all that kinda stuff, where you played standard pieces for people to dance and what not like that because people did a lot of dancing to the music, in the '40s, '50s, all through the '60s on up. The people did a lot of dancing.
NEA: Tell me about some of the pianists who influenced you. I think Bud Powell was someone who you admired. Describe what in his playing really captured your attention.
Muhal Richard Abrams: His energy, his timing, his technical facility and his wealth of original ideas that were based on the bebop idiom. I think Bud Powell had an influence during that period. Bud Powell had an influence on most jazz pianists. But the king of influence, it was Art Tatum, who influenced even Bud.
I'd have to include Hank in one of my influences for several reasons. Hank Jones is one of the few masters, along with Ahmad Jamal and Randy Weston. They're among the few masters of that period left on the scene, in my estimation. You know, there are a lot of great pianists, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea. But I'm talking about from that period of output that influenced quite a few of us. So I would have to add Hank to that. He's a master and he's been one for many, many years.
NEA: What about Monk?
Muhal Richard Abrams: Oh, of course. Monk influenced all of us. Hank, he influenced all of us.
NEA: Did you ever hear Monk play live?
Muhal Richard Abrams: Yes. Of course, when you spoke of Bud Powell, we have to get back to that period there: Monk, Bud Powell, Duke Ellington, Jay P. Johnson, Luckey Roberts, Jelly Roll. Those were influences. Tatum takes you back into that, and beyond too, when you look at Tatum. So all those people were influenced in terms of the piano. And also I have been influenced by classical pianists also.
Muhal Richard Abrams: Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter, Rachmaninoff. I have a recording of Rachmaninoff playing his own pieces. I've always studied classical music and jazz music once I started to technically study. I studied both. I've always been fascinated by the idea of composing and writing for different-sized ensembles, including the symphony orchestra. So I had to teach myself how to respect those structures. So a part of teaching oneself is to listen to the types of organizations or groups or orchestras that you want to write for and to determine how to use the apparatus properly, so listening is a great part of it.
THE EXPERIMENTAL BAND
NEA: In 1961, you formed the Experimental Band. Can you tell me about why you put that together?
Muhal Richard Abrams: The Experimental Band, I put that together because I had encountered a series of study methods: the Schillinger method [a musical composition system created by Joseph Schillinger based on mathematical processes] was one. I had compiled a lot of information from studying the Schillinger system and other areas of study also. I had amassed all of this information about composing and it wasn't necessarily a mainstream approach, so I needed some apparatus in order to write this music and express it. So as a result, I organized the Experimental Band for that purpose, and also to attract other composers so they could develop their skills in writing for the group ensemble also.
NEA: How did it feel to have a band that was a great platform for your compositions?
Muhal Richard Abrams: Well, it was gratifying and encouraging and it just grew. As a result, other composers within the group started to develop.
NEA: Where were you having opportunities to perform?
Muhal Richard Abrams: The audience was most of the people on the south side and north side [of Chicago]. Mainly our initial audience was all black. And then we would attract students and people like that, so the audience became mixed.
We didn't play clubs. We would print little cards and things and we could get them out to the people. It was very easy because we were all in close proximity. We used to put posters on poles, and we would perform at venues that we would rent or that were donated. There were a lot of donated spaces during that period. Churches, art centers. Even a child daycare center on the off days.
The first venue was, believe it or not, a lounge that featured regular jazz days in it. The C and C Lounge it was called, a big stage and big dance floor. Every night in the week, they had local musicians playing mainstream-type things and different kind of shows, comedians and all stuff like that. But in the daytime, we had access to it in order to rehearse. And that was our first rehearsal venue for the Experimental Band.
NEA: Tell me about founding the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).
Muhal Richard Abrams: Four musicians got together and started to talk -- Jodie Christian, Phillip Cohran, Steve McCall, and myself. Jodie Christian is a very fine pianist in Chicago. Phil Cohran is a brass player and plays other instruments, harp, whatever like that. And Steve McCall, percussionist. And myself, you know, pianist/composer. We got together one day and sat down to discuss expanding the Experimental Band idea into an organization that would include any of the musicians on the south side that wanted to participate in a venture, whereas we would compose and perform original music. So we talked about it and talked about. As a result of us working the idea up, we decided to convene a meeting and invite musicians on the south side in. These were all musicians on the south side, black musicians. We'd invite them in to see who among them was open to the idea of having an organization that just dealt with original music, no standards, just original music. It didn't preclude them from doing things outside of the organization. We didn't have anything to do with that, but to concentrate on original music and develop a business sense of the music world. In other words, to start to take control of our destinies as musicians. The musicians who were open to the idea expressed it at the meeting and they stayed. So the result was the group that became the AACM as we know it.
NEA: How many members did you have at the beginning?
Muhal Richard Abrams: Initially, we must've had 30, 40 people I know.
NEA: How'd you get the word out?
Muhal Richard Abrams: Easy. We were all in close proximity. We all knew each other anyway. We just knew the musicians on the south side. Just called them up and asked them to come, but we all knew each other. Everyone in the room knew each other from some sort of association on the mainstream scene. There were no strangers among us, none whatsoever.
NEW YORK CITY
NEA: What made you decide to move to New York?
Muhal Richard Abrams: If you want to get a glimpse of some of the best from all over the world, you can get a glimpse of it in New York.
NEA: What was the loft scene in New York like?
Muhal Richard Abrams: It was quite a substantial atmosphere in the sense that there were musicians expressing new music all over the place. I can think of at least four or five venues where things were constantly taking place and could be categorized as lofts. It was just a pretty good period for new music. People wanted to categorize it as new jazz. There's no such thing. Jazz music is jazz music as we know it.
But anyway, during that loft period, we certainly saw these type of approaches develop, with new approaches to performing music. Now, let me say this though: the discipline that we learned from playing mainstream jazz also went over into this new music, because you cannot discount or leave behind the discipline that one has gotten from playing mainstream jazz music. That is not something that can be taught or that was taught, especially at that time, in some institution. You teach yourself by participating.
NEA: Had you been traveling to New York City and performing before you moved?
Muhal Richard Abrams: I had traveled here and I did come to perform here at one point with Eddie Harris. I used to play with Eddie Harris uptown. I forget the club. That was my first time to perform in New York. I was still living in Chicago, but there were other occasions where I would travel here to visit before I moved. And then I had come here to live before I actually moved family and everything here. I must've done that for a year or two before finally moving bag and baggage in 1977.
New York offered a more varied atmosphere because of the nature of the international nature of New York and the consistent challenge level. Not that you weren't consistently challenged in Chicago, but in New York you were challenged by an international mandate, so to speak, because you can hear musicians from many other countries and you get their concept. Also you travel in and out of the U. S. on a more frequent basis. It's possible to be in New York on Monday and Germany on Tuesday, just like that. It wasn't that immediate in Chicago.
NEA: What was your first international travel?
Muhal Richard Abrams: I was featured with my sextet at the Berlin Jazz Festival. I think it was 1973. It was our first trip to Europe and it happened in a very interesting way.
I was rehearsing my sextet and performing at a child daycare center on Sunday. Sometimes we'd get a nice audience and sometimes not. But we would just perform these pieces. So one day, a contingent of international representatives was touring Chicago. I think one person was from Mexico. Certainly one guy was from Germany. A guy from France. They were musicologists and people like that, and they expressed a desire to hear the AACM. So it just happened to be on this Sunday so the guide brought them over to this daycare center where we were performing. And the guy from Germany, after we performed, he asked me, would I be interested in coming to the Berlin Jazz Festival? I said sure. I didn't really believe it. I didn't think more about it. He took my information and lo and behold, not too much later, I was contacted by George Gruntz to really come to Germany with the sextet and that was the first trip.
NEA: In performing all around the world for such varied audiences, do you notice a difference in the way that people listen? People there grow up hearing much more varied kinds of music. How does that change the reception?
Muhal Richard Abrams: What you're saying is very true. I would've said the same thing you just said. But the audience that is an audience here, it's a good audience. It's not as vast an audience as in Europe for many reasons, commerciality and different things. But in Europe, they are never underexposed, in the sense of having access to all sorts of musical approaches, and classical, jazz, or whatever the case. And I think also, the fact that jazz came to them from the States, there's a different fascination, you know what I mean? It's a different fascination. I think the appreciation was something that came about because of their approach to culture itself. All of the culture is very important, notwithstanding the fact that there are some people that like red, some people that like green, some people that like blue, you know. So fine, let's have all of it.
And here in the States, the audience that does exist for jazz music and new music is a great audience, a great audience and we're fortunate that it is a mix of Americans.
NEA: When you're performing, how do you relate to your audience? Is it important to you to have a connection or do you withdraw?
Muhal Richard Abrams: No, I don't think about the audience. I do think about them but when you're performing, the connection is automatically made or not.
NEA: If there's no vibe, you don't feel any kind of rejection.
Muhal Richard Abrams: No because if I offer you an apple and you say "No, I don't like apples," I would be foolish to get offended. I mean, you don't like apples. It's okay, you know. I respect your individualism. I offer an apple and the person takes the apple to eat, fine. It's the same, because I have to respect both people, and one would be amiss if one didn't take into account individualism and preference. So when I perform, I concentrate on trying to be musical as best I can. Trying to be musical because that's what I'm there for, to express musical ideas. That's the connection between the audience and me when I perform, and I would think that would be the case with any performing musician.
NEA: Do you tend to try to steer away from categorization?
Muhal Richard Abrams: Of course, because I compose music that has to do with music itself. It has to do with music itself and respect for music as a whole, and not directed just towards a particular style of music. I don't engage in categories, you know, "the new jazz." What is new jazz? What is that? What is avant-garde? Well, avant-garde had a meaning at one time, and it was just taken and given to someone else for some reason or other. But these labels mean very little. I think the thing that means a lot is when any listener listens to music and decides what that is to him or her. That's the important thing, because even early on, Duke Ellington and quite a few musicians, even earlier than that, they refused to really accept the word "jazz" because they knew the music encompassed a much wider world.