The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians

Nonprofit Musician/Composer Collective
Graphic showing a colorful 50.
Music Credits: Excerpts from:  Muhal Richard Abrams' Experimental Band live at Saalfelden Jazz Festival 2012. Muhal Richard Abrams, “Tribute to Julius Hemphill and Don Pullen” from the cd, One Line, Two Views. New World Records. Ernest Dawkins, “Mesopotamia” and “Balladesque” from the cd, The Prairie Prophet, Delmark. Lester Bowie, “Hello Dolly” from the album, Hello Dolly, Muse. Anthony Braxton, “You Stepped Out of a Dream,” from the album, Five Pieces, Arista. Anthony Braxton, “Opus 82” from the Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton, Arista. The Art Ensemble of Chicago, “Charlie M” and “Magg Zelma” from the album Full Force, ECM. Jo Reed: That’s 2014 NEA Jazz Master and member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Anthony Braxton. Welcome to Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed, who’s lost her voice and cannot seem to find it. As many of you know, the National Endowment for the Arts is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. And we’re not alone. Also celebrating a half-century of musical innovation, creativity, and self-determination is the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, or the AACM. The AACM is a collective of musicians that emphasizes individualism—typically a bit tricky to pull off, but somehow, it’s worked for half a century. The AACM is a still vibrant force in music today with two chapters: one in New York and one in Chicago. The AACM first came together in Chicago in 1965 when a group of musicians were determined to play their own compositions—a free-style form of music that was uncompromising and defied category. On top of that, they determined that it be taken seriously, which meant moving the music out of bars and clubs and into the concert hall. Saxophonist, composer, and chair of the Chicago chapter of the AACM: Ernest Dawkins. Ernest Dawkins: Muhal Richard Abrams, Jodie Christian, Steve McCall, and, uh, Phil Cohran came together to start this organization. The organization was to produce new works in new venues – not the old, standard, in-the-bar kind of venue – libraries, concert halls, take it to the concert stage, et cetera, et cetera. And it was also to establish a free school of music in Chicago, to train youth. Jo Reed: Saxophonist, composer, AACM member and 2014 NEA Jazz Master: Anthony Braxton. Anthony Braxton: Among the primary axioms was to do your own music. You have to compose. You have to write. You can't just play the American song form tradition. You have to be a scholar of the music and you have to be a scholar of your own music. Jo Reed: Co-founder of the AACM, head of its New York City chapter and 2010 NEA Jazz Master: Muhal Richard Abrams. Muhal Richard Abrams:  We were in the '60s. There was quite a bit of music going on, of course. And we were about music. Politically, there was many things going on politically. You know, whole groups of people becoming self-sufficient and whatnot in their endeavors and their ideals and their rights. And the city was quite active, politically and culturally in terms of music and the other arts. We were associated as Chicago local musicians for many years prior to that. I had formed what I called the Experimental Band, Muhal Richard Abrams Experimental Band. It served as a forerunner to the AACM. So the other musicians, the other founders, suggested that we have a meeting to discuss forming a larger group of musicians based on the ideals that structured the Experimental Band. Those ideals were to develop a workshop and a forum whereby musicians could develop their individual perspectives on improvising and composing music. And so that was the basic premise that went into the initial structure of the AACM. We, uh,  had a meeting with… we invited Chicago musicians, period – they were Southside musicians, of course, that's where we were – and, uh, we invited them to discuss whether they would be interested in composing and performing original music.And original music meaning music composed and performed by the members of the group, not the mainstream, standard type music. Outside of the AACM, people were free to continue performing and composing mainstream music. But within the AACM, we wanted to explore original music. Muhal Richard Abrams: We weren't against anything. We just felt that the music that we were creating belonged in concert halls. We weren't against any clubs. A lot of us still played in clubs and things like that outside of the AACM. I played in a lot of clubs personally. <laughs> And there was a lot of great people in clubs. But no, for this process, the AACM process, we felt that the music deserved a concert forum. Jo Reed: The AACM took the bull by horns; taking on the duties of an artist and a producer: composing, publishing, and performing. Renting the concert halls, advertising the concerts, and selling the tickets. And if there was money left over, paying the musicians.  But the music and creative rigor was intoxicating. Anthony Braxton. Anthony Braxton: I was in the Army for three years. And after coming home from South Korea in the first week, I went to a concert of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the AACM. And suddenly, I met men and women who were interested in the same kind of things I was interested in. Up until 1966, I had always found myself the odd guy out because many of the things I was interested in were not universally shared. It was only when I came into the AACM and met musicians like Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, Kalaparusha Difda--musician composers who had formed the AACM.  And so when I came back for a period of three years, I must say the experiences in the AACM would really define the route of my life in terms of what my interests would be and how I would look at my work and seek to evolve it. And I was able and I was fortunate enough to be accepted by this group. And so, for the next three years, lots of concerts, experimentation. Everyone was very excited about music. It was an incredible community of dedicated men and women. Jo Reed: The musicians also found support for their music in their hometown. Muhal Richard Abrams. Muhal Richard Abrams:  The audience was there all the time from the beginning. The people on the South Side of Chicago were with us. So once we started up, they became our patrons. The people in Chicago on the North and South Side included black and white people. Chicago became our audience; the population of Chicago. Music lovers; they became our students. One of our purposes was to teach young, aspirant musicians. And for that purpose, we started our school in order to teach young people music and assist them in seeing their individualism. And the outside world as well. It wasn't restricted in this teaching, just to what the AACM was saying. We, uh, insisted that they respect everything: mainstream, just original individual type things. All of it together. Jo Reed: Ernest Dawkins was an early student at the school. Ernest Dawkins: I went to the School of Music. It was in the community. By the time I started playing, I had played bass guitar when I was 12. I played percussion as a teenager, so I’d just graduated from school. And my father, he used to have this record collection, and when I was a kid I would listen to all these records. So I knew Billie Holiday, Lester Young. But anyway, I heard this guy playing like Charlie Parker. I had just graduated and I had an epiphany. I said, “That’s me.” So next day, I went and bought a saxophone and within a week, I had the horn. And my people said, “Well, you can’t practice in the house. We’re not going to support your whims. If you’re serious, you’ll find a way how to do it.” And so I went to the park. I go to the park every day and I would be practicing. This guy came up. He said, “Man, you here every day?” I said, “Yeah. Well, I want to try and learn how to play.” He said, “Well, my name is James Johnson.” He was a bassoonist and a saxophonist. He said, “You need to go to the AACM School of Music.” And without even knowing, I guess it was in my DNA or something, said, “Okay. Where is it?” <laughs> And then my first lesson, I think I had-- who was?-- I forgot exactly who was in my lesson, but I think it was somebody like Chico Freeman, Henry Threadgill. <laughs>  And it is Jarman or Roscoe, my first lesson. <laughs> And I’m like, “Uh, okay.” And they had me trying to play “Hot House.”<hums tune> I’ll never forget that. And I was butchering that song bad, boy, but I was like, “I’m determined to get this song.” And after that, that’s when I said, “I’ll be back.” Jo Reed: But it wasn’t just about the music. Anthony Braxton. Anthony Braxton: Muhal Richard Abrams has played a very important role in my life. In many ways, he's been a father figure. He's been a teacher and we looked to him for many things, not just music; how to live, really. Muhal, he was an incredible influence to all of us and he helped us to stay straight and to value being positive. And don't be messin' around and be serious about your work. Learn how to respect people and do your best. Jo Reed: Ernest Dawkins Ernest Dawkins: You’re supposed to come into the school and you’re supposed to learn the ABCs of music. Of course, theory and harmony, take an instrument – we encourage percussion too, or piano –and then, uh, you’re supposed to write your own piece and you’re supposed to perform, just like an AACM member. So we would have, you know, recitals every half-year, half-semester. We still do. Jo Reed: Muhal Richard Abrams remembers getting the school off the ground. Muhal Richard Abrams:  The first students, our very first students, their parents bought them instruments. Once they found out who we were and what we were doing, they began to appreciate it because their kids were occupied with something constructive at a very early age. You know, we would see them practically every day, you know what I mean? Because we were together every day composing and performing music. Jo Reed: For Anthony Braxton, teaching contained life-changing moments. Anthony Braxton: We used to go to the parents' homes and pick up the child and drive the child to the Lincoln Center in Chicago and give a nice hot lunch and then music instructions. I think one of the things I'll never forget the most about that period was a concert that Lester Bowie did with, uh, something like seven young guys and gals. They're playing “Hello Dolly”. Played “Hello Dolly” with Lester Bowie. It was such a beautiful concert. It was like, you know, that's what our responsibility is. We have to—we have to do this. If we don't do it, who's gonna do it? Jo Reed: Although there was emphasis on individualism, there was expectations for AACM members. Ernest Dawkins. Ernest Dawkins: Once you become a member of the AACM, within a year, you’re supposed to produce your concert. So, I produced my concert.  We were always encouraged to go hear the AACM members perform. University of Chicago, we had a lot of concerts there. I remember seeing a lot of concerts over in that area. And then, when you became a member, you’d have to pass out flyers. I remember flyer duty. We would have to take flyers out everywhere and scour the South Side and North Side with these flyers. And going to the concerts. So I saw a lot of interesting things in my early years. I saw a fantastic solo concert by Lester Bowie in the University of Chicago. It was one of the more interesting concerts that I saw. Of course, I saw the Art Ensemble over there in Mander Hall. And we had, uh, Fred Anderson would have a jam session. He would be all the way up north and we would catch the train. His jam session didn’t start till twelve o’clock at night. <laughs> We’d be up there from like twelve to maybe five or six in the morning. And then we would come back home. So it was all kind of those kind of things happening. And we would go jam in these lofts that was adjacent to the Chicago River back in those days. The things that we would do was like… And the guys, when I started playing… some guys moved on my block and they would play all night. Joe Henderson would come up there after he’d play at the Jazz Showcase. Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, you know? So these was like in the community and nobody would bother them. They were playing all night and people wouldn’t complain. They’d say, “Yeah, man, y’all really sound good.” <laughs> You know, they would tell them they sound good because the community was open to those kind of situations back then. Everything didn’t have to be so formalized. Jo Reed: AACM members came together to form different musical groups and ensembles. All playing original music, all stressing the individuality of their players. But one group stood out. Muhal Richard Abrams. Muhal Richard Abrams: There were many groups in the AACM. The Art Ensemble was one of our premier groups that distinguished themselves very well. And they were quite successful. There were other groups. There was a trio with Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins, and Wadada Leo Smith. And of course, my Experimental Band. And there were other, other groups, you know? We had many, many groups. And we're proud of all our groups, but of course, The Art Ensemble distinguished themselves in a grand manner. They really did. Jo Reed: Ernest Dawkins Ernest Dawkins:  The AACM principles and attitudes and facilities and interpretation and concepts. With this music, you have to develop your own voice, for better or for worse, and ride it out. And that’s the key. And that’s what I liked about the eclectic kind of situations, in relationship to the AACM, because I could go hear Threadgill, then I could go hear Kalaparusha and I’m just talking saxophone players. I can go hear Roscoe. I could go hear Braxton. But I could go hear Fred Anderson and everybody played different. No one had the same sound. No one had the same approach. No one. Jo Reed: But if originality was stressed, so was respect for other traditions. Muhal Richard Abrams. Muhal Richard Abrams: There are many countries, people in different countries, that speak different language and they have many different approaches. Everybody's music has to be respected. And so we start with our own process and from there it expanded out into the world and respecting the world's music. I think we realized that there's information everywhere about music and about life; about all sorts of things. Well, I, for one, I certainly don't want to be left out of that process with all that information available. Jo Reed: Ernest Dawkins. Ernest Dawkins:  When Muhal and them would come around and give us workshops, he said, “Man, look, play everything. Don’t just be limited to one thing.” Because he knew that you have to work in different areas in this music. You know, Threadgill used to work shows. I’ve seen him works shows. I mean, guys did all kind of other kind of gigs. They played in churches. You know, Threadgill played in church. That’s what—that was his thing, you know? So that broadened my perspective, because I like to play tunes, I like to play what we call free music. I like to play all aspects of what we call this American music. Jo Reed: As wonderful as Chicago was as a crucible for AACM, a good portion of its members began to move east. And some moved across the ocean. Anthony Braxton. Anthony Braxton: I had discovered what my music could be if I worked hard. But it became clear to many of us in the AACM that it would not be possible to… to continue our work in Chicago because, one, there was very little work. And at that point I would go to live in Paris. Suddenly, the European experience would start. Jo Reed: Muhal Richard Abrams. Muhal Richard Abrams:  I started coming to New York City around 1973. I didn't move here until 1977 with my family, I mean.  By that time, the first wave of AACM musicians anyway, we had become quite famous around the world because of the Delmark Records. And so I found it necessary to move to New York to function in a more expanded business atmosphere as well as musical atmosphere. It was wall-to-wall music. <laughs> Wall-to-wall music. Just great music. You know, there were people here from, as today, there're people here from all over the world. You know what I mean? People from all over the States. But the people from all over the States were really perpetuating and moving what some called "the tradition" forward. Which was great because the opportunity to learn from each other was just, uh, very great. Jo Reed: But Abrams makes clear, when he came to New York City, he was not leaving the AACM  behind.  He brought its philosophy to New York City and eventually started the New York chapter. Muhal Richard Abrams: we didn’t come to New York to join other people's bands. So, we came here and we created our own forums for performing our music, just as we did in Chicago.  The AACM in Chicago kept going with what they were doing for that particular locale. We were chartered in New York, so there was two different chapters. The Chicago chapter was separate from the New York chapter. Jo Reed: Meanwhile, the AACM continued to do its work in Chicago. Ernest Dawkins. Ernest Dawkins:  By that time, most of the guys were moving or gone, you know, to New York. And I realized, if anything’s going to happen, I’m going to have to make it happen myself. And that was still part of the essence of the organization because I think I got in around the tenth or eleventh anniversary of the AACM, somewhere around there. I mean, I was a student; eventually I became a member and I became a teacher, an officer, and the rest is kind of like history. Here I am today. <laughs> Jo Reed: Not to blow our own horn, but throughout the years, both the Chicago and New York chapters of the AACM found vital support from the National Endowment for the Arts. Muhal Abrams. Muhal Richard Abrams:  Oh, it helped us a lot. It helped us a lot to keep our programs going on; our yearly contract programs going on. There's always been great help from the Arts Endowment. It’s a great relationship actually. It’s a great relationship and, uh, it's in the records. <laughs> Muhal Richard Abrams: Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, Douglas Hewitt, George Lewis, Wallace McMillan. Jo Reed: A list of the AACM members reads like a who’s who of creative musicians. Muhal Richard Abrams: Thurman Barker, Amina Claudine Myers, Lester Bouie, Malachi Favors, Joseph Jarmon, Don Moyer. Many, and the thing is, I want to quit calling names because I'm being unfair. Because if I have to call names, I would have to call all of them. They're all great and we just mentioned a few, but there were many just as great. And we viewed each other as equally as great. You know, we viewed each other in that manner and we still do. Sure, we still do. Jo Reed: AACM’s broader influence on both mainstream jazz and avant garde music cannot be denied. Anthony Braxton. Anthony Braxton:  And I feel that, coming from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians,that among the things we learned about was the real tradition is creativity, doing your best, and trying to meet the challenges of your time period. And you need to learn the fundamentals and respect the last 2,000, 3,000 years of documented music, but don't let that be an excuse to not find your own work. Jo Reed: Ernest Dawkins. Ernest Dawkins: Well, now, I hear more guys playing free than…they’re not playing change. I’m like, “These cats are not playing the changes. They’re playing free.” <laughs> It’s like the tides have turned. <laughs> Anthony Braxton:   We have fresh possibilities because fresh possibilities came out of the experimentation and exploration of fresh ideas about music, fresh ideas about harmony, fresh ideas about rhythm. And so the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians was one of the best things that had ever happened to me. To discover this group of incredible musicians; very little work, nobody had any money, we all come from poverty, and no one would give an inch with respect to their aesthetics and their music, but we helped each other to stay strong. And everyone tried to do the best work that they could do. Ernest Dawkins: I think it’s a cultural important half-century. That the organization has even survived half a century is amazing. I think it’s been a perfect example of an experiment in democracy. <laughs> Jo Reed: Muhal Richard Abrams. Muhal Richard Abrams:  I think we will be remembered as being an example of what people can do as individuals when they come together to agree and, sometimes, not to agree. But yet, maintain the central idea of moving forward. The main thing is we had in common is respect for each other's individualism. That's what they had. That's quite a bit. That's quite a bit right there. You know, because it was one of the things that encouraged all of us to pursue our particular perspectives. Because we were among people who respected us. We respected each other. I think that's what got us here 50 years later. I really believe that. Jo Reed:  The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians has celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015. My thanks to Muhal Richard Abrams, Ernest Dawkins, and Anthony Braxton. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAarts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening. And thanks for putting up with my voice.

A half-century of musical innovation and self-determination, told by AACM co-founder (currently AACM-New York president) and 2010 NEA Jazz Master Muhal Richard Abrams, current AACM-Chicago chairman Ernest Dawkins, and AACM member and 2014 NEA Jazz Master Anthony Braxton.