Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Black Studies, Chicago, Music

Read an Excerpt from “Sound Experiments: The Music of the AACM” by Paul Steinbeck

Founded on Chicago’s South Side in 1965 and still thriving today, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) is the most influential collective organization in jazz and experimental music. In Sound Experiments, Paul Steinbeck offers an in-depth historical and musical investigation of the collective, analyzing individual performances and formal innovations in captivating detail. Below read an excerpt from the first chapter of this engaging sonic history.

The Experimental Band and the AACM

It all started with the Experimental Band. Muhal Richard Abrams formed the ensemble in 1962, three years before he, Jodie Christian, Philip Cohran, and Steve McCall founded the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Many of the Association’s original members had played in Abrams’s ensemble, and nearly all of the musicians who joined the AACM later in the 1960s came to the organization through the Experimental Band. Of course, some AACM musicians spent only a short time in the Experimental Band, and a few early members of the Association never belonged to the ensemble. But even one encounter with Abrams was enough to teach a musician what the Experimental Band and the AACM were all about.

Sherry Scott (left) and Muhal Richard Abrams (right) in the recording studio, Chicago, 1968. Photo ©Leonard E. Jones

“The first rule of the band,” according to Abrams, “was that all music had to be original material.” Abrams brought a new composition to the Experimental Band virtually every week, and the other members of the ensemble were encouraged to present their scores as well, provided that the music was their own, not an arrangement of someone else’s composition. The Experimental Band’s original-music rule was adopted by the AACM at the moment of its founding. During the Association’s initial business meeting, held in May 1965, the attendees decided that the organization would be dedicated to producing concerts of original music written by AACM members. Within weeks, the membership had elected several officers, including Abrams as AACM chair, and tasked them with fulfilling the Association’s mission. By August 1965, the AACM had registered as a nonprofit corporation with the state of Illinois and presented its first concerts— a series of performances by the Fred Anderson/Joseph Jarman quintet, Philip Cohran’s Artistic Heritage Ensemble, and Roscoe Mitchell’s quartet.  In this concert series, the programs were made up of “new unrecorded compositions” by the ensemble leaders and their bandmates, a format that would be followed in every AACM-sponsored event for years to come. These concerts were truly groundbreaking. The AACM’s productions were among the first concerts in history to feature experimental music written and performed by African Americans, and soon they became the longest-running such concert series in the world.

From the very beginning, the Experimental Band and the AACM were “composer-centered” organizations. However, composing original music—or “creative music,” the term favored by many AACM members—was not the only way to contribute to Abrams’s ensemble or to the larger collective. At the Experimental Band’s weekly rehearsals, Abrams might call on anyone, even a first-time visitor, to improvise over one of his compositions.  Additionally, all Experimental Band musicians, from longtime participants to recent arrivals, were expected to give their best effort when rehearsing one another’s scores. Likewise, AACM members contributed to the organization by attending business meetings, paying membership dues, and working together to produce and publicize concerts. The members of the Experimental Band and the AACM valued originality and creativity above all else, but they realized that they could not reach their full potential by operating independently. Composing original music and engaging in other forms of creative expression were activities enabled by a supportive community, where sympathetic artists helped each other develop new ideas and drew inspiration from their colleagues’ latest advances. Anthony Braxton, who joined the Experimental Band and the AACM in 1966, described this community-oriented approach to creativity as “the complete freedom of individuals in tune with each other, complementing each other. . . . We’re working toward a feeling of one.”

In the communal atmosphere cultivated by Abrams, the pace of musical innovation was remarkably rapid. One breakthrough led to another, and in just a few short years—from 1965 to the end of the decade—the members of the Association developed many of the musical techniques that would become synonymous with the AACM. These techniques, in turn, formed the foundation for additional discoveries made by AACM artists in later years. For decades, AACM composers and improvisers were able to build on the advances made by the collective’s “first wave” (the musicians who joined the Association in the 1960s). And, more often than not, these early innovations could be traced to Muhal Richard Abrams and the members of the Experimental Band.

Paul Steinbeck is associate professor of music at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of Message to Our Folks: The Art Ensemble of Chicago and coauthor of Exercises for the Creative Musician

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