David Tohir 11-August-2002 overview

The 60s were a time of great social and political upheaval in the US, perhaps most significantly in the realm of civil rights. It was during this time that pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and others formed AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) in Chicago. With a membership made up of the new generation of jazz musicians, the organization sought to promote what they called "great black music." They chose to distance themselves from the word "jazz" which they felt had lost its significance in describing the music of African-American musicians and composers.

Among the AACM's quite impressive and important membership were four of the five musicians who would go on to form The Art Ensemble of Chicago: Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman, Roscoe Mitchell, and Malachi Favors. The four had played together in various combinations on several albums released under Bowie's and Mitchell's names. They officially became The Art Ensemble of Chicago in 1969, as they departed for France, where they spent the next couple of years performing and recording prolifically - seven albums in 1969 alone.

Their first album, A Jackson in Your House (1969), was released by the French label BYG Records. It was followed the same year by the first US releases, Tutankhamun and The Spiritual. It would be nearly a year until the AEC would add drummer Don Moye, so these early albums were unusual in that all of the percussion was supplied by the other players. Also, while most of the free jazz of the time opted for an intense in-your-face sort of approach, the AEC tended more towards a more subdued sound mixed with noisy outbursts, vocal interjections, and hints at traditional blues and African music. The most introspective, and to my ears, the best of these early albums is People in Sorrow (1969). The album remains quiet throughout, but achieves and maintains an intensity that rivals Peter Brötzmann's Machine Gun.

With the addition of a drummer, the AEC continued to live and play primarily in Europe, recording less frequently than they had in that first year, finally returning to Chicago in 1972 and recording the excellent Live at Mandel Hall album. Now back in the US, the members began to pursue solo projects, much as they had before going to Paris, and with that the AEC became less active. There was only one release in 1973, Fanfare for the Warriors, and one in 1974, Kabalaba. This was followed by nearly four years with no releases at all.

The end of the 70s saw a renewal of activity with the release of Nice Guys (1978), the first of three outstanding albums on ECM. After several years of concentrating on their respective solo projects, the individual personalities solidified on these albums. The last, and best, of these, Urban Bushmen (1980), is a double live album that exhibits every facet of the AEC. The next release, also on ECM, wasn't until 1984. The Third Decade, while still a good album, is not one that I find as engaging as most of their work. It did, however, mark the first use of non-acoustic instruments by the band, with some minor synthesizer touches.

The next nine years saw the release of several albums on the Japanese DIW label. These included some very strong live sets, most notably Live in Berlin (recorded 1979), along with some very intriguing studio recordings. Two of these, Art Ensemble of Soweto (1989) and America-South Africa (1991), feature a South African men's choir, adding to the already important role of African music that Joseph Jarman, Don Moye, and Malachi Favors expressed both through their musical contributions and the African dress and face painting they wore in performance. There also developed a fairly public and heated "feud" between members of the AEC (and by extension, all free jazz artists) and the new generation of conservatives led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Marsalis has consistently held to a very narrow definition of jazz, one that excludes all of fusion and free jazz in favor of a rigid traditionalism that seems to view the music as a sort of museum piece rather than the living, breathing art form that it most assuredly is (or should be). He used the AEC's distancing themselves from the word jazz in the late 60s as evidence that his position was correct. The brunt of his attack was aimed at Lester Bowie, which always made it seem to me that Marsalis' venom was largely due to some form of jealousy.

After three years of relative inactivity, 1993 saw the departure of founding member Joseph Jarman. With the assumption that this was the end of the Art Ensemble, it was something of a surprise when the remaining quartet released Coming Home Jamaica in 1995, their final release. A spirited and entertaining album, it lacks the cohesion that Jarman's introspective approach always brought. The final chapter in the story of the AEC was written in 1999 with the death of Lester Bowie. He died at 58 from liver cancer. In a music that celebrates the individual as much as jazz does, a "jazz group" is somewhat difficult to pull off for very long. That the Art Ensemble of Chicago was able to do so for nearly 30 years with musicians that had as much personality as they did is nothing short of amazing.

Links for further information