An excerpt from
A Power Stronger Than Itself
The AACM and American Experimental Music
George E. Lewis
The Development of the Experimental Band
Alternative Pedagogies of Experimental Music
For many musicians, the space race began not in 1957 with the Soviet Union’s launch of the satellite Sputnik, but in 1946, when the pianist Herman Blount came up on the train from Birmingham to Bronzeville. Soon after his arrival, Sonny (as he was called) landed a job with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra at the Club De Lisa on 55th and State, a gig that he held down until mid-1947, when the Red Saunders Band succeeded Henderson. Sonny stayed on, rehearsing the band and refashioning Saunders’s backup arrangements for singers like Laverne Baker, Dakota Staton, Joe Williams, and Sarah Vaughan. Blount founded his own band in 1950, with people like saxophonists Harold Ousley, Von Freeman, Earl Ezell (later Ahmad Salaheldeen), and John Jenkins, bassist Wilbur Ware, and drummer Vernel Fournier.
Sometime in 1952, Blount announced that the Creator had ordered him to change his name. He went downtown to the Circuit Court of Cook County and legally became “Le Sony’r Ra.” In addition, he registered a business under the name of “Sun Ra.” Most musicians in Chicago, however, still knew him as Sonny, one of the qualified musicians of the South Side’s musical community. As Jodie Christian remembers,
My first encounter with him, he was playing stride piano, working at the It Club on 55th and Michigan. He was a good pianist, playing conventional piano, stride. We were playing, and Sun Ra was playing as a single pianist, a cocktail piano player opposite us. He hadn’t become “Sun Ra” then. I never heard anybody say that they remember when he started to organize this type of band, the space band. All of a sudden, it was there.
In 1952 Sonny began to seek out younger musicians from Captain Dyett’s DuSable regime, including drummer Robert Barry and saxophonist Laurdine “Pat” Patrick, to form a group called the Space Trio. Eventually, Sun Ra’s band began to grow, with exciting young musicians such as trombonist Julian Priester; percussionist Jim Herndon; bassist Victor Sproles; trumpeters Art Hoyle, Hobart Dotson, and Dave Young; and saxophonists James Spaulding, John Gilmore, Charles Davis, and Marshall Allen. Sonny’s charisma, erudition, and creativity inspired the musicians, who regarded him as their mentor. As Marshall Allen observed, “Sun Ra taught me to translate spirit into music.”
Around this time, as Sonny’s compositional palette became richer, he coined the term “Arkestra” for his band. “That’s the way black people say ‘orchestra,’” he observed laconically. At the Arkestra’s daily rehearsals, Sonny began to explicitly connect his music with projects of identity, philosophy, historical recovery, and mysticism. He explored the role of black people in the creation of civilization, and maintained that music could both change individual moral values and affect the fate of the world. The titles of his pieces began to connect two major themes—the infinite, Ethiopianist Zion of outer space, and the African mothership of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Nubia.
As anthropologist and Ra biographer John Szwed has noted, with Sun Ra, “music often seemed to be the subtext for some grander plan, one not always clear to the musicians.” Whatever the plan, Jodie Christian saw at first hand that Sonny’s disciplined domination of the Arkestra was absolute.
One day he was playing at Budland and the whole band was there, but Sun Ra wasn’t there. So I told John [Gilmore] and them, why don’t y’all hit and Sun Ra can come in later? “Naw, we don’t hit till Sonny comes in.” Sonny comes in an hour later. He ran in, sat down at the piano, and the band took their seats. You know what he said? “Let that be a lesson.” So at the end of the set I asked John, what was the lesson? He said, I don’t know, but Sonny said it was.
Alvin Fielder met Ra while working a dance gig on the West Side in 1959. “He asked me where I was from, and I told him I was from Mississippi. So he said, ‘Look, man, I bet you can play some shuffles.’” Sonny invited Fielder to an Arkestra rehearsal. “I was way above my head. I thought I was playing well, but as I look back, I’m sure that I wasn’t. Anyway, Sunny invited me to join the band. So I did.” Fielder played with Ra in 1959 and 1960. “Of course, the money wasn’t that great. But then again, as I look back, I should have been paying him.” Late in 1960, Sun Ra’s spaceship, with John Gilmore, Marshall Allen, and Pat Patrick on board, blasted off from Chicago for points east, eventually landing in New York City in January 1961. By 1962, the composer and pianist was preparing for an important New York concert with his Cosmic Jazz Space Group.
Philip Cohran had been working with the Arkestra since John Gilmore had brought him to a rehearsal in 1958. For Cohran, Ra’s example “opened my world up as a composer. I had written a few songs of merit before I got with him, but he taught me the one thing that really made a difference in my life, and that is: whatever you want to do, do it all the time. Once I learned that, there was no looking back.”
All the same, Cohran decided not to climb aboard for the Arkestra’s New York foray. “When I left ‘The Society,’” Cohran remembered, “everybody thought I was crazy. When I told Sun Ra that I was going to deal with my own thing, and I quit the band, I started studying on my own. I said, I don’t need nobody else to tell me what to do, I’ll just go ahead and do it myself. So I started studying every day.” In fact, during this time, the possibility of challenging the societal status quo drew many African Americans toward independent research into historical and spiritual knowledge. Richard Abrams says that “I always had a keen interest for looking into the so-called ‘occult arts,’ Around '59 or '60 I really started getting into that. One of the first books I read was Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. It awakened something in me that needed awakening. I bought literature and bought literature, and ended up finding out about the Rosicrucians. I got in touch with them and hooked up with the Rosicrucians.”
As Abrams became known as one of Chicago’s up-and-coming pianist-composers, two musicians exercised a profound impact upon his musical direction. The composer, arranger, and trumpeter William E. “Will” Jackson, who had played with Jimmie Lunceford, lived down the street from Abrams, and began to informally teach the young pianist the craft of arranging and orchestration. Around 1955, Jackson introduced the young composer to pianist Walter “King” Fleming, perhaps the most important early local influence on Abrams’s piano improvisations. Abrams began to compose, arrange, and play for Fleming’s band. “Every so often,” Abrams remembers, “they would let me sit in at the piano, until I would make a mistake and they would tell me to get up. But they would put me back down there until I learned how to do it.” Attracting the attention of radio personality Daddy O’Daylie, Abrams, saxophonist Nicky Hill, bassist Bob Cranshaw, drummer Walter Perkins, and trumpeter Paul Serrano formed a band called the MJT+3. In 1957, the group’s first recording, Daddy-O Presents MJT+3, featured a number of Abrams compositions, including “No Name,” which was actually composed collaboratively by Abrams and Fleming.
Abrams was also moving further along the autodidact path that had led him away from the conservatory. “I could always make up music,” Abrams remembered, “but it was plain stubbornness. I wanted to do it my own way. Even as a kid, when I didn’t even know how to do it, I would rebel against the mainstream situation.” The search for a way of teaching himself led him to the pianist, composer, and arranger Charles Stepney, who introduced Abrams to Joseph Schillinger’s unusual system of musical composition. Stepney, a house arranger for Chess Records, was soon to apply Schillinger-related principles, along with ideas from composer Henry Cowell’s early text, New Musical Resources and the work of Gy÷rgy Ligeti, to his landmark work for Ramsey Lewis, the Dells, the Rotary Connection and Minnie Riperton, Phil Upchurch, Muddy Waters, and Earth, Wind, and Fire. Stepney introduced Schillinger’s books to Abrams, who ended up buying his own copies. Everywhere he went over the next four years, Abrams kept these two massive tomes at the ready, teaching himself the complete system and developing new ideas under its guidance.
Schillinger was a pianist, composer, and theorist who came to the United States from Russia in 1928. Something of a polymath, Schillinger collaborated on experimental electronic instrument design with fellow Russian expatriate Leon Theremin and Cowell, who wrote the foreword to Schillinger’s signal work, the 1,600-page Schillinger System of Musical Composition, first published in the mid-1940s. The elusive Schillinger Society published and distributed the system as two large, expensive books containing many detailed musical examples, and in 1945, former Schillinger student Lawrence Berk founded the Schillinger House of Music to carry on the master’s teachings. In 1954, the school changed its name to the Berklee School of Music, as its curriculum expanded to include genres outside the canon of pan-European classical music, most notably jazz.
Schillinger taught that a wide variety of expressive forms, including both tonal and post-tonal harmony, could be both generated and analyzed algorithmically using mathematical formulae. His system emerged alongside other mathematics-oriented formal methods that emerged in the mid-to-late 1940s, such as French composer Olivier Messiaen’s 1944 Technique de mon langage musical, and later, the integral serialism that developed in America, with the work of Milton Babbitt, and in Europe, in the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Messiaen’s former student, Pierre Boulez. Schillinger’s work with graphic elements, which anticipated by more than a decade the stochasticism of Iannis Xenakis, seemed to be justified by the premise of Cowell’s “overture” to the first volume of the Schillinger system, which held out the promise of using the system to move beyond well-established musical methods that were appearing stiflingly hegemonic in some circles: “The currently taught rules of harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration certainly do not suggest to the student materials adapted from his own expressive desires,” Cowell wrote. “Instead he is given a small and circumscribed set of materials, already much used, together with a set of prohibitions to apply to them, and then he is asked to express himself only within these limitations.”
While serialism based its rule sets firmly on the chromatic scale, and bebop harmony revised Wagnerian chromaticism, the Schillinger system made few presumptions concerning materials. Rather, whatever materials were identified by the composer as salient—rhythmic, harmonic, timbral, melodic, dynamic—became the basis for further generation and transformation. Thus, as Cowell noted, “the Schillinger System offers possibilities, not limitations; it is a positive, not a negative approach to the choice of musical materials.” As such, the system was equally suited “to old and new styles in music, and to ‘popular’ and ‘serious’ composition.” For this reason, the Schillinger system soon attracted composers from Earle Brown to B. B. King. The explicit organicism of Schillinger’s Mathematical Basis of the Arts connected musical invention with forms active in the natural environment, advancing the basically synaesthetic proposition that gestures active in one art form could find explicit, ordered, primordial analogues in another.
Positing an explicit role for the religious and spiritual aspects of music, Schillinger’s ideas ran counter to modernism’s secularist ideal. As a budding painter who had already explored the synaesthetics of Kandinsky, Abrams was excited about Schillinger’s construction of a necessary, ordered connection between sound, sense, science, emotion, reason, and the natural world. These ideas resounded with Abrams’s own explorations of the connection between music and spirituality. “I was really educated now, in a big way,” Abrams exulted, “because I was impressed with a method for analyzing just about anything I see, by approaching it from its basic premise. The Schillinger stuff taught me to break things back down into raw material—where it came from—and then, on to the whole idea of a personal or individual approach to composition.”
While Abrams was beginning to get a foothold in the Chicago musical scene, Steve McCall left the city to join the U.S. Air Force. Eventually, his orders took him to Bangor, Maine, where he ran the service club. “The service being what it was, it was a typically bad experience,” his sister Rochelle recalled. “Somebody put a note on the door, ‘All Niggers, Coons and Nightfighters Be Off The Street By Midnight.’” McCall returned to Chicago in 1954, and found a job in the airline industry. During that time, he bought his first set of drums, and used free air travel passes to visit New York and Philadelphia, where he took drum lessons from Charles “Specs” Wright, who had animated the big bands of Dizzy Gillespie and Earl Bostic. Watching the styles of Marshall Thompson, Wilbur Campbell, James Pettis, and Vernel Fournier, among others, by 1960 McCall had become one of the most sought-after young drummers in Chicago.
Around that same time, Abrams was looking for an outlet for his new ideas, and an opportunity emerged to do just that in 1961, when “there was a group of mainstream guys that formed a band for cats to write charts and things. We were rehearsing at the C&C Lounge on Cottage Grove and 63rd. A cat named Chuck ran it. It was a great big old long place, with a stage up front. They had floor shows in there. Eddie Harris was a part of it, Marshall Thompson.” By 1960, the ad hoc, informal educational system of jazz, combining high-school band training, informal jam sessions, home schooling, and autodidacticism, had already produced some of the world’s most influential music. Even so, many experienced Chicago musicians were seeking ways to address the limitations of this model of learning. For instance, neither high-school ensemble classes nor jam sessions taught theory in a consistent way. Vibraphonist Emanuel Cranshaw describes one of the alternatives that some musicians pursued in the mid-1950s:
Cats like Chris Anderson used to have classes in this basement on 39th and Lake Park, the way Barry Harris used to do. He was playing with a guitar player, a cat named Leo Blevins. Leo wouldn’t do much teaching, it was mostly Chris. Cats would come by with notebooks and he’d get up and talk. All the cats that you know—Herbie [Hancock] would go down there, and [pianist] Harold Mabern. Muhal was probably down there too.
Jam sessions, as historian Scott DeVeaux observes, “did not test such crucial professional skills or specializations as sight-reading, leading a section, or the endurance required to be the high-note man in a trumpet section.” Moreover, competition-based models of music-making tended to relegate collectivity and solidarity among musicians to the background at a time when more collaborative notions of the relationship of community to individuality were being pursued in many segments of the African American community. Thus, there were practical reasons for creating an environment in which musicians could rehearse, teach, and exchange knowledge across generations, as Eddie Harris told an interviewer in 1994. “Trying to play around Chicago,” Harris explained, “you figured there are guys that never played first chair, there are guys that never played on a big band, and there are other guys that never had an opportunity to write for a large number of people, and there are people that wanted to sing, and sing in front of a band—so let’s form a workshop.”
Harris credits trumpeter Johnny Hines as cofounder of the workshop, which at first attracted over one hundred musicians: “You start meeting guys, like the late Charles Stepney . . . There became a group of us. Muhal Richard Abrams, Raphael [Rafael] Garrett, James Slaughter, [drummer] Walter Perkins, Bill Lee. There was a small group of us who were on the same wavelength in trying things . . . not just sit down and play an Ellis Larkins run or a Duke Ellington run . . . we all wanted to try some different things.” The C&C Lounge provided a minimal but absolutely vital initial infrastructure for the musicians. Chicago trumpeter William Fielder, the brother of Alvin Fielder, recalls that “the C&C Lounge was a school for young musicians. Chuck and Claudia, his wife (C&C), offered the musicians a wonderful musical opportunity. The club would be empty and Chuck would say, ‘Play for me.’”
Eyes on the Sparrow: The First New Chicagoans
The C&C-based ensemble gradually developed a largely generational divide between musicians who wanted to develop the band in a more commercial direction, and others who wished to continue the radical explorations for which the group had been formed. As Eddie Harris recalled, “Johnny Hines tried to take the musicians more our age; he wanted to go into the Regal Theater so he could have a band to really accompany all the stars that come in there. Muhal had taken the younger musicians and let them learn in reading on scales and playing with each other.” After Harris left to pursue his fortunes from Exodus to Jazz, the rehearsal ensemble soon dissipated, but a new ensemble, consisting largely of the younger players who were gathering around Abrams, started regular rehearsals at the C&C. The ensemble, which gradually came to be known as the Experimental Band, became a forum for Abrams to test his new, Schillinger-influenced compositional palette. Abrams recalls simply, “I just gathered together some people around me, some younger guys, and started to keep things going.” Two of these “younger guys,” saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, played critically important roles in what was later to become the AACM. Mitchell and Jarman had not participated in the fast life of the 63rd Street jam sessions that had animated the young adult experiences of Abrams, Donavon, Favors, and Christian. For these two younger musicians, adulthood and musical maturity would come in the 1960s, a very different decade indeed.
Born in Chicago in 1940, Roscoe Mitchell grew up in the western part of Bronzeville. Like Favors’s, Mitchell’s parents were religious, and his uncle was the minister of a spiritualist church. “I used to really enjoy the music in the church,” Mitchell recalled. “At the time I wasn’t that interested in the sermons.” Since the 1930s, Washington Park had been a center of black South Side life, with tennis, softball, swimming, and horseback riding. As a young person, Mitchell often spent an entire day in the park, talking to older musicians and watching them as they practiced.
Jarman was born in 1937 in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. His father left the family just as Joseph was born, and within a year his seventeen-year-old mother joined the Great Migration to Chicago, finding a job in the defense industry. Unlike virtually all of the early AACM musicians, Jarman lived on the largely white North Side, and attended an integrated school, Schiller Elementary, just down the street from his home. The family’s eventual move to Bronzeville, near 48th and St. Lawrence, was the occasion for considerable turbulence in Jarman’s new life at school. “I had a lot of trouble and a lot of fights,” Jarman explained, “because it was a completely different society, a different moral and ethical standard. Then we moved back to the North Side and I went back to Schiller. This is all in that puberty range, ten to fourteen years of age. When I went back to Schiller, I got in trouble because I had been so influenced by the other school. I became a ‘bad boy.’”
Jarman and Mitchell were thoroughly steeped in Hollywood-style popular culture. It cost nine cents to go to the movies, and Mitchell and his young friends would walk about two miles from 59th and State, crossing over the Bronzeville border to the white movie theater, the Southtown, on 63rd and Halsted. Mitchell and his family listened avidly to Chicago radio’s Al Benson and McKie Fitzhugh, as well as Symphony Sid’s New York–based shows. And then there was television, an important, even revolutionary force that had not been part of the growing-up process for Jodie Christian’s generation. Locally, Chicago’s Old Swingmaster, Al Benson, featured singers such as Joe Williams on his 1951 TV show, and the Mahalia Jackson Show appeared in 1955. At the national level, black performers, including the Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Nat King Cole, Martha Davis, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Carmen McRae, Lionel Hampton, and Duke Ellington all appeared. In 1950, Hazel Scott had her own fifteen-minute TV show in New York, and in 1952, singer Billy Daniels became the first African American to have his own nationally sponsored television show.
However, as commercial television grew, so did the racism of its corporate leaders. By the late 1950s, the medium had resolved “to keep blacks off national television as much as possible.” Instead, television portrayed marvelous white people, living in sumptuous, yet not too ostentatious homes, driving new cars that never broke down (at least not for long), playing with their kids and friendly dogs, and tending crisply manicured lawns. Although for the 1950s black working class, TV was a prime portal through which white middle-class values and ideologies entered their lives, as George Lipsitz has observed, the exclusion of African Americans from full participation in white society meant that their culture was not completely permeated by the values and images of the dominant culture. In fact, very few blacks in Mitchell’s neighborhood owned or had access to a television set, and in “real life,” as Mitchell remembers, “We didn’t really have to look on TV for role models because they were all in our neighborhood.” African Americans of Mitchell’s generation regularly encountered blacks who did not conform to media stereotypes, allowing neighborhood residents to more easily detect and critique the social and political agendas embedded in the medium.
Through his aunt Mary and his uncle Preston, “the family renegades in Chicago,” Joseph Jarman was introduced to the Regal Theater, and to local nightclubs.
I would go there to play with my cousins, and I began to learn the names of these people—Lester Young, Charlie Parker, James Moody, Nat “King” Cole, Miles Davis. They would be playing this music every time I went there, but I didn’t know the name of the music; it was just pretty music. I knew all the singers—the popular music, but I was more drawn to this other music because you just listened, and what you heard was inside rather than words and rhythms that they would suggest through the popular forms.
In the mid-1950s, Mitchell’s family moved briefly to Milwaukee, where he started high school and began playing the clarinet. His brother Norman came to live with the family, bringing along a collection of 78 rpm jazz recordings—
Entering DuSable High School, Jarman was drawn to Captain Dyett’s band. His parents could not afford to buy him a trumpet, Jarman’s preferred instrument, so he joined the band as a snare drummer. “All you needed was a drum pad and drumsticks, which cost about six dollars. The drum I played belonged to the school, and I couldn’t take it home.” Another future AACM member living nearby, James Johnson, played bassoon in the Dyett band. Johnson and Jarman would practice together, eventually developing a unique daily schooltime lunch ritual: “We would go across the street every day, usually without very much lunch money, maybe fifty cents a day. We refused to eat in the lunchroom. We would go across the street and put a nickel apiece in the jukebox. We could hear three songs for a dime. We would always play this one song by James Moody, ‘Last Train from Overbrook.’ We would play that every day.” In addition to performance classes, the school’s version of music history recalled Abrams’s 1940s grammar school experiences:
They’d show these films of white operas and white orchestras, like Mozart’s music—Mozart was real big—Beethoven’s music, and Brahms. That would be a part of our musical education. The teacher would show it, then talk about it, and you’d write a little paper on it. This was music history, but it was never really appealing. It was nice, but it was so much nicer to be in the band room hearing that live stuff.
Mitchell characterizes those who went to DuSable during the Dyett era as “fortunate,” but even Englewood, where he went to high school, had its advantages. He began playing baritone saxophone in the high-school band, and borrowed an alto saxophone from another student. Jazz was not taught at Englewood, but getting to know the precocious saxophonist Donald “Hippmo” Myrick, who later became associated with both Philip Cohran and Earth, Wind, and Fire, made up for that lack. “He kind of took me under his wing, because he already knew the stuff,” said Mitchell. “He was a fully accomplished musician in high school.”
The historian Robin D. G. Kelley has raised the possibility that some future AACM members were radicalized in part by the challenges of military life—not only combat, but also the racism that was endemic to service in the U.S. armed forces. In 1955, in his junior year in high school, Jarman dropped out and joined the army. “I went into the Airborne school, and the Ranger school, because you could make extra money. I made it through basic training and jump school as number two, because they wouldn’t accept a black as number one.” The army was where Jarman started to play the alto saxophone: “I got out of ‘the line’—the death zone—by transferring to the band. The first saxophone I had was a plastic one, like Ornette Coleman. The bandmaster gave me thirty days to get my act together or he would kick me back into the line. In that band were a lot of people who helped me to get my act together.”
Mitchell joined the army in 1958. Army musicians had plenty of time to practice and exchange information, and Mitchell met a number of saxophonists, such as Nathaniel Davis, as well as fellow Chicagoans Ruben Cooper and Lucious White, Jarman’s neighbor as a young person. Mitchell also came into contact with Palmer Jenkins, Sergeant Mitchell, William Romero, and Joseph Stevenson, “who was incredible on the saxophone. He was a great influence on Anthony [Braxton] when Anthony was in the army.” Mitchell was eventually transferred to Heidelberg, Germany, where he frequented local jam sessions at places like the well-known Cave 54, where pianist Karl Berger, trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff, saxophonist Bent Jaedig and other European and American musicians met and performed together. Hard bop was the coin of that realm, although Ornette Coleman’s music was beginning to make an impression. During this time, Mitchell met saxophonist Albert Ayler, who was in a different army band, stationed in France. After duty hours, Mitchell would go to sessions and listen to Ayler:
I didn’t really know what he was doing, but I did know, because I was a saxophonist, that he had an enormous sound on the instrument. They would have these sessions, and everybody was, you know, talking about him behind his back, but one time they played a blues. Albert played the blues about three choruses straight. After that he started stretching, and something went off in my head—
In August 1958, Jarman was discharged. “It was not something I wanted to continue,” Jarman said, “because it was very anti-human, this attitude they were making people into.” After a brief visit home to Chicago, he experienced a kind of odyssey: “I went wandering around the United States. I went to Arizona. My aunt was there. I stayed there for eight months or so. I couldn’t talk during this period; I was mute. I went to the Milwaukee Institute of Psychiatric Research in Wisconsin, as an outpatient, and enrolled in the Milwaukee Institute of Technology. They got me to be able to talk again, and I haven’t shut my mouth since.”
After his discharge from the army, Mitchell felt that “it was pretty much set that I was going to be a musician.” With the support of his father, who offered to provide him with a place to stay, he decided to use his GI Bill funds to go to Chicago’s Woodrow Wilson Junior College in 1961, where he met Jarman for the first time. “Jarman was already into a contemporary-type bag when I met him. He was always a little bit out there, all the time.” The two musicians studied with Richard Wang, who was, according to Jarman, “very adventurous as far as ‘jazz’ music was concerned, as well as ‘classical’ music.” According to Wang himself, who has to be credited along with the redoubtable Walter Dyett in any history of the early AACM members, in addition to the standard lessons in theory, counterpoint, and keyboard harmony, the young musicians were exposed to the music of the Second Viennese School, as well as John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. The standard texts included Paul Hindemith’s classic 1946 Elementary Training for Musicians, which later became an aspect of AACM autodidacticism. Other texts included Hindemith’s 1945 The Craft of Musical Composition and composer Arnold Schoenberg’s 1951 Style and Idea.
Wang’s students, who performed in jazz and classical ensembles, included Malachi Favors and saxophonists John Powell, Anthony Braxton, and Henry Threadgill, as well as Richard Brown, who was playing piano and clarinet, rather than the saxophone for which he became known years later under his adopted name of Ari. Friday afternoons were devoted to rehearsals that brought Wilson students together with the cream of Chicago’s musicians. Present at these events were people like Eddie Harris, Charles Stepney, drummers Steve McCall and Jack DeJohnette, bassists Betty Dupree and Jimmy Willis, pianist Andrew Hill, and several musicians who had been part of the Sun Ra Arkestra, including trumpeter Hobart Dotson and percussionists Richard Evans and Jim Herndon. In the meantime, Jarman, Favors, Threadgill, pianist Louis Hall, and drummer Richard Smith (now Drahseer Khalid) had formed their own group, playing hard bop.
One day in 1963, Roscoe Mitchell turned up at a rehearsal of the Experimental Band at the C&C Lounge, and met Richard Abrams, who had been introduced to the saxophonist by pianist-drummer Jack DeJohnette. Malachi Favors, an early member of the rehearsal band, remarked to Abrams how impressed he was by Mitchell’s playing. “Muhal kind of took me in,” Mitchell recalled. “I’d go to school, and I’d go straight from school to Muhal’s, when he was living in that little place off Cottage Grove, down in the basement. I remember he had painted everything that velvet purple color. Sometimes I’d be down over to Muhal’s at ten, eleven, twelve at night, playing or working on music.”
Soon, Mitchell and Favors began rehearsing together and developing new compositions, often with two other young experimentalists, trumpeter Fred Berry and drummer Alvin Fielder. Fielder was becoming aware that “there comes a point where you go from a notion of swinging and keeping a pulse to a notion of time being something different. . . . Sun Ra had always told me, ‘Al, loosen up,’ I didn’t know what he meant, really.” Looking for something different, Fielder visited New York for nearly a year in 1962, but somehow, the music being played by what he remembered as a “clique” of musicians from Boston, Detroit, and Chicago was not satisfying his growing urge to find another path. “I first started to loosen up after meeting Muhal,” Fielder said. Abrams was performing in a trio with Rafael Garrett and Steve McCall. Fielder replaced the peripatetic McCall, and began to meet musicians from a younger circle of experimentalists. “The first time I played in a so-called free group was with Roscoe,” Fielder noted. As he told writer Ted Panken, “Roscoe Mitchell came to a rehearsal I was doing with Muhal, Kalaparusha [Maurice McIntyre] and [trombonist and bassist] Lester Lashley. He just sat and listened, and asked me could I play free [laughs]. I said, ‘Yeah, I play free,’ So he invited me to a rehearsal with Freddie Berry and Malachi Favors. That’s how the original Roscoe Mitchell Quartet started.”
“The first compositions we played in Roscoe’s group were very much like Ornette’s music,” Fielder recalled. “I developed a philosophy there that I wanted to play my bebop as loose as possible and I wanted to play my free music as tight as possible.” Up to that point, Fielder had been playing around town with musicians like saxophonists Cozy Eggleston and Earl Ezell (later Ahmad Salaheldeen), and pianist Danny Riperton, the brother of singer Minnie Riperton. Now, he was in the process of crossing a personal, conceptual, and professional Rubicon, with a very different kind of music. Discovering at first hand the social dynamics of the “Inside/Outside” binary, Fielder noticed that “None of the bebop cats would call me any more, once I started working with Muhal and Roscoe.” Meanwhile, Mitchell was trying to get his friend Joseph Jarman to come down and play with the Experimental Band. As Jarman tells it,
Roscoe said, you oughta come, there’s this guy who’s got a rehearsal band down here. He’s a nice guy and he knows a lot about music. So I went down there and there was this guy, and he greets you like you were his brother or something. He said, welcome, and there were all these people in there, and I had to step back, because some of them were like famous people—local Chicago musicians, Jack DeJohnette, Scotty Holt, Steve McCall. And then this guy gave me an invitation whenever I felt like it to come by his house and get music lessons. He’d offer you herb tea and it would be so good,” Jarman recalled. “He was into herbology, astrology, painting, all this mystical stuff that I had dreamed of. It was like I had found a teacher.
After daily classes with the dedicated, expansive Wang, the young musicians would join the nightly throng at Peggy and Richard Abrams’s tiny basement apartment on South Evans, where they would explore musical, cultural, political, social, and spiritual ideas. Abrams’s range of experiences and interests deeply affected the young musicians. “Muhal’s place would always stay packed with people,” said Mitchell. “He’d have all this time for all these people, and still at the end of the week he’d come to the band with a big-band chart.”
Abrams’s leadership of the Experimental Band extended and revised the alternative pedagogical direction begun in 1961 at the C&C, with the ensemble functioning as a site for exchange, learning, and experimentation across generations: “The Experimental Band gave me a place to play this music I was writing, but the younger musicians couldn’t read the music, because it was too advanced for them. So I had to make up ways for them to play it, all these improvised ways for them to do stuff. I would have them learn a passage, do hand signals for them to play different things.” The collective-oriented atmosphere of the Experimental Band became a regular forum that recalled the spirit of Will Jackson and King Fleming. As Abrams affirmed, “The attention that they gave me and the help that they gave me awakened something in me that needed to extend out to other people. Whenever someone newer in the music scene would come along, I would always be willing to help if they sought my help, and I would always reflect back on the fact that those gentlemen helped me.”
With the Experimental Band, Abrams moved to create cooperative situations where musicians could both learn new ideas and techniques from others, and bring in their own music and hear it performed. Mitchell and Jarman soon started composing music under Abrams’s guidance. Jarman’s recollection was of an open situation where exploration would be encouraged:
He said, “Write whatever you want, and we’ll look at it.” There was no judgment thing. We might say thumbs down or thumbs up individually or personally, but no one would ever say that publicly. I might bring a piece in and they’ll play it. They won’t say whether they like it or not but they’ll do their darnedest to play it as best as they could. Underneath they might have been saying, “What does this guy think he’s doing?” Or, “Wow, thumbs up.” But still they would do it.
Mitchell’s narrative points up how the composer-centered aspect of the AACM can be seen to emerge directly from Abrams’s encouragement. “I was getting my writing chops together,” said Mitchell, “and he [Abrams] always encouraged people to write, write, write. He was showing us all of these different compositional methods. He always had a deep appreciation for all kinds of music, and studied all kinds of music. He had a lot to draw on, and he passed it on freely to the people that wanted to learn that.” The new musical resources that were being explored were by no means limited to composition. New ideas and ways of thinking about structure in improvisation were also being hammered out. As Jarman told an interviewer in 1967, Abrams would say, “Don’t just think about what you’re playing when you’re playing a solo—think about what came before and what’s going to come after.”
Typically, however, Abrams minimizes the extent of the contact between himself and the younger musicians to a single crucial encounter. Abrams remembers that his initial advice to Mitchell concerning composition was to “write down what you’re playing on your horn. He proceeded to do that—that’s where ‘Nonaah and stuff like that comes from—and he’s never looked back since, and we never discussed composition any more.”
“That’s not really true,” said Mitchell. “He would always be turning people on to books, and talking about scores. Maybe he just doesn’t realize the effect that he had on people’s lives.” In fact, the young musicians were in constant, almost daily contact with Abrams. Saxophonist Gene Dinwiddie, an original AACM member, remembers that “Everybody was following him around like little puppies.”