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Muhal Richard Abrams, George Lewis, and Roscoe Mitchell

“Improvisation is a human right”: Chicago Slow Dance: The AACM in Conversation

The Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) is a non-profit creative organization that supports and welcomes creative jazz performers, composers, and educators. The AACM was founded in Chicago, Illinois, by pianist and composer Muhal Richard Abrams, pianist Jodie Christian, drummer Steve McCall, and composer/trumpeter Phil Cohran (also known for his work with the Sun Ra Arkestra). Some of the most illustrious free jazz players have been part of AACM’s nexus, including Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago: Lester Bowie, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Don Moye, and Malachi Favors. As the AACM’s charter mandates, the AACM is dedicated “to nurturing, performing, and recording serious, original music.” Particularly through the 1960s and 70s, AACM members were among the most innovative in jazz/music, and recorded widely, often boldly mixing jazz, the avant-garde, improvisation, classical, and world music. Their contributions to the free jazz world are colossal.

George E. Lewis, featured in the interview, who joined the collective as a teenager in 1971, and who is an ICASP co-investigator, wrote the most extensively documented work on the AACM: A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music. In his seminal work Lewis applies a cross-generation chorus of voices to explore the important communal history of the AACM. In the prologue Lewis describes how the “AACM is part of a long tradition of organizational efforts in which African American musicians took leadership roles” (x), going on to detail the more than forty years of work and composite output of the AACM in a range of methodologies, processes, and media. Lewis writes: “AACM musicians developed new and influential ideas about timbre, sound, collectivity, extended technique and instrumentation, performance practice, intermedia, the relationship of improvisation to composition, form, scores, computer music technologies, invented acoustic instruments, installations, and kinetic sculptures” (ix). These new forms and medias of playing were opportunities, afforded by the AACM, as Muhal Richard Abrams and John Shenoy Jackson assert, “to show how the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised can come together and determine their own strategies for political and economic freedom, thereby determining their own destinies” (qtd. in Lewis ix). As Muhal Richard Abrams succinctly put it at the “Improvising Bodies” Colloquium in Guelph in 2010: “Improvisation is a human right.”

This month’s Oral History is taken from the 2010 Guelph Jazz Festival/ ICASP colloquium, which presented this engaging panel conversation between AACM members, Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, and George Lewis. Judiciously moderated by Lincoln Beauchamp Jr., the AACM members discuss how the AACM came to be, as well as their respective involvement in the group. The panel converses about the impact of the AACM both musically and non-musically, as well as taking questions from the audience. The dynamic conversation affirms how important the AACM remains in providing new perspectives, new methodologies, and new artistic and cultural practices to the world of creative improvised practices.


A full transcript of the interview is available here

So one of the things that improvisation has come to mean in the context of highly technological performance is that improvisation is the last claim to the legitimate presence of a human in the performance of music.

– Bob Ostertag