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Gittin' to Know Y'all: Improvised Music, Interculturalism and the Racial Imagination

George Lewis

Published: 2004-09-01

This essay examines one of the first extensively documented musical collaborations between two experimental music communities that emerged at around the same moment in time: members of the European “free jazz” or “free improvisation” movement, an international development that spanned the continent, and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a product of Chicago’s racially segregated, all-black South Side. The collaboration, organized by the important critic and radio producer Joachim Ernst Berendt, took place in 1969 at the Baden-Baden “Free Jazz Treffen” in the German Schwarzwald. While the goals, methods, materials, geographical base, historical outlook, political and cultural stances, and critical reception of the two avant-gardes differ markedly, both of these movements are framed in music histories as key representatives of a second generation of the “free jazz” movement spearheaded by Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane, among many others. By 1965, these two experimental networks, based on different continents and unaware of each other, yet sharing important characteristics, goals and acknowledged musical antecedents, were in the process of crystallization. A studio recording from the “Free Jazz Treffen” was released in 1970 under Lester Bowie's leadership, bearing the pointedly ironic title, “Gittin’ To Know Y'All." Reading the history of the two avant-gardes around the Bowie recording, the essay seeks answers to the question of why these two avant-gardes, despite their seeming compatibilities, remain relatively distanced from each other in terms of certain kinds of collaborations.

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Listening itself, an improvisative act engaged in by everyone, announces a practice of active engagement with the world, where we sift, interpret, store and forget, in parallel with action and fundamentally articulated with it ("Mobilitas Animi" 113).

– George E. Lewis