AACM | John Szwed on the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians

For Ars Nova Workshop's AACM: Great Black Music Festival, we've asked several leading jazz scholars and journalists to engage performers in a series of pre-concert public discussions about the history, present, and future of the AACM. At 6pm on Saturday, June 4 at Philadelphia Art Alliance, Sun Ra and Alan Lomax biographer and Columbia University professor John Szwed will talk with first generation AACM member Wadada Leo Smith, whose solo performance following the discussion will kick off the 5-concert festival. We're pleased to share with you a short essay written on the AACM by Szwed for Ars Nova Workshop.

On the mythic map of jazz that we have inherited there are two coasts, one river, and three cities - New Orleans, Chicago, and New York. It's a cruel simplification of a very complex history, but one that's hard to forget. A few years back I was thinking of that jazz geography when I travelled between those three cities over a short stretch of time and got to hear some music in each of them.

In New York, the audience at the Vanguard was appreciative, urbane, and politely knowing. And why not, the music is no longer connected to any particular community or ethnicity, and New York clubs are now more like a jazz festival, with groups from everywhere in the world passing through. In New Orleans, on the other hand, jazz seemed to me something like the tropical air or the drinks: it had always been there, and you breathed, drank, and listened. Music in that city is still neighborhood-based, and remains, in spite of Katrina, somewhat racially determined and tied to other forms of community music - soul, blues, funk . . .

In Chicago one experience sticks with me. I arrived just in time to see the Art Ensemble of Chicago make a widely publicized concert return to Mandel Hall. The crowd that night was diverse, all high energy and wild enthusiasm for the music. At the end of the evening, Roscoe Mitchell stepped to the microphone, introduced the individual musicians, then said with a bow, "Collectively, we are the Art Ensemble of Chicago." When that last word was uttered the audience leaped to its feet with a triumphant roar! "Hog Butcher for the World," Carl Sandburg called Chicago, "Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads . . . Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders" In the hall that night it felt something like that.

The fact is that in Chicago the music we call jazz has always sounded and been received differently, even when the musicians came from out of town and were thrown together, as they so often were. (Louis Armstrong's Hot Five, for example, was not a working band, but one assembled only to record.) Like New Orleans, Chicago's music was aligned by neighborhoods, but driven by a slick cosmopolitanism that could happily accept Southern ways of doing things and also welcome risk and experimentation. Those Chicago-style jazz bands of the 1930s were brassier, louder, and more percussive than the New Orleans jazz it was based upon. It was wired music, nervous, and tougher.

When the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians first began to develop as a school in the '60s they faced a Chicago aesthetic that demanded danceable tunes, strong rhythm, and an assertive, almost rough, sound. Even Sun Ra knew how far out not to go in Chicago, and his wondrous space jams were yet to come when he moved to New York. All the more remarkable then, that the AACM was able to pull together everything that Chicago had to offer -- blues, swing, church music, comedy routines, bebop, marches, church picnic spirit, classical experimentation -- and bring it together in a music that broke all the rules. It was a style too diverse to define: soft, loud, folky, and abstract; unafraid to borrow from the world's resources, but always very different from any other city's music; they were eager to explore instruments and cultures of every kind, and yet had great respect for their own musical past.

If this undefinable and diverse music of the AACM has any parallel aesthetic, it's what we call jazz has become today. (John Szwed, 2011).