George Lewis's History of the AACM

George Lewis, Moers Festival 2009
A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, by George E. Lewis, describes the formation and evolution of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. The book came highly recommended by Vijay Iyer at Banff 2012, alongside other historical works like the autobiography of Horace Tapscott; picking it up earlier this week, I had never listened purchased or checked out recordings by any of the AACM guys, but reading it has been a more-than-persuasive experience. 

Aside from being an AACM insider and a brilliant musician, Lewis is also a scholar and an exceptionally readable writer: the central AACM narrative is propelled by Lewis's analysis of relevant social, economic, and cultural factors contributing to the environment that gave rise to the AACM, as well as numerous anecdotes and interview excerpts from AACM members and individuals who weren't in the AACM but were related to the movement in some way.

There's value in reading this book just to fill in some jazz history lacunae that college jazz history courses or Ken Burns Jazz didn't do justice, but for creative musicians, there's great value in checking out the wisdom of these avant-garde elders and their stories, which provide a refreshing look outside of the tired and relatively linear mainstream narrative of post-WWII jazz. In a way, there's a sense of getting past reinventing the wheel, so to speak, because so many of these great Chicago pioneers had already advanced the dialogue and state of thinking many issues in creative music—simply by reading. On the topic of the need for communities of like-minded musicians to emerge and provide financial and musical support, trumpeter Fred Berry said:
For original music to be presented, it needs some help. It needs help, from us. That is why we’re doing this. The standard music needs no help to be presented. If you want to play standards, or standard music, there are places to do this. You’re working your gigs, you’re playing the standard music there. But this is for something new and something different that has no other medium
To add to this, there's also the consideration of allowing musicians the economic freedom to just do what they want, for a chance:
Ever since we started playing music, each and every one of us in this room, the music that we’ve been playing has been strictly for the audience,” said Jerol Donavon. “We have never been able to play music that we wanted to play ourselves. That was another reason for forming this Association, so that we could play what we wanted to play for a change, instead of playing ‘Night Train,’ and ‘Shotgun’ and all that stuff that people constantly press you to play when you’re on your job.”
Although the musical factors of production, like recording technology and means of distribution, seem to be gradually shifting away from the hands of large corporations and more towards the musicians themselves thanks to the Internet and the digital revolution, a lot of the problems that faced these Chicago musicians in 1965 are still relevant today—for a student like me, the purpose and role of jam sessions can still be mystifying. One opinion by Wadada Leo Smith:
I’ve never been excited about sessions. I’ve been to quite a few, and was appalled that nothing took place other than a notion of authority and power. They play the same pieces all the time, and the same guys always trip people up. This whole notion of sessions has passed beyond its time, because it had this kind of competitive edge, kind of a bronco-busting competition. I think after people have gotten a little more used to deciding how they’re going to present their stuff, they kind of drop that.
I've been to sessions where the above was the case, as well as many where I've learned a great deal and grown as a result of participating, but being able to identify situations that are educational and those that aren't and subsequently devising situations for myself that maximize musical learning and growth is something I'm working on; it's also something the history of the AACM illuminates in great practical detail.

Tradition, too: how am I supposed to situate myself in this big, scary, postmodern world of 2012? And, how am I supposed to think about myself in relation to all that stuff that came before? T.S. Eliot has some great thoughts on it, and there's always the conventional wisdom of having "one foot in the past and one in the present/future," but maybe it's more of an attitudinal thing—how to negotiate, study, and make use of other musics, past and present. I like Douglas Ewart's thoughts on this, which is considers the contemporary musician's duty to maintain the high standard of musicianship that came before with regards to creating a personal sound. It also rejects the notion that all avant-garde musicians were in isolation or willfully resisting tradition in any way:
It was clear to Ewart that “the idea of making a true departure from what had gone before was something that was definitely considered.” At the same time, however, “In trying to forge new ground, cats were not in any way trying to undermine what had gone before. People were listening to Louis Armstrong, James P. Johnson, Fatha Hines, Duke Ellington, Basie, the Lunceford work. Cats were looking at Erik Satie, Balinese music, Burmese music, the I Ching. They said, the cats set a pace for us, and we got to keep up with this pace.”
Julius Hemphill frames the issue as a matter of freedom—of not being trapped, which doesn't mean totally being outside, but being able to leave when you'd like and come back when you'd like:

Well, you often hear people nowadays talking about tradition, tradition, tradition. But they have tunnel vision in this tradition. Because tradition in African American music is as wide as all outdoors….Music is much bigger than bebop changes. I don’t feel like being trapped in those halls of harmony
Ultimately, Lewis's history of the AACM provides a great deal of inspiring opinions relating to critical practice: addressing what purpose one believes music serves for both him/herself and the world. The importance of community and the sustaining of a community seems to be something many AACM musicians agreed on, which many musicians at Banff also stressed. Towards the end of the book, Lewis shares an anecdote from Joseph Jarman that beautifully summarizes what music can do for a community:

Ultimately, [Rita] Warford felt that the “wholesome” effect that the AACM had on the black community was best symbolized by a story that Joseph Jarman brought to her.

The Art Ensemble, they were just in the heart of the community, before they started traveling to Europe and everything. It might have been down on 43rd and Indiana or something. There was this one guy who used to come in and sit at the bar and eat a sweet potato pie. He eventually told them on night, he said, yeah, I sued to be out shooting drugs and drinking all night long, but since you guys have been playing down here, I just sit at the bar and eat this sweet potato pie.
If every musician in the world made the sustaining of their local community a priority above personal accomplishment or recognition, what would happen? A lot of these kinds of questions came to mind when reading Lewis's book, but, thankfully, Lewis pretty much maintains his neutral, removed scholarly tone throughout and leaves the thinking to the reader. It's definitely worth checking out if you've got the time. Now, on to Gravity's Rainbow