The Art Ensemble of Chicago celebrate 50 years of pushing great Black music into the future | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

The Art Ensemble of Chicago celebrate 50 years of pushing great Black music into the future 

Surviving cofounders Roscoe Mitchell and Famoudou Don Moye expand the group into an 18-piece big band with the likes of Nicole Mitchell, Tomeka Reid, Jaribu Shahid, and Fred Berry.

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Roscoe Mitchell and Famoudou Don Moye, cofounders of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s famous quintet lineup in the late 1960s, seated before members of the current AEC big band - BARBARA BAREFIELD
  • Roscoe Mitchell and Famoudou Don Moye, cofounders of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s famous quintet lineup in the late 1960s, seated before members of the current AEC big band
  • Barbara Barefield

The Art Ensemble of Chicago have always been in it for the long haul. Founded in 1967 as the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble, they adopted their current handle 50 years ago this summer, upon relocating temporarily to Paris. They'd already dropped Mitchell's name to emphasize their evolving collective approach, and they added "of Chicago" after a French promoter billed them that way. At the time their lineup consisted of Mitchell and Joseph Jarman on reeds and other woodwinds, Lester Bowie on trumpet, Malachi Favors Maghostut on bass, and everyone on the handheld percussion they'd dubbed "little instruments"; drummer Famoudou Don Moye, who was already in Paris, became a member of the ensemble there.


Art Ensemble of Chicago 50th anniversary
Fri 8/30, 7:45-9 PM, Jay Pritzker Pavilion


During their first decades, the Art Ensemble recorded a stack of hugely influential albums that combined free jazz with pan-African percussion, recitations of poetry, satirical genre exercises, and anything else that took their fancy. They became the highest-profile ambassadors of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, formed in Chicago in 1965 to help Black creative music support itself. In their theatrical performances, the group navigated their various modes on a stage crammed with horns, drums, bells, chimes, toys, and other noisemakers (they used around 500 instruments while in Europe in '69), and they often dressed in costume—Jarman, Favors, and Moye favored dramatic face paint and pan-African garb, while Bowie often wore a white lab coat. The Art Ensemble epitomized the AACM motto "Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future."

  • The classic quintet lineup of the Art Ensemble of Chicago performs in Hamburg, Germany, in 1991.

In the years to come, though, diverging priorities slowed the group down, and mortality took a toll. By the early 1980s, the Art Ensemble had scaled back their efforts as each member spent more time making music in other settings. Bowie died in 1999, Favors in 2004. Jarman left the group twice, once in 1993 to devote himself to the study and practice of Zen Buddhism (he returned in 2003) and then again to deal with the illness that ultimately killed him in early 2019. The Art Ensemble performed rarely, and they did not record at all between 2004 and 2018.

Last year the surviving founders, Moye and Mitchell, broke that silence in grand fashion. They expanded the Art Ensemble to an 18-strong big band (complete with brass and string sections, African drummers, and vocalists) for We Are on the Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration (Pi), a double album recorded in the studio and at last year's Edgefest in Ann Arbor. The group perform a couple vintage pieces, "Tutankhamun" and "Odwalla," but the album is dominated by new compositions: Moye's material uses massed percussion and spacey electronics to project the group's pan-African vibe into the future, while Mitchell's contributions (some of which feature classical tenor Rodolfo Cordova-Lebron) sound more like the music he composes for orchestras on his own time. Another vocalist, Camae Ayewa (aka Moor Mother), provides some of the record's most powerful moments, invoking the history of African American struggle against oppression and bringing it up to the present. Unfortunately, Ayewa won't be with the Art Ensemble tonight, but the 18 musicians who are performing include Cordova-Lebron, cellist Tomeka Reid, flutist Nicole Mitchell, trumpeters Hugh Ragin and Fred Berry, and bassists Junius Paul, Jaribu Shahid, and Silvia Bolognesi. This set promises a rare opportunity to experience a group using their 50th anniversary not just to look back on what they've already done but also to deal with where music and humanity are going.  v

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