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Orchestrating Change 

Muhal Richard Abrams: A Man of Influence

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"People have given us all sorts of names--avant-garde, free jazz, new jazz," pianist and composer Muhal Richard Abrams says, pretty much right off the bat. "We don't accept those names, and I'd appreciate it if you didn't use them in connection with my work." By "us" Abrams--who's in town this weekend to perform a solo piano concert and receive a proclamation from the city announcing this Sunday as Muhal Richard Abrams Day--means himself and his cohorts in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the hugely influential south-side organization that produced forward-thinking jazz players like Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill, Wadada Leo Smith, and George Lewis. And in case you're wondering what you can call what they do, the preferred term is "music."

Abrams, 68, cofounded the AACM in 1965 and served as its president almost continuously until 1977, when like many of the organization's finest players he moved to New York. He still lives there. "I'm a musician and I function in the world," he says. "You can access the world from New York." It seems to have paid off: he's accumulated an impressive discography and list of commissions, including a piece he just conducted at Carnegie Hall and a newly completed symphony that will be performed there in January by the American Composers Orchestra. But his presence still looms large in Chicago jazz. The AACM was a model of artistic self-determination: its members all wrote original music, fronted their own groups, presented their own concerts in churches, coffeehouses, and small theaters, and developed bigger, broader ideas than most other jazz musicians of the era. They also established a community music school that today teaches 20 to 30 students per quarter.

The numerous influences--blues, stride, electronic music, gospel, African music, and more--embedded in the AACM's music weren't intended as a display of bold eclecticism but as a natural extension of the members' varied musical interests. Unfortunately the status quo had other ideas of what black musicians should be playing--namely social, popular music like straight bebop, blues, or R & B--and where they should be playing it. According to trombonist and composer George Lewis, a music professor at the University of California in San Diego who is currently at work on a book about the AACM, "You had this overarching notion that there seemed to be a correct place for black music, and you still have it. It's held that there is no such thing as noncommercial black music and that the place to hear any kind of black music is in the intimacy of a club. We needed to do something a little bit different."

That's not to say their innovations came out of thin air. In the early 90s Abrams told local jazz writer Aaron Cohen, "I was more or less into sports at DuSable High," but by 1948, at age 18, he was serious enough about piano to begin playing professionally, and he has said that he already had broad tastes. He played countless pickup gigs with touring musicians in the 50s and 60s and worked regularly with Walter Perkins's MJT+3, a popular local postbop combo. But more than anything his experience with pianist King Fleming's orchestra, to which he contributed some of his first professional arrangements, presaged the work he would do with his early-60s workshop group, the Experimental Band, and later with the AACM.

Fleming's recordings for the Chess subsidiary Argo in the early 60s, though decidedly more commercial than anything Abrams would do on his own, incorporated a wide range of nonjazz elements, from New Orleans R & B to African percussion breakdowns. As Abrams told writer Gene Santoro in the book Dancing in Your Head, "Look at all the different themes [Fleming] used on Stand By. In Chicago, most musicians were like that. That's why you could have an AACM and a Sun Ra come out of there."

But while there were certainly precedents for his eagerness to go exploring, Abrams's determination and artistic vision were wholly original. He and his AACM cohorts were inspired by the breakthroughs of people like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, but they weren't necessarily interested in making the same sounds--at least not exclusively. Almost from the beginning you can hear the blues, swing, and bebop mingling with daring collective improvisation and even ideas nabbed from contemporary classical music in Abrams's work, and on the recordings he's made over the last three decades he's only brought more into the fold--though to enumerate further runs counter to both the composer's aesthetic and the music itself. Abrams's oeuvre is no Whitman's sampler, but a seamless whole marked most notably by his gorgeous, complex orchestrations. "When I speak about expanding into this 'total music' world, that's always what I directed myself to do, to touch every corner where there's music to be dealt with," he says.

His ideas have since been assimilated by several generations of musicians--from AACM pioneers Henry Threadgill and the Art Ensemble of Chicago to John Zorn--but in the 60s they were extraordinarily bold, and to have the music heard the way it was intended, the AACM members presented their own concerts. "They needed venues that were appropriate to the kind of experimentation that they were doing," says Lewis. "The kind of experimentation that was happening in other sectors of the music economy in and outside of the jazz sector." The music of the AACM sometimes demanded careful listening, which the chattery atmosphere of nightclubs discouraged, and this, says Lewis, motivated them more than any lack of recognition from Chicago's mainstream jazz scene.

Abrams "was a person who stood up for these values and that gave other people the courage to stand up for their own values, because you knew there was someone there who was never going to waver from that," Lewis says. "He's totally stubborn about that, and that's really as inspiring as anything else. He is intensely committed to realizing his vision and helping you realize yours, and he has a generosity of spirit without telling you what your vision should be."

Abrams is modest to a fault, but he does say, "I think I might've inspired others to be more individualistic in their approach to what they wanted to do. I don't think you could find a style, or doctrine, or directives that I advanced that other people would follow. It's more about being an example of something, of adhering as best you can and as truthfully as possible to your own individualism. That's the key to the AACM's influence."

Abrams's performance, which will follow the formal presentation of his proclamation by Cultural Affairs Commissioner Lois Weisberg, is a rare event: his last appearance in Chicago was his Experimental Band reunion at Jazz Fest in 1995. His improvised performance starts Sunday at 3 PM in the Chicago Cultural Center's Preston Bradley Hall, 78 E. Washington. Admission is free; call 312-744-6630 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Muhal Richard Abrams photo by Charles Eshelman.

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