James Hollis/AACMThe Ameen Muhammad Ensemble

At an October 1965 meeting of Chicago’s fledgling Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), saxophonist Jimmy Ellis was midway through a lecture on the importance to any “young jazz musician” of traditional forms and techniques, when pianist/composer Richard Abrams–later Muhal Richard Abrams–cut him short: “We’re not really jazz musicians.” Abrams and Ellis, born months apart in 1930, were respected members of the city’s hard-bop community, well-connected players who might join Dexter Gordon or Max Roach on the bandstand when they passed through town. Many of the assembled “we” had come up similarly, learning their instruments at the feet of legendary high school bandleaders like DuSable’s Captain Walter Dyett before paying their dues in the South Side’s club scene (in decline by the 1960s) and after-hours cutting contests. If these weren’t “jazz musicians,” what did Abrams imagine they were?

Abrams’s remark, while surprising, was not unprecedented. Though many musicians, then as now, have been untroubled by and even proud of the label “jazz,” others have chafed against it, as when Charles Mingus complained to Down Beat that he and his contemporaries were “being forced to write music for the slipping of Mabel’s girdle.” For most of jazz’s history, comparisons between jazz and the tradition of Western concert music labeled “classical” or “serious” have typically been rigged to favor the (master’s) house. More recently, hip-hop and r&b-based pop have largely replaced jazz as objects of high-cultural scorn, and the music’s most significant figures have won increased critical and institutional cachet. (Alex Ross’s efforts, in The Rest Is Noise, to assimilate Duke Ellington into a broader narrative of twentieth-century composition is one recent and laudable example.) Even so, some musicians and writers continue to question whether the unwholesome connotations that adhere to “jazz”–the stank of the whorehouse, or at best the speakeasy–can ever be entirely washed away.

As an academic, currently at Columbia University, as well as a composing and improvising trombonist and computer musician active inside and outside the AACM since joining in 1971, George Lewis has faced these issues, and the struggles over cultural property and artistic respect that they reflect, from many sides. So it’s telling that over the nearly 700 pages of A Power Stronger Than Itself, Lewis’s massively polyphonic account of the AACM’s forty-three years of activity, neither he nor his fellow members settle for long on a general term for their music. “Jazz and its offshoots,” “jazz-identified music” (you can almost hear the scare quotes) and “post-jazz” appear at intervals, while the “American experimental music” of the subtitle is one of Lewis’s stalking-horses, a tightly policed lineage of art-music, yoked to European models even in its seemingly radical, post-Cagean forms, “that would frame as axiomatic the permanent marginalization of African American agency,” especially in the guise of improvisation. Even the 1977 proposal of the tag line “Great Black Music” proved divisive. While the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Roscoe Mitchell and others adopted this semiofficial descriptor on the grounds that “nobody was calling the music great,” an equally prominent member, composer/omni-reedist Anthony Braxton, later dismissed the term as racist.

The lack of fixed terminology suggests the challenges of assembling the perspectives of so many individual and often temperamentally iconoclastic musicians, including Lewis’s own, into a unified collective viewpoint. A Power Stronger Than Itself intersperses institutional history and theoretical reflections with capsule biographies, most based on original interviews, of more than fifty past and present AACM members. This material alone, rich with anecdote and social history, would be the stuff of great jazz (or “jazz-identified”) historiography. It is also more accessible to the nonspecialist than the book’s more conventionally academic passages, which, though forcefully argued, lean heavily on the recondite language of cultural studies–more, a bit surprisingly, than on musicological description. Though some figures emerge as central, one of the book’s great virtues is the generous space accorded to the voices and stories of younger musicians like flutist Nicole Mitchell, and to those little celebrated outside Chicago. The attention paid to such community builders as saxophonist/club owner Fred Anderson and trumpeter/administrator John Shenoy Jackson reflects Lewis’s belief that “if you get written out of a history in which you were very evidently present, you can just write yourself back in.”

The roots of that history lie in the Experimental Band, a rehearsal orchestra for Abrams’s and others’ new compositions, especially those unsuitable for mainstream club work. The group also gave younger players, including future Art Ensemble founders Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, a chance to hear their music realized by working professionals. The Experimental Band’s raison d’être was soon carried forward into a new group, intended as a mutual-aid society rather than a performing entity. The AACM found its name and direction in the South Side apartment of trumpeter Philip Cochran in May 1965, in meetings preserved on tape by a prescient Abrams. Pianist Jodie Christian saw early on that “the only jobs that we’re gonna have where we can really perform original music are concerts that we promote, because the type of jobs that we’re gonna get won’t call for original music.” To this end, members were expected to pay dues of a dollar a week, retain a majority of fellow members in their ensembles and assist in producing and promoting weekly concerts. In its nine-point statement of purpose, the organization also pledged “to increase mutual respect between creative artists and musical tradesmen (booking agents, managers, promoters, and instrument manufacturers, etc.).” Years later, Abrams added, “In that department, we found that the only way to create mutual respect…was for us to become both the artists and the tradesmen.”

The political implications of the group’s racial makeup emerged only gradually. Though the initial membership was overwhelmingly black, at least one white player, pianist Bob Dogan, attended the earliest meetings. Only when Dogan proposed to sponsor other white members of his working band did Abrams allow that “when we started, we didn’t intend to have an interracial group.” Lewis doesn’t record how or when Dogan came to leave the AACM, but by October 1965, Malachi Favors could state, “We are in the midst of a revolution–when I say ‘we,’ I mean black people. When I came into the organization, I didn’t know that it was this way…but I’ve accepted it.” Even so, another white member, vibraphonist Gordon Emanuel (later Emanuel Cranshaw), who had appeared on Abrams’s early recordings, was inducted in 1967, only to be voted out by an increasingly separatist membership two years later.

Jazz historians differ as to the AACM’s militancy, from Alyn Shipton’s contention that the like-minded Underground Musicians Association, based in Los Angeles, was “a far more overtly political organization…discussing racial and other issues in an open manner” to Ronald Radano’s description of the group as a “particularly virulent, anti-Western, and, at moments, antiwhite organization.” Lewis’s nuanced account, while noting that the cultural nationalism of the Black Arts Movement was never an official policy, leaves no doubt about AACM’s radical status as a self-constituted organization of working-class African-Americans fighting for creative and economic autonomy in what was by then one of the most segregated cities in the North–a city where, as late as 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. would cancel a march in suburban Cicero rather than expose supporters to the violence of counterdemonstrators.

Abrams’s insistence on original composition was balanced with a strategic refusal to dictate what either “original” or “composition” might mean, or where the border between composition and improvisation might lie. This methodological freedom proved to be the AACM’s great strength. Though the use of pan-ethnic “little instruments” as contrast or accompaniment to customary jazz instrumentation became a hallmark, the big tent of “original music” also sheltered former church organist Amina Claudine Myers’s blues- and gospel-rooted piano/vocal performances; Anthony Braxton’s traditionally notated orchestrations; explorations of graphic notation by Braxton, Leo Smith and others; and Henry Threadgill’s recasting of Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin with the sax/bass/drums trio Air. During a prolific European sojourn, the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s output ranged from Lester Bowie’s ironic appropriations of cornball early trumpet styles to the funky r&b stomp “Theme de Yoyo,” sung with Aretha-sized conviction by Bowie’s wife Fontella Bass several years after her still-familiar 1965 soul hit “Rescue Me.”

Though nearly all this music found room for improvisation, hardly any resembled the self-consciously spontaneous “free jazz” that preceded it. (Bowie’s comment is priceless: “The main difference is that we would stop.”) Not all commentators welcomed the AACM’s innovations, with work that partook of the structures and techniques of twentieth-century concert music coming under the heaviest fire. Amiri Baraka, whose understanding of Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor and post-Ascension Coltrane as the soundtrack to black revolution remains influential, derided the “imitation of certain aspects of contemporary European and white Euro-American music” and, Braxton in his sights, chastised an unnamed saxophonist who allegedly aped Berg, Webern and Stockhausen for the sake of “showing white folks how intelligent he (they) is.” Lewis’s response to Baraka’s essentializing slurs is apt: “A conception of black cultural history that is forced to deny engagement with or influence from pan-European traditions would look absurd if it were applied to black writers or visual artists.”

Less concerned with whether white musicians can play jazz than with whether black ones are allowed to do anything else, Lewis is rightfully impatient with musical analogues to the bad old “one drop” rule, which allow critic John Rockwell to claim that white composer/improviser and sometime AACM fellow traveler John Zorn “transcends category” while writing of an equally multifarious black musician that “however much he may resist categories, Mr. Braxton’s background is in jazz.” As Abrams had it, however, “there are different types of black life, and therefore we know that there are different kinds of black music.” The cash value of these differences is evident in disputes over arts funding from the 1970s on, when black composers working in and beyond jazz idioms began competing in earnest for support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation and like institutions. While the disparities in funding between (for instance) the NEA’s classically oriented categories and its “jazz/folk/ethnic” catchall are striking, Lewis’s most revealing point is not strictly economic. At mid-decade, “applicants in jazz composition were required to submit work samples comprising at least sixty-four bars of music, realized using common-practice European notation. In contrast, the NEA’s ‘classical’ composition panel did not specify notation styles at all.” By barring other approaches to harmony and structure, these strictures left many “jazz-identified” composers little choice but to submit to the tender mercies of entrenched (and predominantly white) academics who held the purse strings for “serious” music.

Abrams’s presence on NEA peer-review panels helped crack the coffers later in the decade. NEA monies also stoked ill-starred efforts to incorporate the AACM into the 1980s, which led to the hiring of a salaried administrator but little actual programming. The advent of Jazz at Lincoln Center, capitalized in 1991 with $3.4 million from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund, changed the game. As directed by Wynton Marsalis, its programs immediately became the elephant in the none-too-spacious room of institutionalized jazz. An elephant, moreover, with a selective memory: under the guidance of Stanley Crouch, Marsalis’s narrow conception of “the tradition” sidelined most developments since 1960. For Lewis, this retrenchment marks a denial of the obvious: that the “classical” jazz of Armstrong, Ellington and Parker, among others, was no less the product of “exploration, discovery, and experiment” than the AACM’s. In a sardonic footnote, Lewis drops all pretense of scholarly distance toward the revisionist view, as perpetuated by Ken Burns’s Jazz series: “John Coltrane went mad in 1965, and a mysterious virus that he and others were carrying killed hundreds of musicians until Wynton Marsalis arrived in 1983, carrying a powerful mojo from the birthplace of jazz that put the deadly germ and its carriers to flight.”

Ironies abound here. Earlier in Lewis’s chronicle, Crouch makes an appearance as a none-too-swinging would-be drummer and musical director of a Bowery venue open to both the mainstream and the “out,” a guise that may puzzle readers familiar only with his pronouncements, recently reprinted in Considering Genius, on such “irrefutable jazz fundamentals” as “4/4 swing, blues, the meditative ballad, and the Spanish tinge.” Less amusing is Lewis’s charge that, when Marsalis and Crouch were doling out gigs and commissions, their insistence on a pedigree merely mirrored decades of exclusionary gatekeeping within traditional and experimental Western classical music. No one at those South Side meetings thirty years earlier could have imagined that, in rejecting the label “jazz,” they would someday find themselves cut off from the cultural capital–and work–that might come from embracing it.

Lewis is at his most moving, and least abstract, in a final chapter framed by a succession of funerals and memorials for AACM members who died during the book’s ten-year gestation, including Bowie, Favors and veteran saxophonists John Stubblefield and Vandy Harris. A 2005 memorial at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ for Harris, with whom Lewis had played thirty years earlier and who once proposed corporal punishment for infractions of AACM bylaws, occasions a performance by an intergenerational “Great Black Music Ensemble” and “Words of Comfort” from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who asks, according to Lewis, how “a political culture that claimed to be led by the Bible” could justify the invasion of Iraq. (Lest this cameo appear to tie Wright exclusively to the jazz avant-garde, it is worth noting that he also delivers a lengthy, Crouch-penned sermon on Marsalis’s 1989 album The Majesty of the Blues.) The sustaining power of the AACM community is never more evident than in Lewis’s account of these gatherings.

One of Lewis’s strongest recordings is the 1993 CD Changing With the Times, which pairs his compositions with spoken material, including poems by Jerome Rothenberg and Quincy Troupe, as well as an autobiography written for an adult education class by his father, a retired postal worker. “Airplane,” penned by the composer, tells of a coach flight during which the musician-narrator contends with an overly familiar white seatmate who takes his instrument case to mean “we’re going to have some entertainment on this flight” and an attendant who blithely compliments his “Bill Cosby” sweater. Read by AACM-associated actor/vocalist Bernard Mixon, this monologue is backed by a pointedly un-“entertaining” assemblage of trombone, violin and chiming percussion–sounds that, one surmises, Lewis’s interlocutors would be unlikely to recognize as the product of black artistry. The piece is witty, conceptually sophisticated and not notable for its charity. A Power Stronger Than Itself has a similar balance of strengths and shortcomings. But in bringing intellectual breadth and what Lester Bowie calls “good old country ass-kicking” to bear on past and present indignities, Lewis has produced a fitting companion to the music he celebrates, whatever one calls it.