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.