Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Hip Deep with George Lewis and AACM

As we noted in our recent post, we have an exciting Hip Deep show coming up entitled “Jazz: Africa in America.” We're honored that the producer of the show, Simon Rentner, will provide his personal interviews with the influential scholars, George Lewis and Ingrid Monson.

Over the next week or so we'll be drawing on these interviews to bring you a series of posts relating to our upcoming Hip Deep show: Jazz: Africa in America. We'll be looking at the ongoing histories of the AACM, streaming a few tracks from George Lewis' recommended list of recordings, and looking at ideas of African identities in American jazz through Art Blakey, the AACM's concept of Great Black Music, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

First up, George Lewis and the AACM:

George Lewis plays a crucial, innovative role in the development of American music. He is known for being a composer, performer, improviser of music; professor of American Music at Columbia and director of its Center for Jazz Studies; and prolific writer on music. He has been a member of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) since 1971, and has recently published a widely acclaimed book on the history of the AACM: A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press, 2008).

In their own words, the AACM is 'a collective of musicians and composers dedicated to nurturing, performing, and recording serious, original music.' While many have interpreted the AACM as promoters of free jazz, or even as a jazz ensemble, the Association was founded to provide creative musicians with a forum, the support, and the means to compose and perform original compositions. George Lewis sees it as coming “out of necessity,” as the name itself hints at. George talks of the discussions surrounding the choice of the name AACM (Association For the Advancement of Creative) itself in the interview with Simon:

Someone said, "Is it musicians or is it music?" There seemed to be arguments on both sides. So one person – I think it was Phil Cohran, who was one of the founders, a trumpeter in Chicago-- said that basically we were here to advance the creative musicians because the music had been advanced for a long time but nobody was advancing us.

That seemed to make a lot of sense because, it was basically referring to that history of exploitation of black music, which advanced the music to be sure but the musicians were kind of left behind.
While it is an ongoing, dynamic organization, the AACM grew out of a specific context: Chicago's South side in the 60s, after the Great Migration. Coming out of such a space and time, it is inevitably tied up with the civil rights movement. A striving for freedom and mobility lies at the heart of the organization, and George Lewis believes this is why the composing and performing of original music has been so important for the AACM, for 'original music is a sign of self-determination'. Rather than playing the standards for easy-going jazz audiences, or having to perform to the whim of whoever holds the money in his hand, the AACM created a space where musicians' own voices could be heard. George Lewis expands on the importance of original music, and the connection of the AACM with the civil rights movement in his interview with Simon:

Simon: Do you also think this creating original music also goes hand in hand with African-Americans trying to get their equal rights, to be completely free in America?

George: Boy, that's a hard one. Let me just say this. If you don't feel free to express yourself, then you are definitely not free. Let's put it this way, in this sense, personal expression is kind of a human right. So naturally, it's unfortunate in a way, because there is a lot of obviously wonderful music that was being played. No one could say that, you know Charlie Parker wasn't expressing himself by playing “Out of Nowhere” or whatever.
But you have to remember that even there, what they would do is, they would take these old tunes and put new melodies on them. They would change the music around, put new harmonies or extend the harmonies that were already there. They were already putting their stamp on the music. So they weren't just accepting it as perceived wisdom, as young people are told they must do today.

So this is a time when musical self-determination and political self-determination were being conflated, and productively so, I think.

Stay tuned for more on George Lewis, the AACM and our forthcoming Hip Deep show. Also, be sure to check out the AACM’s website.

-Kate Bolgar Smith

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