Crowd Sourced: The AACM Revisited

by Marc Chénard

In the past year, the AACM celebrated its 50th anniversary, its prominent place in African-American cultural history secure. Over time, it has spawned four generations of musicians, including several MacArthur “Geniuses,” two NEA Jazz Masters, and a Pulitzer-prize finalist. In 2008, an exhaustive historical study was published, authored by one of its more celebrated members – George Lewis, border-jumping composer-improviser, computer music pioneer and Edwin H. Case Professor of Music at Columbia University. Since its publication, Lewis’ A Power Stronger than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (Chicago University Press) has been considered the definitive study.


But now, a second book on the AACM has surfaced, this one in France: La nuée - L’AACM un jeu de société musicale – Éditions parenthèses(more on the title later). Its author, Alexandre Pierrepont, is uniquely qualified to take on the subject, spending 15 years interviewing musicians and researching the organization’s activities. An academic with university teaching credentials, he has also been involved with working-class Parisian teenagers to produce the surprisingly mature Sector Jazz in association with the Banlieues Bleues festival in Paris. In addition to conventional journalism and criticism – many of the interviews quoted in this book originally ran in Improjazz, all translated into French (a herculean task to say the least) – Pierrepont was part of The Weavers, a writing collective that produced a series of pamphlets that used jazz and improvised music recordings as jumping-off points for dream journal-like writings. As an activist-producer, he has spearheaded for the past few years The Bridge, a transatlantic touring initiative bringing fellow countrymen and Chicago musicians together.


Turning to Pierrepont’s title, it does not lend itself well to a translation. For starters, “Nuée” can variously mean “swarm”, “throng” or “crowd.” “Jeu de société musicale” is something of a play on words (the French being quite fond of, if not notorious for such linguistic devices). Minus the last word, a “jeu de société” is the equivalent of a parlour game, but the slipping in of the qualifier after it shifts immediately the meaning away from that mundane pursuit. So it should not be read as a musical game, because the adjective is feminine in accordance to the gender of the word “société.” Therefore, the best way to render this title would be something like: “The Crowd – A musical society at play.”


The publication of a new book on a subject always opens doors to comparisons, inviting readers to re-examine, if not re-assess previous endeavours. Readers may well believe in the definitive nature of Lewis’ tome by virtue of its thoroughness – and no one has called its merits into question – but it need not exclude other perspectives. In this regard, George Lewis has contributed an Afterword to Pierrepont’s book, and deals with this very issue. He states: “I often encounter references that portray the book [his own] as ‘the official history of the AACM,’ an assertion that pretty much proves that the person who made it didn’t get to the part of the book (quite early on) that specifically rejects that Hollywoodian view, i.e., someone makes a film about, say, Malcolm X, and no one is permitted to make another with a different point of view.” (From the original English version written by Lewis.) He obviously welcomes “a different point of view” and his contribution stands in itself as an endorsement. He also alludes to the fact that his treatment was like an “autobiography” of the AACM (the auto referring to himself as one of its long-standing members) Yet, this is not a purely autobiographical book told in the first person; as an academic, Lewis must ensure a critical distance at all times so as to not compromise his purpose. On that account, he succeeds admirably: on the one hand, he unearths facts and tackles contentious issues without taking sides, conjecturing on them without ever loosening the thread of the story; on the other, he relates his own experiences in a very sober way, affording no more room to himself than his fellow members. This book, like any biographical work, is a narrative that unfolds over a timeline.


Pierrepont, for his part, takes a different tack. For one, he puts little emphasis on character portrayals: whereas Lewis introduces each new member with a cursory biography, Pierrepont does not. Next, the narrative of this new study is not purely chronological, but only one of several operatives. In fact, he collapses the 544 pages of Lewis’ book in his second chapter, spanning a little over one hundred pages. Quite obviously, it would have been redundant for Pierrepont to simply follow the same modus operandi, thus the necessity to find another approach. What concerns him more are the ideas and underlying concepts to be gleaned from history and how these allow him to entertain his own theoretical pursuits. His investigation proceeds from a thematic viewpoint, as if examining the subject in slices rather than in a single line with occasional offshoots. As a starting point, he sets out to study the AACM from an ethnological point of view.


In the 43-page introduction, the author first traces his intellectual development, at times in a rather meandering style rife with heavily literary French prose that might get lost in translation and probably unnerve English-only readers. At the onset, he reveals his anthropological slant, his perspective shaped through an ethnological lens. But before meeting the subject head on (in the second chapter), the author spends a good 125 pages discussing a wide array of theoretical concerns and conjecturing at length on them. His procedure is in a way reminiscent of one anthropologist’s trenchant observation about the difference between American and European anthropology: inasmuch as the former takes ten facts to build one theory, the latter forges ten theories out of a single fact – a not so spurious observation in relation to both books under examination. This European approach spills over in the first chapter that deals with Black history, from its roots in Africa to its diaspora in America, and the last two devoted respectively to the AACM as a “black music society” and a wide-ranging examination of its musical practices and ethos. As an aside, it’s worth noticing a couple of the book’s shortcomings in terms of academic norms: the lack of a bibliography, although there are copious footnotes, and an index. Also missing is a discography, but he uses titles of recordings as headers for chapter titles and sub-sections. On the up side, there is an addendum with an exhaustive list of members (131), past and present.


Turning now to jazz, the author is first confronted by a problem when it comes to viewing the music through the ethnological lens. Ethnology concerns itself with the study of a group of people in a given place. Jazz, however, has always been perceived as an object of some kind. But Pierrepont discards this “objective” nature of jazz and introduces another one: the “jazz field” (or “champ jazzistique”). This term, first used in the 1980s by a fellow writer (Michel-Claude Jalard), serves as the foundation of Pierrepont’s new work, but also of his previous volume (Le champ jazzistique, Éditions Parenthèses, 2002).


As previously noted, the writing of one book invites a re-read of any others on the same topic; in this case, Lewis’ own in relation to Pierrpont’s second. But this also applies to Pierrepont’s two books. The gist of his first book was to de-objectify jazz, clearly stated in the preface by Roger Renaud, who posits that no set of style-identifying criteria or specific lines of demarcation needs to be imposed on the music. In this regard, Pierrepont turns the previous fifteen years of jazz writing on its head, specifically the line of thought that emerged out of the Murray-Crouch-Marsalis triumvirate. In essence, their enterprise was to reify jazz to a greater degree than ever before, first by determining its own borders, then to brick up the entrance to anything that, in their terms, did not qualify. Their agenda was one of re-appropriating jazz as an object, which had lost its firmness in the wake of the upheavals of the 1960s and 70s, motivating its proponents to exclusively c(r)ouch an essentially subjective stance on the contingencies of historical precedent.


Pierrepont, in stark contrast, reads history in a completely different manner, not as a model (an object), but as a process that deploys itself not only over time, but also in space – hence the notion of a field. But such a field entails openness and not closure. The portent of that for a music like jazz is not only aesthetic, but it ramifies into ethical, political, sociological and anthropological considerations. Not only did Pierrepont lay the groundwork for his ethnological slant in the first book, but in it he also dealt with the AACM in one brief section, thus linking both works in theoretical terms but also in a case-specific way.


At this juncture, the question might arise why he specifically chose the AACM above other musical collectives. In his first book, he listed numerous other initiatives, both American and European, even a couple of Canadian ones, in a quasi-encyclopedic way, including a veritable who’s who of participants for each. There are several explanations for that. One of them is the AACM’s longevity. Another is its prominence on the world stage. From a European perspective, there is a long-standing familiarity with the AACM, reaching back to 1969, when the Art Ensemble of Chicago, arguably its most famous group, together with Braxton, Jenkins, Smith and a handful of others all converged to the City of Lights for a legendary summer of concerts and recordings. This was a daring move for the AACM musicians, given the financial risk; by leapfrogging New York, the validating epicenter of the African-American avant-garde, the risk was amplified by their relative obscurity. Both Lewis and Pierrepont detail those heady times, making it one of the more fascinating episodes of the Association’s odyssey. A third explanation, and a more personal one at that, is the author’s admiration for the Association’s activities and its beliefs. Undoubtedly, he derives much pleasure from listening to their music, otherwise he would not have gone to the lengths of building The Bridge; more importantly though, he has highest regards for the cause and the values embodied. (And as a Frenchman weaned on the collective values of Liberté, Égalité et Fraternité rather than the individualistic American ones, there might be a deeper level connection here.)


From these more accessory considerations on the writer’s motivations arises a more central one – the viewing of the subject through the ethnological lens. The AACM clearly represents an ideal case study for a jazz field, in that it answers to both criteria essential to all ethnological studies: a defined group of people in a specific location. As a group, the AACM has been consistent over time, all members of African-American stock; as for the place, Chicago remains its heart and soul to this day. Yet, there was a shift that occurred in the 1970s when several of its founding members (Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton and Leroy Jenkins begins a long list) headed to New York to launch their own careers in earnest and eventually create a distinct chapter of the organization in 1982. But this offshoot did not alter the AACM’s community charter in Chicago. What’s more, this new chapter took on a life of its own, in keeping with the organization’s principles and spirit, but not having to answer to its home base as, say, a branch operation would. At the same time, it offered a conduit for younger members of the organization willing to leave home. This equal tiered structure has unquestionably ensured the AACM’s durability. Given the consistency of its membership and its twin locations, the AACM makes for a perfect case study in jazz ethnology.


Very much informed by contemporary American currents of thoughts, most notably the logos of cultural studies, Pierrepont is clearly concerned by the societal aspects of the AACM, but unlike some theorists he doesn’t want to throw out the baby (the music) just to spend all of his time wading in the bathwater (the social context). While he, like Lewis, eschews traditional musicology – hence no analysis of actual scores, recordings or performances, these substituted for more general descriptions of recordings or actual performances – the music still remains at the heart of their respective inquiries.


Both writers are tuned in on similar wavelengths in several regards. In one case they even coin an almost identical term, albeit with varying implications, i.e. “improvisatives” for Lewis and “improvisantes” for his French counterpart. In a talk accessible online, the former defines these with respect to the “production of meaning and knowledge that provides new forms of social mobilization that embodies history, memory, and personal narrative, self-determination, and fosters cultural community development.”


When translated from his book (p. 415), Pierrepont’s notion could be rendered as follows: “Stemming from all rules of musical play and language systems that creative musicians employ in interactive strategies, the jazz field in its combinatory and transformational dynamic brings about, among other things, the ‘improvisantes’.” In an email, Pierrepont had contrasted it with another term, the “composante,” which was something more of a composed (notated) musical idea. In a follow up message, he backtracked by saying there was actually no real difference between these terms. Instead, it was more a question of how an idea was selected, placed within the music, treated within the flow and how it would affect that flow. For illustrative purposes, he points to the use of musical cells within the improvisations of Cecil Taylor, Fred Anderson or Jason Moran, even motifs that trickle into a composition from a previous source, an example here being the appearance of a figure played by Archie Shepp in “Kwanza” that becomes part of his piece “Blasé.” In a way, this could be qualified as a lick, but Pierrepont warns it should not become a tic, a cliché that musicians’ might fall prey to. Quite to the contrary, these musical ideas are unpredictable in nature and open a range of possible relations and uses, the integration in composed pieces being only one of them. Thus, Pierrepont’s improvisantes are of a decidedly musicological character, whereas Lewis has more in mind than that in his own definition of improvisatives. Pierrepont’s musical devices are surely part and parcel of a personal narrative, and can be informed by both memory and history, but Lewis sees wider implications in his own improvisatives.


Seen in the larger scheme of things, this terminological discussion is something of a secondary point, but one that still underscores a basic difference between both authors, dictated not by choice but by inevitability. As an AACM member, Lewis is an insider, but to be credible in his academic pursuit he has to distance himself from that status and act as a dispassionate outsider. The best way for him to achieve his purpose is to examine the Association in all of its social, cultural, political and philosophical ramifications. On the flip side of the coin, discussing the particular musical outlooks of his fellow associates is a far more delicate proposition, as it runs the risk of him making judgements on their work, which would run counter to his scholarly intentions. Pierrepont is not saddled with these issues, because he is an outsider, and doubly so given his origins. Clearly, he’s passionate about the subject, and can afford to be so, thus he strives to find his way in. All of the extra musicological issues Lewis deals with are just as relevant for Pierrepont, but he seems a little more willing to talk about the music, the subject of the final chapter. Music then is another pathway, and a primordial one at that, in understanding the Association as an artistic venture and social entity alike. Borrowing here from anthropological terminology, one can state that Pierrepont has no other choice but to work from an “etic” approach (outside), but strives hard to attain its counterpart, the “emic” one (inside). Conversely, Lewis’ undertaking proceeds in the opposite direction. Yet, one question remains, whether if it is at all possible to make that quantum leap, one way or the other. Lewis has pretty well succeeded, as noted in the introduction; Pierrepont, by virtue of his various activities, comes as close as an outsider could.


But for all of the differences in intent and perspective, there is still a common accord in both books on the significance of the Association, both as a unique and resilient artistic venture and as a social experiment that has stood the test of time. This success is the outcome of several factors, some resting on wise decisions, others on strokes of luck. Unquestionably, the first European venture of 1969 to 1971 and a subsequent one later in that decade played in their favor, for this was the time when the Zeitgeist was at its most receptive to the American New Thing, and its own European counterpart.


More importantly, the first generation members showed much wisdom in the early years. Its inception occurred just in the months following the aborted attempt of the Jazz Guild in New York in 1964, its laudable intention of having artists take charge of their own means of production thwarted by too many competing agendas. Chicago, in contrast, was not mired in the competitive environment of the Jazz Mecca, instead its members thought in terms of coexisting agendas. Moreover, they skillfully maneuvered around many political and ideological obstacles, all the more present in those highly charged times, setting for themselves a kind of moral compass as a cornerstone. Pierrepont quotes Valerie Wilmer with regards to how they carried this out: “The rules are strict, but they are applied with indulgence” (p. 234). Built then on a common purpose but expressed through individual action (the pursuit of original creative music), the Association took root in a kind of loose togetherness, where musics of all types, past, present and future, Black and non-black, were all worthy of consideration and use. Both then and now, the Association never thought in either/or terms (“if you play out, you can’t play in”), but rather both/and, hence a will to include and recombine in lieu of excluding things in any categorical or dogmatic way.


When looking back, this rotary-like musical vision of the AACM is not unlike what has handily been labelled in our time as post-modernism. A case could indeed be made for the AACM as a forerunner to this somewhat overwrought moniker. But there might be a point of diversion worth noting here. As a reaction to modernism, whose main tenet was the singularity of pursuit (think Cecil Taylor or Peter Brötzmann), post-modernism’s goal was that of multiplicity, with a view of recombining whatever is at hand or in mind, sometimes for the sake of effect (Zorn’s cut and paste music). The AACM for its part was doing this, too, but it proceeded on a more informed basis, one resting on its own history as a people and, more specifically, its own means of expression. With regards to jazz then, the AACM could be just as avant-garde, as say European free improvisers could be, but they could turn around and play the blues or a boppish like theme on a dime, dipping as it pleased into its own musical well (think of the Art Ensemble’s 1980 piece “Dreaming of the Master” or Air’s takes on Jelly Roll Morton’s music). But AACM musicians were not just idealists, dreamers doing art for art’s sake (as per the Eurological take on artistic practice); music was also a means of subsistence and all were aware of having to put bread on the table as well (as rightfully noted by Pierrepont in one passage devoted to this issue).


All in all then, the AACM is still alive and well after a half century because of its refusal to confine itself to any dogmas or practices. Over time, it has demonstrated the ability to accommodate vastly different individual approaches, some totally unrelated to others, but all gathered under a common hat with seemingly expandable brims. Because of that, the Association has given a sense of purpose to its members to pursue their dreams (an American leitmotiv par excellence). But at an even deeper level, this power greater than itself infuses all of its constituents with a sense of dignity, without which all African-Americans, past, present and future, would not have, with due deference to Shakespeare, endured the slings and arrows of outrageous fortunes with such resolve.


© 2016 Marc Chénard

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