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Art Ensemble of Chicago

by John Bloner, Jr.

"Play is the free spirit of exploration, doing and being for its own joy."
Stephen Nachmanovitch,from the book, "Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art"

Artwork by Gyula Németh
John Rockwell of the New York Times called them, "the premier avant-garde free improvisational ensemble of the day."  Kevin Whitehead of NPR said they "fostered a style of quiet and spacious improvising with a misterioso atmosphere." The Village Voice reported, "they played everything and they played nothing (the longest rests on records ever); they revealed technical aplomb while developing a methodology that put their skills in question." Dominique Leon, writing for Pitchfork Media, added, "step forward, have patience, and be ready for anything."

"Theirs is simply positive music-making that is loads of fun and possesses much to admire." Tyran Grillo, record review

I discovered the music of the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC) in the late 1970s, when they had released their album, "Nice Guys", on the ECM label. I'd grown up on the music of Lawrence Welk, Lenny Dee and Percy Faith and survived a teenage binge on hard, glam and prog rock. I knew some basics about jazz, but was wildly unprepared for the sounds (and sometimes silence) that rose from this LP.

This record required me to rethink everything that I thought I knew about music. Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors Maghostut, Roscoe Mitchell and Famoudou Don Moye of AEC played traditional jazz instruments: trumpet, saxophones, drums, and acoustic bass, but they also banged on gongs, rattled cans and cowbells, hummed into kazoos, sounded party noisemakers, squeezed bike horns and made bird calls to add a texture to their soundscapes. They have performed with more than five hundred instruments, including found objects.

Lester Bowie didn't just play trumpet; according to trombonist Craig Harris, he "used parts of the trumpet that most people don't deal with: the low tones, the pedal tones, the growls and smears. He used whispers in his playing and taught [Harris] how to play soft."

"The way we look at it, everything is a sound. A chord is just the name of a sound. They say C is a pitch; it's the name of a sound. So is a cat's meow a sound, so is a motorcycle, so is anything."  Lester Bowie in an interview with Lazaro Vega

Roscoe Mitchell
Just as composer John Cage taught people to "reconsider [their] expectations and assumptions" about music, the members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago explored the possibilities of communicating with sound. Saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell told jazz reporter Ted Panken, "Sometimes, I don't really hear like a scale, per se. I might hear one note, and then the next note with a whistle or a whistle with a kind of wind instrument, or a whistle and a bell."

The spirit in which AEC expresses its music may be contemplative or celebratory. Over decades of recording and playing live, its musicians have woven a kaleidoscopic quilt with African drums and chants to midway sounds, tent revival redemptive cries, evocations of both Mingus and Mancini, marching bands, New Orleans jazz funerals, and fragrant elements of funk, hip-hop, reggae, street corner serenades, sprawling improvised magic and silence. "Music is fifty percent sound and fifty percent silence," Mitchell said. "So, when you interrupt that silence with a sound, then they start to work together."

Great Black Music: Ancient To The Future

The Art Ensemble of Chicago embody the motto, Great Black Music: Ancient To The Future, of the nonprofit Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).

AACM formed in 1965, as an organic progression of the Chicago avant-garde music scene that had spawned the Experimental Band years earlier. The Experimental Band contained a who's-who list of some of today's top jazz musicians, including not only Muhal Richard AbramsJack DeJohnette and Henry Threadgill, but also three young players: Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman and Malachi Favors. When Lester Bowie moved from his hometown of St. Louis to Chicago, he quickly fell in with them.

"I never met so many insane people in one room." Lester Bowie

The four men--Bowie, Favors, Jarman and Mitchell--formed the group, Roscoe Mitchell's Art Ensemble. According to author Gerald Brennan, Mitchell's music was already pointing "to a new path for jazz at a time when the prevailing free jazz was being increasingly seen as a dead end." 

In 1969, they moved to Paris in order to dedicate themselves to their art form.  Soon after, drummer/percussionist Famoudou Don Moye joined them, and they became the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
Famoudou Don Moye
"When I joined the Art Ensemble, we would rehearse eight hours a day, every day, and afterwards sit down and have a home-cooked meal in a home environment with the kids and the dog running around; just normal shit."
Famoudou Don Moye (Village Voice article by Greg Tate)

Louis Armstrong
According to Alex McGregor in Zing Magazine, The Art Ensemble distinguished itself by "turning away from jazz's tendency of celebrating individual virtuosity in favor of group dynamics."

In the 1920s, Louis Armstrong, by his out-sized personality and virtuosity on his horn, dramatically changed jazz music by placing the focus on the soloist rather than the ensemble. Other jazz giants would take center stage in the years to come: Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane.

AEC turned around this dynamic. "If early jazz had helped set European standards of technique on their head through the use of new tonal colors," McGregor wrote, "the Art Ensemble had raided the attics, toy chests and junk shops to collapse jazz's 'gunslinger' competitiveness onto itself."

Famoudou Don Moye
The Art Ensemble also brought a visual element to their concerts in years well before MTV. They were multimedia before the term was coined.

"We were doing performance art as far back as 1965, just not calling it that," Jarman said.

Along with Moye and Favors, he painted his face in tribal paint and dressed in colorful garb. Lester Bowie wore a lab coat and sometimes a chef's hat, while Mitchell stood as the straight-man, the dun-colored fowl in a hothouse of peacocks and birds of paradise; at least until his sax sounded.

The face-paint served another function. "Face-painting in non-Western cultures is a sign of collectivism, is a sign of representing the community," Jarman commented.

The music of the Art Ensemble was never an esoteric exercise, slim as its audience may have been at times; they had the chops to get people on their feet, shake their groove thing, and let joy overflow.

"I miss the sound of his voice as a human being. The voice of his trumpet is as unique as it is an extension of his personality".  Don Moye on the late Lester Bowie

AEC in 2006 with artists (from left) Roscoe Mitchell,
Don Moye, Jaribu Shahid, Corey Wilkes and Joseph Jarman
In the span of five years, the Art Ensemble lost Lester Bowie (1999) and Malachi Favors (2004).  The band has continued with guest musicians on bass and trumpet, but tours and records are few.  AEC released a live recording in 2006, featuring Corey Wilkes on trumpet and Jaribu Shahid on bass.  In 2010, AEC performed in Philadelphia with Hugh Ragin on trumpet and Harrison Bankhead on double-bass.

Roscoe Mitchell
Roscoe Mitchell had performed the composition, Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City, with the Art Ensemble and later, in a classical music setting, which featured the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra. He also took part in a premiere performance of his classical composition at Mills College in Oakland, CA in 2012.
Joseph Jarman

The Mills College Website offers information about that program and offers a terrific video of the Art Ensemble of Chicago that I have not seen anywhere else. It's a priceless piece of performance, particularly in its final moments with Malachi Favors.

Joseph Jarman was ordained as a Shinshu Buddhist Priest in 1990 and began the Jikishinkan Dojo in Brooklyn. He had left AEC in 1993 to concentrate on his Buddhist studies and the practice of Aikido, but returned in 2003. With musician, artist and author Chris Chalfant, he launched the Lifetime Visions Orchestra and performed as a duo with her.

Famoudou Don Moye
Famoudou Don Moye has performed live in recent years with Harmut Geerken and on the recording, "The Gray Goose", dedicated to Hanns Eisler and Bertolt Brecht, which offers the tune, "The Poplar Tree on Karlsplatz".

Karslplatz in Munich, Germany is a long way from Daley Plaza in Chicago, but Moye's subtle sounds on percussion show that great music knows no boundaries.

"There are a lot of sounds. We try to incorporate any sounds into the music. Sounds of life. Sounds of everyday. The deeper you get into it, the deeper it gets into you."
 Lester Bowie

Explore the many recordings of the Art Ensemble of Chicago by visiting their page on AllMusic.com, as well as the individual pages of the group's artists. The four recordings made on the ECM label--Nice Guys, Full Force, Urban Bushmen and Third Decade--are a fine introduction, but you can go deeper into their sound by also lending an ear to their earlier and later records, as well as the music they have created in solo careers.

I believe we are born twice into this life; first through our parents and their influences and then through our own discoveries of people, places, philosophies, faith, cultures and the arts that we weave into our lives.

I thank the Art of Ensemble of Chicago for opening my ears, eyes, mind and my heart.

For further explorations, visit the Art Ensemble of Chicago page on Facebook and the Great Black Music website here.