The Art Ensemble of Chicago is one of the most famous performing groups in jazz. Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, this free-improvising ensemble was born out of the explosion of musical creativity that took place in the black community in Chicago during the Sixties. It was the musical expression of the black Civil Rights movement, which was then reaching its tumultuous and often violent climax.
The spirit of the music is an extraordinary mix of mystery, heaven-storming energy and sudden humour, often sustained without pause for an hour or more. A typical AEC performance begins with a minute’s silence, all the musicians facing in one direction as if in prayer. The half-dozen or so players will be dressed with mysterious, somewhat priestly formality, and placed strategically around will be a dozen exotic percussion instruments. The performance builds with incredible slowness out of silence, one tiny sound building upon other, familiar instruments like double-bass and trumpet made to sound unearthly by unusual playing techniques and unseen electronic wizardry. Often these small beginnings burgeon into something huge and ‘cosmic’ until without warning an uproarious marching tune bursts upon the scene.
The co-founder and sole surviving member from that founding year of 1969, multi-instrumentalist and composer Roscoe Mitchell is now 80 but he’s still slender as a reed and ramrod straight, and a master of the “circular breathing” technique which allows him to play for ten minutes for a stretch without a break in the sound. Like so many jazz musicians of that time he was nurtured by church music as a child, and by a stint in a US army band in Germany where he met two other free jazz players who are also stars in jazz’s firmament, Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman. “I remember the huge incredible sound Ayler made on his horn (by which, to the uninitiated, he means saxophone), and I thought I want to achieve something like that.”
Once back in Chicago, this eager young saxophonist, now with a taste for the experimental and avant-garde, soon discovered a scene that was undoubtedly the liveliest in jazz. For decades Chicago had been a backwater, after the glory days of the Twenties when so many New Orleans musicians made their way there, followed by the flourishing of home-grown swing musicians such as Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa. Now suddenly it was the liveliest place to be, thanks to a visionary musician named Muhal Richard Abrams, who founded the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. “Great Black Music – Ancient to the Future” was its motto.
“They welcomed me with open arms,” said Mitchell. “I used to go along to Abrams’ experimental band, which met every Monday night, where we were all encouraged to write for the band, bring pieces to the rehearsals, try them out, revise them. You put a bunch of creative people like that together, they start to talk, and think about ways they can be more in control of their own destinies. It was different to New York, there was a system you had to obey. We looked at what happened to our great Masters who were out there in New York on their own and who really did not fare that well. We wanted to create employment for each other, giving concerts of our own original music.”
It was no accident that this independent spirit arose in Chicago, the city which did so much to form America’s first black president. It had always been a hotbed of black political activism, which aimed at full equality before the law and every area of civic life. Paul Steinbeck, a jazz performer and scholar of the AEC says that this spirit went back as far back as the Thirties and Forties. “There was a tradition of black political and religious leaders creating public spaces and leading the effort to self-help and self-organisation, and this took on a political edge when the Black Panthers formed a cell in the city,” he says. The political edge to their activities meant that musicians often encountered harassment. “One of the co-founders of the Association set up the Afro-Arts Theatre where activists like Stokely Carmichael, founder of the Black Power Movement, gave speeches and held rallies. The Chicago police shut it down, ostensibly for a breach of licensing laws, but it was clear to everyone what the real motivation was.”
Meanwhile Roscoe Mitchell had founded his own group. By 1966 it had cut a famously radical disc, Sound, a daring exploration of the boundary between musical and noise. Then one day came an unexpected invitation to perform in Paris. Mitchell recalls that accepting the invitation involved quite a struggle. “We didn’t have the money for the trip, so one of our players Lester Bowie decided to sell all his possessions in order to fund it. So that's how we made it to Paris. We changed our name to Art Ensemble of Chicago and we became a collective, We put aside 50 per cent of everything we earned, and shared out what was left between ourselves for living expenses. That was how we managed to buy ourselves a new truck, and rent ourselves a farmhouse 18 kilometres north of Paris.”
The Parisians and Europeans in general couldn’t get enough of the AEC, but even in Paris the group couldn’t abandon their political allegiances. “Black American activists were coming to Paris all the time," explains Steinbeck. "In the summer of 1969 after Chicago police assassinated the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton the AEC performed a piece that paid homage to him, and in 1970 they started playing at benefit concerts for the Black Panthers. When the French law enforcement people heard about this they were booted out of their home, and forced to live on the road for quite some time.” After two years the group returned to Chicago, but it wasn’t quite the end of the political side of their music-making. In the Eighties they joined in the world-wide musical protest against South African apartheid, and recorded an album with a Soweto-based choir.
Mitchell himself doesn’t like to talk about those days, and becomes quite exasperated when I ask him about it. “I’m a musician, talk to political people about the politics of those days,” he growls. It’s surprising to find him so disengaged, given that racial politics in America are as highly charged now as they have ever been. Perhaps the turn to identity politics on the American left is uncongenial to someone who’s always wanted to take music beyond the boundaries of race or culture.
Mitchell's eager curiosity burns as bright as ever. He is pleased that the model of musical radicalism and self-help has been adopted by the younger generation. “Some of my former students have put together things like the art ensemble of Chicago, and I also encourage younger musicians to organise themselves in the same way that we did, to go further afield and play in other cities, organise creative exchanges and so on.” After the struggle of those early days, Mitchell has now become a beacon for jazz musicians, laden with honours, and increasingly busy with commissions for performers beyond jazz. He is fascinated by electronics, and collaborated in the Eighties with a computer music expert who later moved to Paris to work with Pierre Boulez.
“Music is universal,” he insists. “I don’t study jazz or classical or world music I study music. You know, I always go back to those great musicians who put their mark on music. I would like to be one of those people.”
The Art Ensemble of Chicago appears with special guests Shabaka Hutchings and Abel Selaocoe at the Barbican Hall London EC2 (efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk) on November 23.