Even now, hard on fifty years since the organization’s first stirrings in Muhal Richard Abrams’s Experimental Orchestra in Chicago in the early ‘60s, some still deny the music made by the AACM’s charter members a place in jazz tradition by virtue of it being too “European”—too infected by the procedures of such postwar classical avant-gardists as Karlheinz Stockhauen and John Cage to qualify as a logical outgrowth of Ellington, bebop, or even free jazz. (Never mind that Cage was as American as Jelly Roll Morton or Charles Ives, this peculiar strain of American exceptionalism obeys no logic but its own). Or the same body of music, occasionally even the same piece of music, is disparaged as willfully primitive, a deliberate affront to jazz’s ongoing intellectual evolution.
These criticisms would be ridiculous even if they didn’t nicely cancel each other out. Yet taken together, don’t they somehow amount to exculpatory fact? Because what was so innovative and exciting about those first albums to draw the world’s attention to the AACM—what identified this music as something more than Coltrane or Albert Ayler with a Chicago accent—was a cross-cultural bricolage, a bringing together of pan-African ritual and rhythmic primacy with something drawing on both Cagean indeterminacy and Schoenbergian post-tonality.
Even at the time, the eight years between Ornette Coleman’s 1959 The Shape of Jazz to Come and Roscoe Mitchell’s 1967 Sound must have seemed like a blink—too quick for those embroiled in the controversy surrounding free jazz to take stock that an impasse loomed just ahead. Free had weaned jazz of it’s overreliance on chord changes, broadening its harmonic palette while introducing new rhythmic possibilities; what it had failed to do (with notable exceptions, including the work of the neglected Bill Dixon) was to amend bebop and latterday swing’s potentially stifling theme/solos/theme format. That fell to the AACM, whose individual members addressed (and continue to address) the challenge in such various ways as to defy further generalization.
The AACM’s influence spread throughout jazz—and not just, or even primarily, via recordings. The overseas travels of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Anthony Braxton, among other Chicago stalwarts, helped shape a distinctly European style of jazz in the late 1960s. And when composition finally pulled even with improvisation as a guiding force in jazz in the early 1980s, Henry Threadgill—by then a New Yorker—led the way.
He still is thirty years later.
Although Threadgill’s music is so immediate and direct in the sensations it arouses that no one would dream of criticizing it as bloodless or academic, he shares with his more abstract AACM brethren a belief in composition and improvisation as things that occur simultaneously, not sequentially. An overlooked aspect of the AACM’s philosophy—inherent in the Art Ensemble’s face paint—is an insistence on jazz as performance art. In common with Lester Bowie vis-à-vis Liberace, Threadgill has expressed admiration for the showmanship of the likes of David Bowie and Elton John—inexplicably, but only on face value. There’s nothing especially visual about Threadgill’s performance style, and nothing at all theatrical. All the color and drama is in the interplay among Theadgill’s horns and the other instruments. Just close your eyes and open your ears. (Francis Davis, 2011)