Read an extract from Paul Steinbeck's history of The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, who reunited in February 2017 after a seven year absence from the scene for a residency at London’s Cafe Oto. Later in 2017, The Art Ensemble will perform in Norway and Italy before returning to Cafe Oto in October.
“There’s A Message For You”
The members of The Art Ensemble Of Chicago – Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors Maghostut, Shaku Joseph Jarman, Roscoe Mitchell, and Famoudou Don Moye – left a remarkable legacy that was as multifaceted and inspiring as their performances. All five were extraordinary instrumentalists, ranking among the most virtuosic and creative players in jazz and experimental music. They were also responsible for a number of crucial innovations that were adopted by their AACM colleagues and musicians across the globe. Anyone who improvises with ‘little instruments’ is indebted to Favors, and any aspiring multi-instrumentalist is following in the footsteps of Mitchell, Jarman and Moye, who mastered a veritable orchestra of woodwinds and percussion. Likewise, The Art Ensemble’s brilliant intermedia performances provided a valuable model for groups that sought new ways of combining sound, poetry, theatre, costume and movement into an integrated whole. All of these advances were widely influential in the AACM and beyond, and after The Art Ensemble, jazz and experimental music would never be the same.
Some of the band’s contributions, however, were so unique to The Art Ensemble that they simply could not be imitated. No composer but Mitchell could have written “Care Free”, the 45 second gem that closes the A side of Full Force, and no other horn section could make that final E-major chord sound so glorious, with the highest and lowest pitches played perfectly out of tune, just enough to make the triad truly sing. Each Art Ensemble performance was different, of course, but they all had a few transcendent moments like the end of “Care Free” – revelatory passages of music that could only have come from Bowie, Favors, Jarman, Mitchell and Moye. Audiences could never predict when the next ‘one in a thousand’ passage would occur, but from the group’s perspective, these episodes did not happen by chance. Every concert and recording session was shaped by careful compositional designs, years of intensive rehearsals, and the musicians’ unparalleled improvisational skills. Indeed, recordings like A Jackson In Your House, Live At Mandel Hall and Live From The Jazz Showcase featured some of the best compositions and improvisations of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, or any era. In the past 50 years, only a handful of improvising groups could approach the heights that the members of The Art Ensemble reached whenever they took the stage. It was for this reason that many listeners and critics considered The Art Ensemble to be one of the most important bands in the history of jazz and experimental music.
From 1966 into the 21st century, The Art Ensemble had few rivals, and in one key respect – longevity –the group was without peer. The musicians’ early performances were so groundbreaking that their musical legacy would have been secure even if they had parted ways sometime in the 1970s. But they defied the odds and stayed together for decades. And The Art Ensemble’s longevity, like the consistently high quality of the band’s performances, was the result of years of deliberate effort. As Bowie explained: “What people have to understand is that in this business a lot has to do with luck. A lot has to do with direction and vision. You don’t get the luck until you are headed the right way. You don’t get blessed if you are doing the wrong s—.” The musicians began practicing cooperation and autonomy during their first few years together, and these social practices became the foundation of all their accomplishments. When they were making very little money, cooperative economics helped them survive. And once their income started to increase, cooperation allowed them to fund new business operations and turn The Art Ensemble into a decades-long investment. Similarly, the group’s commitment to autonomy gave the members the freedom to launch independent side projects, which in turn enabled them to invest even more into the business of The Art Ensemble. Some of these side projects became major successes, notably Bowie’s Brass Fantasy. But The Art Ensemble always remained the musicians’ top priority. At least once a year, the group members set aside all other obligations so they could get together and rehearse for several days, even several weeks. Then they went on tour, using the proceeds to finance business ventures or their next group retreat. With this level of devotion – to the band and to one another – the musicians believed that they could not fail. “This thing,” Moye declared, “is about 35 years of cooperative economics. More than music it’s about sustaining our lives.”
The members of the Art Ensemble were ideal partners for one another, onstage and off. Bowie, Jarman and Mitchell complemented one another marvellously, while Favors and Moye had a rhythmic rapport that would be the envy of any bass and drums team. But it was their fierce loyalty and shared values that made The Art Ensemble much more than the sum of five very different personalities. Mitchell was the driving force, so unshakeable that his bandmates called him ‘Rock’, though it was often Favors who kept the others grounded through his wisdom and spirituality. Bowie’s irresistible charisma made him the face of The Art Ensemble, whether he was playing trumpet at centre stage or negotiating a record contract. Jarman was ‘The Voice’, the eloquent seeker who lent the band much of its mystique. And Moye’s boundless energy kept the group moving ahead to the next gig, the next tour, the next collaboration. Musicians like this have always been as rare as diamonds, and groups as creative and long-lived as The Art Ensemble are even rarer. For Favors, this was a sure sign that he and his bandmates had a higher calling:
“I feel blessed that I got with The Art Ensemble, because I know I’m playing with some chosen brothers; otherwise how would we be together [so many] years... There are few of us musicians left who play what I call ‘truths in music’. You can’t be an exact vehicle for the Word through your horn because you’re still human. But it’s very few of us left [who] even to a degree, let that happen. As they say in the church, ‘Let the Word come on out’.”
Paul Steinbeck is an assistant professor of music theory at Washington University in St Louis. With AACM saxophonist Fred Anderson, he is co-author of Exercises For The Creative Musician (2010), a method book for improvisors. Steinbeck is also a bassist, improvisor, composer and recording artist. Message To Our Folks: The Art Ensemble Of Chicago (2017) was reviewed by Phil Freeman in The Wire 398. Subscribers can read that via Exact Editions.