“His smile said: do the unthinkable, the unpredictable. Bring the world with you to a place of peaceful coexistence that celebrates the diversity of ideas and experiences," writes a former president of the AACM
Muhal Richard Abrams, composer, improvisor and organisational architect, released himself from the touchable when he died this month, but he stands majestic and unwavering in his mountainous impact. He enlivened an idea that continues to foster excellence, investigation, to invite friendships and to strengthen community: “make original music”. It has permeated across the realms of composition and improvisation, continents and generations, ancient and future. His message reminds us that we are enough, that we should not be intimidated or distracted by what others are doing. He insisted that individuality is a special message that can be given to humanity that can come from no other place. He remains vital in his most nurtured entity, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. For over 50 years, uncountable musicians both international and intergenerational have been encouraged to burst sonic boundaries through music research, creation and collaboration, and to form new communities.
To think, a new, lasting pathway of freedom was created at a kitchen table, on Chicago’s Southside, down the street from the cemetery on East 67th. It was time for: are you ready or will you get left behind? Freedom has been an African-American obsession perhaps even before black bodies were forced across the Atlantic, but something started in the 1960s that gave it a new shimmer. It was about reaching forward, less about accommodating the mainstream, and more about celebrating Blackness with limitlessness. In a surge of independence that erupted throughout Chicago in the 60s, the Black Arts Movement cracked open the grey cement into a bold tree of resilience that branched into Third World Press, AfriCOBRA, ETA Creative Arts and the AACM.
Having cultivated his own liberation vehicle in the early 1960s, the ground-making Experimental Band (a legendary factory of new compositional ideas), Abrams, along with Jodie Christian, Steve McCall and Phil Cohran, called to all musicians in the area in 1965 to create a collective. It was about fair treatment for musicians, but it was also about the space to go where no one has gone before. A black box of tradition had been growing, full of doowop, blues, old spirituals, Sonny Stitt solos and R&B. Nothing wrong with it, but look, there is more. Abrams pointed outside that box to true identity, individuality. We can pave a bridge from the great migration’s suffocating urban tenement to a sonic paradise. Reach for your sound. If each artist reached for that, could hearts be opened, children loved, poetry written, bills paid, ideas spread around the world?
Instruments, new improvisational languages and new notational systems were invented. Orchestras were created. Computers learned to improvise. Operas, interdisciplinary projects and pieces for spinning tops and saxophones were written and neighborhood children learned new navigational systems. The idea of the AACM is one that bends and binds diverse minds that are similarly defiant, where aesthetic growth and resilience are keys to truth, where mimicry is abandoned for the authentic real of individuality. The Association (connected within an intergenerational community that supports the collective and one’s individuality) for the Advancement (forward motion) of Creative (investigate the unknown) Musicians (support the people in music exploration).
As an example of what can be done if the mind is free, Muhal Richard Abrams’s own music elicits wonder through the juxtaposition of sophisticated harmonic language and the resilience of contemporary African cultural sensibility, celebrating the detailed knowledge of tradition, while also creating an example of the limitless possibilities for a musical artist. He explored poetry, visual art and interdisciplinary collaborations, while having developed a formidable career as a contemporary composer for both classical musicians and improvisers.
When opportunities for personal recognition emerged, Abrams often selflessly put the AACM’s name before his own. He supported the organisation’s migration from Chicago to New York, and throughout his career, remained an active leading member of the New York chapter. Although the organisation is a collective, his essence is integral to its legacy. After all, the AACM is, at its best, an idea that has globally catalysed communities of musicians to build platforms for experimentation in music. These communities, whether circles of friends or formal organisations, provide an environment where musicians have the support to stretch beyond the confines of mainstream music and delve into experimental practices. The AACM has cousins across the globe, including ICP (Instant Composers Pool, Amsterdam), International Composers and Improvisers Ensemble (Munich), Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, London Improvisers Orchestra, Now Orchestra (Vancouver). The AACM is inseparable in context from the diverse originality manifested by members Wadada Leo Smith, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Ben Lamar, Leroy Jenkins, Fred Anderson, George Lewis, Maia, Mike Reed, Douglas Ewart, Renee Baker, Ed Wilkerson, Amina Claudine Myers, Ernest Dawkins, Thurman Barker, Henry Threadgill, Tomeka Reid, Hamid Drake and more, who are a symphony of constellations each moving at their own rotation, in their own pace, with their own gravitational orbit. An essence of Muhal Richard Abrams alloys these contrasting AACM members and many outside the AACM whose hearts and minds have been touched by this idea.
Whenever I prepared to speak to him, a cloud of fear and anticipation loomed. Sweat seeped and beaded on my brow, as I was overwhelmed with respect (one learned from my parents about honouring my elders – but this one was real). My held breath evidenced a fear of not doing or giving enough, instigated by my awareness of an incredible foundation that had been built with collective hands that I happened to stumble my own musical path onto. Yet my anxiety was always dissolved by his humble encouragement and wisdom. In spite of the struggles we younger musicians thought we had, the collective mantle of AACM teleported us to higher realms we might not have been able to ascend as individuals; the collective is a power stronger than itself. Tall in stature, quiet but firm, never predictable in his words, he embraced the unknown, did the undone and approached music expression with the curiosity and discipline of a scientist. Most of us that knew you, Muhal, agree on some things; you were consistently fearless, kind, visionary, committed, creative beyond capacity, selfless and equally supportive of women and men.
We have been told we can create our own universe. The university of the AACM became the school of get off your ass and get your own. You can do it, be it, and don’t need nobody’s permission. The AACM is not an aesthetic, style or sound. Abrams gave to a collective legacy of cultivating one’s own musical voice with clarity, through independence, integrity, discipline and collaboration. With graciousness and concern, his smile said: do the unthinkable, the unpredictable. Bring the world with you to a place of peaceful coexistence that celebrates the diversity of ideas and experiences.
His lasting legacies rise within those artists we are just beginning to hear, or haven’t even heard yet – those touched by the spirit of AACM’s mantle. Muhal is listening.