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AACM founder Muhal Richard Abrams has died

US pianist, composer and educator died on 29 October

Pianist, clarinetist, composer, educator and founder of the AACM Muhal Richard Abrams died on 29 October. He was 87 old.

Born in Chicago on 19 September 1930, he began studying music in 1946 at Roosevelt University. But dissatisfied with the music covered on the course, he decided to leave and teach himself how to play the piano, compose and write arrangements.

He began working in the post-bop era around Chicago, performing and writing alongside the likes of Eddie Harris, Walter ‘King’ Flemming and MJT + 3. In 1961 he started The Experimental Band, a loose workshop-type context for players on the South Side to find new ways of working. Roscoe Mitchell came into the orbit of this group around 1963. In George E Lewis’s A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM And American Experimental Music, Joseph Jarman remembers that Abrams “was into herbology, astrology, painting, all this mystical stuff,” and he and his wife Peggy opened their basement apartment into a forum where “young musicians [could] explore musical, cultural, political, social and spiritual ideas”.

It was from this mileu that the game changing Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and, later, the Art Ensemble Of Chicago sprang. Abrams founded the AACM, along with Jodie Christian, Steve McCall and Phil Cohran, in 1965, with Abrams as the first president. The organisation, which was quickly awarded non-profit status, was dedicated to nurturing and supporting original music, and would see Abrams mentoring and working with a wide range of members such as Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, George Lewis and others. They also founded a youth music education programme. Abrams's 1968 debut album Levels And Degrees Of Light, alongside Roscoe Mitchell’s 1967 debut Sound, was a key document in introducing the jazz world to the AACM and the Chicago scene, and Abrams appeared on albums by Anthony Braxton and Joseph Jarman the same year (still credited at that time as Richard Abrams). The title of a 1975 album, Things To Come From Those Now Gone, exemplified a lifetime’s belief that education and historical study could help push music into the future.

In the late 1970s he moved to New York where he became involved in the loft jazz scene. He formed a crucial relationship with the Italian label Black Saint records around this time, and in 1983 founded the AACM New York City chapter. He continued to record regularly while in New York, blurring the lines between jazz, composition and free music. His 1989 album The Hearing Suite, with an 18 piece orchestra, was described by Andy Hamilton (The Wire 350) as one which “stands as the summit of his achievement as a jazz composer”. Albums became less frequent in the 2000s, but 2001’s Visibility Of Thought, released on Thomas Buckner’s Mutable Music label, was the first recording of his chamber compositions, and a 2007 release Vision Towards Essence presented three lengthy piano improvisations. His final album as leader was 2011’s SoundDance, with George Lewis and Fred Anderson. In 2010 Abram was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by New York City's Vision Festival. He died at his home in Manhattan.