Friday, 24 October 2008

A Power Stronger Than Itself

This review of George E. Lewis' book A Power Than Stronger Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music first appeared in Issue 2 of eartrip magazine. To access the full magazine, go to http://eartripmagazine. To order the book from The University of Chicago Press, go to metadata.epl?mode=synopsis&bookkey=236682.

The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians is an organisation of some importance: even its detractors must acknowledge the validity of that statement. Over the years, its ranks have included Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Famoudou Don Moye, Lester Bowie, Amina Claudine Myers, Fred Anderson, Leroy Jenkins, John Stubblefield, Pete Cosey, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill – and those are just some of the best-known. Yet, despite documentation and coverage in recordings, journalistic and scholarly articles, and references in academic books, ‘A Power Stronger than Itself’ is the first full-length study of its kind, written by an AACM member who also happens to be a fine academic writer, and who has meticulously researched both the specific and wider contexts of the AACM’s genesis, from the background of economic depression in 1930s Chicago to the present day situation.

‘A Power Stronger than Itself’ is much than just a historical curiosity; in fact, I’d argue that it is one of the most important books about jazz ever written, and is worthy of the attention of anyone who claims to be serious about the music. Lewis is an academic who actually says something through the complexity of his discourse, and is not a vacuous or pretentious name-dropper (his relation of Theodor Adorno and Jacques Attali to what he's talking about is very much to the point and not put in for some intellectual brownie points). I feel this important to assert because of the rather snobby dismissals I've read in various publications, which, dare I say it, come from exactly the sort of views he critiques in the book. A black musician talking about jazz in academic terms? That’s not his place – he must be doing something wrong.

This review can only claim to cover a small number of the issues addressed by Lewis; there’s simply no way that I can write about everything that I had jotted down as an area of immediate interest when reading through for the first time. So, where to begin? Let’s dive straight into controversy…

The issue of race will undoubtedly be raised, with the AACM criticised as an exclusive black-only club. In chapter 6, Lewis brings to light the case of Gordon Emanuel, a vibes player who was the organisation’s only white member (though he regarded himself as essentially black, being the adopted brother of bassist Bob Cranshaw and living in the South Side’s black ghetto). Growing pressures from black nationalists in the group eventually forced a meeting, in which Emanuel was voted out of the organisation. This will provide plenty of ammunition for those who want to argue that AACM members, in combating the detrimental effects of anti-black racism, turned the racism back on white people; indeed, at the time, Leslie Rout argued that the incident showed how, “in the final analysis, all white men are enemies [to the AACM].” Amina Myers, who has the advantage over Rout of an insider’s perspective, admits that “I was one of the ones that was against having somebody white in the organisation. Whites were always having something. They always run everything, come in and take over our stuff, but this was something black we had created, something of our own, and we should keep it black.” Such a mentality was something that Myers had in common with Malcolm X, and those he influenced. Well-meaning whites often did more harm than good; this was about black self-determination, and there was no problem with whites as such, but the process of explicit co-operation could only come about once the generally racist conditions of America had changed to a significant extent.

Myers admits that she has since changed her views – and they were undoubtedly very much of their time (though that shouldn’t diminish their validity at that moment in history). Today, she believes that “music is open, and that’s what I look at now. There’s got to be a spiritual quality, regardless of what the color is.” I tend to sympathise with the thought-currents that led to Emanuel’s expulsion, if not the expulsion itself – but they are undoubtedly problematic, and many in the organisation at the time did not share them to such an extreme extent.

One might also note that, despite the very heavy focus on racial injustice, there was often a strongly sexist element to male-female relationships in the free jazz world, with the woman expected to be the supportive home-maker who was there for her man while he went out on his musical explorations (see the relevant chapter in Val Wilmer’s ‘As Serious as Your Life’). Of course, as a blanket statement, this is entirely inaccurate – think of Sam and Beatrice Rivers’ Studio RivBea, Ornette Coleman’s marriage to poet Jayne Cortez, or the relationship between Sonny and Linda Sharrock – but there is still an element of truth to the accusations of sexism. In a valuable sub-section of chapter eleven, entitled ‘Leading the Third Wave: The New Women of the AACM’, Lewis discusses the issue of gender politics. Multi-instrumentalist and composer Maia recounts how she asked Phil Cohran: “When we as black people reach utopia, reach this point that we’re reaching for, is that when you’re going to deal with this issue that we have between men and women? Because the black revolution is more about the revolution of black men. The problems that exist between men and women existed before racism came about.” There’s a slight confusion as to whether the AACM membership was predominantly male because of residual sexism from certain quarters, or whether the situation was more complicated. Maia suggests that the problem was not so much deliberate exclusion as a (perhaps inaccurate) perception of the AACM as what Douglas Ewart calls “a man’s club.” “The revolution was about black men. Nobody meant women any harm. But if you don’t have on a fire suit, you ain’t gonna go into no fire. It may have been open to women, but if it is not inviting to women, women are not going to come.” So, it was clearly important that artists like Maia, Nicole Mitchelle and Shanta Nurullah began to form all-female groups, to highlight female creativity, and the validity of female contributions to black experimental music.

As indicated by such a discussion, nobody is claiming that the AACM is perfect, least of all Lewis; what makes it such an important organisation is that its members acknowledge areas of complexity or disagreement, and seek to work through these. Such an attitude that was there from the start, as made clear by the transcription of the very first AACM meetings, from May 1965, in chapter four, ‘Founding the Collective.’ A major virtue of the book, then, is that it is not sanitised; that it shows the contradictions and struggles of the organisation, at the same time as the way that it remained, as the title puts it, 'a power stronger than itself', representing something much bigger than the Chicago jazz scene, and providing a model for all such initiatives. This is what is overlooked by those who criticise the October Revolution in Jazz, the Jazz Composers’ Guild, or the AACM, by those who argue that the ideals of self-determination and creative autonomy shared by these bodies are laudable but inevitably fail. The AACM was not intended to be the solution to everyone’s problems, but was firmly rooted in the realities of a specific socio-economic, musical and racial situation, and was therefore in a good position to make an impact (on a local level, and perhaps further, as with the migration to New York). Thanks to Lewis, this is now clearer than ever; that should silence those who claim that he lavishing a disproportionate amount of attention to the AACM.

The issues of race and gender are clearly of importance, then: also crucial to Lewis’ investigations is the economic side of things. An academic not mentioned in the book, but relevant to the argument, is Ian Anderson, whose essay ‘Jazz outside the Marketplace’ contains an analysis of free jazz’s growing reconciliation to capitalism, through funding and grants from banks and institutions, that may prove depressing reading to those who associated the music with radical political hopes. This would seem to fit with the standard narrative, to which there may be some truth , which would place the trend identified by Anderson alongside the failure of post-’68 activism, as evidence of the decline of the left. However, pessimism, leading on to capitulation, and, ultimately conformity, are what brought about this change in the first place, and to react in the same way is not the answer.

For, what Lewis’ book offers, beyond informative and (generally) rigorous scholarship, is hope. Lewis shows how (predominantly black) self-organisation and self-promotion could provide a viable alternative to commercialisation, line-toeing and subservience to the greedy, exploitative machinations of big-time club-owners, promoters, and record company bosses. The AACM was not primarily a for-profit organisation –members contributed funds to keep things afloat at first, even if payments were not always diligently kept up, and proceeds from concerts were plunged into further musical developments and, importantly, educational and social projects. Thus, while the AACM was in the service of the art foremost, the art was intimately linked to the life. “My youngest son’s wife called me,” Jodie Christian recalls. “She said, do you know any place where they give piano lessons? I thought, the AACM, that’s what they do. If that ever dies, then the AACM dies. That’s what’s holding it together. That, to me, is the backbone of the AACM.” (P.506) One cannot understand the music without a knowledge of the socio-economic and racial conditions of Chicago (or, for that matter, America as a whole), and one gains a deeper appreciation of the AACM project if one realises its political significance, rather than simply seeing it as ‘interesting’ music. ‘Interesting’ music is what divorces the experimental tradition from a wider audience, creating an ivory-tower elite (most notably in the classical music world) which the free jazz musicians sought to combat from the outset (Val Wilmer’s ‘As Serious As Your Life’ provides further evidence of such ambitions).

Yes, perhaps some of the participants have gained (even courted) the support of the 'establishment' (George Lewis' own work at IRCAM, for instance, although that was a slightly strange episode, and one he felt somewhat uncomfortable with, I believe) - but, as Lewis argues, quite persuasively I think, the 'establishment' (the sort of 'high culture' institutions that Anderson argues have come to support free jazz) tended to (and still does tend to) look down on the music. As many, many people will tell you, it is still a struggling music – consider the state of free improvisation in the UK (the closure of one the major venues, the Red Rose; the cutting of funding for the LMC; and the post-Thatcherite bureaucratic muddle that complicates things still further). I think it’s more the case that that a few token 'progressives’ and 'radicals, get establishment support, as a means for the capitalist hierarchy to appear 'progressive' and 'liberal', at the same time as denting the subversive force of the art they have ‘embraced.’ When trumpeter Bill Dixon was featured on a BBC Radio 3 programme devoted to ‘new music’, for instance, his work was treated with a marked lack of respect, in comparison to the numerous classical composers that the programme features, week in, week out. Underlying it all, I’m afraid to say, is a residual racism that is all the more pernicious for being unconscious. If Dixon, one of the most important instrumentalists and composers of the past forty years, is characterised as “mad,” there’s not much hope for the free music project being taken seriously.

I mentioned the danger of elitism for (predominantly white, classical) experimental music, and there are those who criticise black experimental music in a similar manner, as elitist and inherently anti-popular. These charges are not hard to repudiate, and the connection between the black avant-garde and popular music should not need too much defending – Amiri Baraka had always maintained that Albert Ayler and James Brown were equally important as figures of black self-consciousness and self-expression (see his essay ‘The Changing Same’), and Lewis provides a corroborating anecdote about Henry Threadgill playing “free” in evangelical meetings (pp.75-6). Yet the other attack, often from critics with a black power agenda, like Baraka or Stanley Crouch, needs addressing – that connections with European classical music (Braxton, Cecil Taylor, and George Lewis with Cage, Stockhausen and IRCAM) are betrayals of blackness, ‘whitening’ the music and rendering it impotent, effectively obscuring and ignoring a part of one’s identity as an African-American by moving away from one’s heritage. This leads Baraka to claim that he would prefer to listen to the hegemonic comfort of Wynton Marsalis’ revivalism than to Lester Bowie or Henry Threadgill (though he believes that they too should have “regular stages” (p.444)). Lewis’ book is crucial in this respect, showing how misguided such criticisms are, and how the AACM’s avant-garde approach actually stays truer to heritage than Marsalis’ more overt engagements with black tradition. Maybe the Lincoln centre ‘jazz neo-conservatism’ is on its way out by now, though Stanley Crouch is still yelling out its propaganda at the top of his voice – still, for those taken with its proclamations, it might be helpful to consider this: who would berate contemporary rock musicians for not sounding like Hendrix, or contemporary composers for not sounding like Vivaldi?

Lewis, then, persuasively shows how much criticism of the work of black experimentalists, from both black and white critics, is based on outmoded principles and simplistic assumptions that might have people up in arms if applied to white composers - hence the famous 'anti-jazz' slur on Coltrane, and the assumption that one must be in the tradition (this mysterious, single tradition, always prefixed by the definite article) or one is nothing, and hence the straitjacketing of people to fit rules that you yourself have artificially imposed onto them. I don’t have the space to go into it here, but there are some crucial passages in which he argues that the annecdotalism of (predominantly white) 1950s and 60s jazz criticism (such as Leonard Feather’s ‘Blindfold Tests’) deliberately stirred up antagonism, and opened up a false and unnecessary chasm between traditional musicians and experimentalists, as well as creating a simplified and distorted climate, ill-suited for the reception of music (like the AACM’s) that went beyond a certain level of complexity, that went outside the bounds of certain fairly strict parameters.

In conclusion, then, Lewis has much say that is relevant and of interest, in relation to perceptions of music, and ways of avoiding the capitalist norm (communal, self organisation, art and mastery of a craft valued over 'product' and the market). Most relevant is his penetrating analysis of the still-present subtle and perhaps unconscious racial discrimination that exists when talking about this music: put the black man in his place, don't let him mix his entertaining jazz with serious music of any kind - hence the criticism of Braxton for taking an interest in Stockhausen. There are numerous thought-provoking passages which really do change one's perceptions of things might have just taken for granted – but I’ll leave individual readers to discover these for themselves.

In the end, despite compromises that may have had to be made (the move to New York, while creatively fruitful), and difficulties overcome. As attested to by the work of Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, Wadada Leo Smith, and Lewis himself, these artists are still as creative as ever, and, even if some have moved beyond the AACM, they retain its ethos in all their activities. The younger generation is thriving too, and is in a reciprocal relationship with the older generation of pioneers, as seen in such examples as the collaboration between Matana Roberts and Fred Anderson on her album ‘The Chicago Project’ (reviewed elsewhere in this issue).

Characterising all these diverse activities is a strongly-held belief in the power of music as a force for good – not in a vague utopian sense, but as something that can have a real and positive impact on the lives of human beings. As Nicole Mitchell puts it, “we take for granted the power of what music really is. It’s not about trying to make a few dollars at some concert. It’s not about, do we have a crowd, or do I have an image, or have I, quote-unquote, made it.” (p.512) What it is about is the substance of this book.


Andrew said...

Can't wait to read this!

Stephen Haynes said...

"When trumpeter Bill Dixon was featured on a BBC Radio 3 programme devoted to ‘new music’, for instance, his work was treated with a marked lack of respect, in comparison to the numerous classical composers that the programme features, week in, week out. Underlying it all, I’m afraid to say, is a residual racism that is all the more pernicious for being unconscious. If Dixon, one of the most important instrumentalists and composers of the past forty years, is characterised as “mad,” there’s not much hope for the free music project being taken seriously."

I have to share with you the fact that Bill very much enjoyed being recently programmed on BBC 3's new music show. In particular, he dug the context, one that placed his work among other orchestral works (as opposed to "Jazz" orchestra pieces). As other commentators have noted, Bill wrote for the orchestra, as opposed to soloist, on '17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur.'

A bit ironic, Bill being included in commentary on George's book about the AACM (for a number of reasons that I will not run here), as Bill has read the work and has some responses that will hopefully see the light of day through his soon to be implemented blog site. Suffice it to say that much of history, perhaps by nature, is revisionist to some extent. So, too, is George's work on some levels.

I do agree with your comment that the book is singular in this music in the sense of being written by a musician with deep academic chops about a scene that, for some, is seen as transformative.

It is worth noting that George is not the only musician with enough intelligence and writing skill to cogently describe his own (and other's) work. Check out Bill Dixon or, for that matter, Rex Stewart.

david_grundy said...

I was very pleased when I say the line-up for the Radio 3 show, and I liked the context too, but it was in the commentary on Dixon that I felt there was some kind of condescension which maybe would not have been shown if he had not been a 'jazz' artist (whatever that is). Of course, the conceptions of a lot of artists like Bill Dixon, the AACM and Art Ensemble musicians, Braxton in particular, etc, tend to intersect with 'classical' music (for what of a better term) just as much as with jazz, so recognition from that quarter I'm sure is welcome.

Interesting to hear that Bill Dixon has some disagreements with the Lewis book. For me, it was one of a very few books which really got some academic teeth into the subject, and it raised so many important issues which have really made an impact on my thinking over the past few months. I think George Lewis is at pains to point out in the book that this is just one history - that someone else would have written it differently - even if he uses certain techniques (such as the imagained 'conversation' at the end of the book, constructed out of interview fragments) which seem to try and aim for at least some sort of 'objectivity'. But I do very much look forward to reading Mr Dixon's thoughts on his new blog - perhaps you could send me a link when it gets underway.