A Half Century of Creative Musicianship with the AACM

We'll speak with 87-year-old co-founder Kelan Phil Cohran about the vibrant avant-garde music he created with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) starting in 1965. We'll also hear from the curators of Free at Firstthe new show at the DuSable Museum of African American History, about honoring this legacy of experimental music that has been called "a power stronger than itself." 

Read an interview with Muhal Richard Abrams, one of the co-founders of AACM.

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How did the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians originate?

It was a natural progression of musicians doing their thing and working, and the AACM was to do it in a certain way. It was just a continuation of what musicians do. We’re functioning as musicians and decided to make a formal setting for it.

Musicians function as individuals, and we just came together to compose and perform original music, and that is the music that would come from the members of AACM.

How would you define creative music?

There’s no definition. It’s just what it says.

How important was the AACM in fostering creative music/experimentation?

Well, the thing is musicians just do that. The idea expanded by itself by musicians continuing to do what they do. They were continuing to compose and improvise and express their own music. It expanded and expanded and kept going through the years.

I read that musical experimentation has led to the creation of instruments. Can you tell me about how experimentation leads to the creation of instruments?

Musicians in visual arts are creating instruments that they would like to envision or imagine, and they just build these instruments to become part of the instruments to express music.

[You] see a need to express music in a certain way, like a wooden flute. You create a wooden flute; you’d take bamboo and create a wooden flute by carving it a certain way to make certain sounds. It’s just an example.

Musicians function in many different ways, as visual artists, as people who create crafts of certain sorts in addition to music, [and] electronics, and the same creative spirit of vision goes in each area that they function in.

How has the AACM changed over the years?

Well, that has to do with the individuals in the organization. There’s no definite answer. You’d have to check with the individuals to answer a question like that… it’s constantly changing. Younger people are coming in and they have their visions and proceed in that manner, and older musicians proceed in the manner that they see may change. It’s a perpetual, continuous process. There’s no particular type of description except that the process comes out of the process of constantly practicing, studying, and expanding.

What do you think of the AACM being honored with an exhibit at the DuSable Museum of African-American History to celebrate AACM’s 50th anniversary?

I think it’s great. I guess it’s like a birthday, but it doesn’t end the progression of activity. Next year is just as important as this year.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

Watch the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Paris-1969 video.

Many musicians have been associated with AACM since its inception in 1965. Read more about the co-founders and early members.

Muhal Richard Abrams
Pianist and composer
Muhal Richard Abrams is a co-founder of The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and founder of the AACM New York City Chapter. Abrams is primarily a self-taught musician as a result of many years of observation, analysis and practice. In 1990, he was the first recipient of the international jazz award, “The JazzPar Prize,” which was awarded to him by the Danish Jazz Center in Copenhagen. On April 11, 1999, Richard M. Daley declared it Muhal Richard Abrams Day in Chicago.

Jodie Christian
Jodie Christian, a native Chicagoan, is a co-founder of the AACM. He remained in Chicago throughout his career and performed blues, swing, bop, and ballads. He died in Chicago in 2012.

Steve McCall
Steve McCall, a native Chicagoan, is a co-founder of the AACM. While in Chicago, he played with hard bop groups as well as top avant-garde performers, including Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins, Roscoe Mitchell, and Leo Smith. From 1967-1970, he lived in Paris and performed and recorded with Braxton, Marion Brown, and Gunter Hampel. In 1975, he traveled to New York, where he reunited with Henry Threadgill and Fred Hopkins, forming the group Air, which made innovative breakthroughs musically and won many awards.

Phil Cohran
Musician and composer
Phil Cohran, a native of Mississippi, is a co-founder of AACM. He arrived in Chicago in 1953 and was introduced to jazz composer Sun Ra. He formed The Artist Heritage Ensemble with Ajaramu, Larry King, Eugene Easton, and Amina Claudine Myers, and he played the harp for the first AACM show. In the summer of 1967, musicians from the Chess Records sessions joined The Artistic Heritage Ensemble when the group performed along Lake Michigan.

Adegoke Steve Colson
Pianist and composer
Adegoke Steve Colson became a member of AACM in the early 1970s. The New Jersey native performed internationally as a leader of jazz ensembles, ranging from trios to orchestras. He received his degree from Northwestern University School of Music. His music has been compared to that of Monk, Mingus, and Ellington, as well as Ives, Berio, and Stravinsky. He’s received awards for composition and piano throughout his career.

Henry Threadgill
Musician, composer, arranger, and innovator
Henry Threadgill is a multi-instrumentalist and emerged from AACM. He founded the group Air with Steve McCall and Fred Hopkins. Between the early 1970s to the mid-1980s, Air recorded eight to 10 albums. In the mid-1980s, Threadgill formed a seven-piece group, Sextett, which recorded six albums. In the 1990s, he formed Very Very Circus, a septet that fused the music of avant-garde jazz, salsa, funk, and East European marches. The group made five albums together, including Too Much Sugar for a Dime.

Anthony Braxton
Saxophonist, clarinetist, composer, and philosopher
Anthony Braxton, a native Chicagoan, was an early member of AACM, and his 1968 album, For Alto, was the first and most influential solo saxophone recording to come from the AACM of that era. Throughout his career, Braxton built upon a jazz foundation and wrote virtually every combination of instruments imaginable. He also recorded with a range of performers including Leroy Jenkins and Hank Jones.

Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith
Jazz trumpeter, multi-instrumentalist, composer, and improviser
Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith, a Mississippi native, became immersed in the Delta Blues and improvisation music at the age of 13. He studied a variety of music cultures, including African, Japanese, Indonesian, and American. During his career, he performed with many notable artists and composed music for solo, ensemble, classical and creative orchestras and stage works. He received many awards throughout his career, including the Meet the Composer/Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Commissioning Program in 1996.

Leroy Jenkins
Leroy Jenkins, a native Chicagoan, studied music in high school and then attended Florida A&M University, where he received a bachelor of science in music. In 1965, he returned to Chicago and joined AACM, which marked the first time he says he is welcomed into creative music as a violinist. He played and recorded with Muhal Richard Abrams, Leo Smith, and Anthony Braxton.

Amina Claudine Myers
Vocalist and composer
Amina Claude Myers moved to Chicago in the 1960s to teach in the public school system and attended Roosevelt University. In 1966, she became a member of AACM. While in Chicago, she began composing music for voice, and in 1975 she organized her first choir. In 1976, she moved to New York, where her career expanded to encompass the realm of theater, which included writing for theater, acting, and composing music for a number of off-Broadway productions.

Chico Freeman
Multi-reedman, keyboard artist, composer, and producer
Chico Freeman was born into a musical family; his father, Von Freeman, was a legendary tenor saxophone player and his uncles played guitar and drums. He graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in music with proficiencies in saxophone, trumpet, and piano. After studying advanced composition and theory, he began teaching elementary and intermediate courses at the Chicago-based AACM. During his career, he developed and performed with many groups, including The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Young Lions, The Leaders, and Brainstorm.

George Lewis
Trombonist, composer, performer, and computer/installation artist
George Lewis is a 20-year member of AACM, where he studied composition with Muhal Richard Abrams and trombone with Dean Hey. His work as a trombonist has been featured on more than 80 record albums, in which he is featured as a composer, improviser, or interpreter. He received numerous awards from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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