Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a black music collective formed in May 1965 in Chicago. The departure of the Sun Ra band to NYC had left a void in the local music scene. Kelan Philip Cohran (b 8 May 1927, Oxford MA; d 28 June 2017, Chicago) studied music all his life; he had played trumpet with Jay McShann and Sun Ra, formed his own groups including the Artistic Heritage Ensemble ('Kelan' is an honorific meaning 'holy scripture', bestowed on him by Chinese Muslims during a visit to China.) J.B. Figi interviewed him for Downbeat magazine (December 1984): 'Around April 1965, I ran into Steve McCall and Muhal walking down Cottage Grove, by the cemetery. We talked about how everybody had gone to New York and there was nobody around here and nothing happening. So we said, 'Man, we ought to do something about this ourselves. We'll just get together. You call all the guys you know, send them a card; I'll take the guys I know.' I had a place at 740 East 75th Street, and it had a large living room [...] And that was the first AACM meeting.' 

About three dozen musicians gathered at that first meeting on Saturday 8 May, which also happened to be Cohran's birthday. Muhal Richard Abrams had been leading an Experimental Band; other early members included Charles Clark, Steve McCall, Thurman Barker, Anthony Braxton, Fred Anderson, and members of later groups, the trio Air (McCall, Barker and Henry Threadgill) and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The modest aim of opportunities to play was soon enhanced by the quality of the music: they held concerts and open rehearsals exploring free jazz with original music only, composers writing for anyone wanting to play. Co-ops had failed in NYC, but earlier work in the idiom had been 'energy music': now the Chicago musicians produced more thoughtful, lyrical work, drawing talent from outside Chicago and inspiring similar groups (Black Artists Group in St Louis; Strata in Detroit; others around the world). They played together more often and more freely under less commercial pressure than their peers in the East and the dominance of NYC lessened (the Art Ensemble moved on to Paris instead of New York), though Abrams (and others) moved to NYC, to 'follow up some of the business we've generated'. With the example of the AACM, musicians seek 'self- employment amongst themselves, instead of waiting for somebody to hire them' (Roscoe Mitchell). AACM also operates a free music school for inner-city youth. The twentieth anniversary was marked by ten concerts in Chicago in May '85. Early AACM music was documented on the Delmark and Nessa labels; Ismael Wadada Leo Smith was one of three runners-up for a Pulitzer Prize in 2013, and Threadgill won a Pulitzer in 2016; the members of the Art Ensemble, Anthony Braxton and others have led prolific careers.

When the Art Ensemble had gone to Europe and become famous, singer/bandleader Rita Warford said, 'I'd like to be successful, like you.' She never forgot Joseph Jarman's reply: 'Success is being successful in the moment, with what you're doing right now, what you're practicing, what you're studying, what you're performing in front of an audience.' The example and the influence of the AACM continue to be felt; many decades later they are still going on a shoestring. In the mid-'90s the roof fell in on their premises, but the free Saturday-morning instruction soon picked up at another address. Mwata Bowden was the chairman '97, and new groups emerging included Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble and Ritual Trio, Ernest Dawkins's New Horizons Ensemble, Malachi Thompson's Africa Brass and groups led by Edward Wilkerson (see his entry). El'Zabar started a Traffic series of concerts at the Steppenwolf Theatre, the first two were sold out and WBEZ-FM opted to broadcast them all; the AACM's work goes on, and the rewards last a long time.

Trombonist, composer and AACM alumnus George E. Lewis (see his entry) is Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music and Director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University. His long-awaited book about the AACM was A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (U. of Chicago Press, 2008).