'Great Black Music' Comes of Age

The Art Ensemble of Chicago

FRIDAY evening the Church of the Covenant in Boston was the scene of an extraordinary spectacle. Hundreds of people stood in lines, jammed the pews, and knelt in the aisles of that grand and holy edifice, seeking an odd mixture of sacrament and blasphemy, tradition and revolution, ritual and riot--in a word, art.

These pilgrims came to see five smiling, intense black men wearing eyeglasses, facepaint, flowing third world costumes and smart white surgeon's coats; they came to listen to ancient yet modern music performed on a dazzling array of strange instruments. They were not disappointed.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago. A name that calls to mind an image of grim-looking men and women from America's heartland sawing away at string instruments in search of elusive "art" does curious justice to the group of musicians which it actually describes. The designation "Art Ensemble" may strike us as parodic, but any irony reflects only our own cultural conditioning. The work of the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC) is, in its way, every bit as creative, disciplined, and sincere as the classical music for which we ordinarily reserve the word "art".

"Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future" is the AEC motto. The members of the Art Ensemble are quick to deny any racial or elitist intent--the motto is meant to acknowledge and affirm the singular course of American black musical development. The group's radical conception of musical performance has as its obvious source the improvisation and spontaneous creation which are characteristic of jazz, blues, and Afro-American folk music. These are musical values that have no counterpart in the mainstream of Western culture. But classifications like "jazz" or even "music" seem to narrow to contain the Art Ensemble's vision of "Great Black Music." It's terribly difficult to describe what the Art Ensemble of Chicago actually does, especially when confronted with the rich complexity of one of their live performances. Call it a "happening".

THE SPECTRE of the 60s raised by that hackneyed term is not inappropriate, for the AEC's unique concept of American music has its origins in the artistic and cultural ferment of that era. Our popular culture has conditioned us for the epehmeral, but the emergence of the Art Ensemble as a tangible force in jazz is in fact as much a culmination as beginning. The AEC has worked together for over fifteen years, and during that time they have released over 20 albums, as well as an equal number of records under individual Art Ensemble members' names. Great Black Music may have flourished in obscurity, but it flourished all the same; today's growing AEC audience enjoys a mature artistic form born in the early 60s through the innovations of The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a Chicago-based musician's collective.

While rock gained new levels of popularity and achievement throughout the 60s, the national jazz scene was rapidly drying up. The audience dwindled, the clubs closed. The effect on the New York musicians was devastating; many of the major figures who didn't die either went into seclusion or left for the greener pastures of Europe and Las Vegas. But the less competitive Chicago avant-garde community was on the threshold of an artistic breakthrough, and in the face of public indifference Chicago musicians turned to one another for support through the AACM.

Saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, and bassist Malachi Favors were founding members of the AACM; trumpeter Lester Bowie joined when he came to Chicago shortly afterward. These four players became the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The original name was the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble, but the group's musical philosophy was deeply influenced by the collective ideal of the AACM, and when they went to Europe in 1969 they adopted a name that more accurately suggests the active role each member takes in the AEC's music. With the addition of percussionist Don Moye in 1970, the AEC was complete. The music had reached a high level of development, and the European cultural community, traditionally more receptive to jazz and black artists than the U.S., greeted the band as something of a popular sensation. Then, in 1972, the Art Ensemble returned to America and brought their Great Black Music home to the culture it seeks to express.

THE MUSIC ITSELF shows an unusually broad range of expression. The Art Ensemble has chosen a musical language which accepts and draws on both the multitude of musical experiences that have shaped the styles of its individual players and the roots of jazz itself. One thinks of avantgarde jazz in terms of raw rhythmic energy and screeching atonalism, but the Art Ensemble's musical vocabulary evokes swing, calypso, bebop circus music, rhythm'n blues and a host of other influences side-by-side with the visionary innovations of a Coltrane or an Ayler. It's not simply a case of an eclectic repertoire; these diverse styles emerge organically from the Art Ensemble's musical conception and are knit into a fabric that clearly belongs to the AEC alone.

Group improvisation is not a new idea in music, but the AEC has advanced the idea to a new technical and artistic plane. The Art Ensemble sound is a fusion of five highly individual and even idiosyncratic stylists; their special achievement is in learning, through years of experimentation, to combine these styles into a coherent music that retains the originality and vitality of each. Lester Bowie is especially startling in his instrumental technique. He finds within his trumpet an astonishing variety of blasts, blares, bleats, and buzzes it was never meant to produce. He exploits the lower ranges of the trumpet as no other player has done, growling, moaning, and even interjecting an occasional raspberry.

Probably the most immediately striking element of the Art Ensemble's music is their use of multi-instrumentalist. It is not unusual to see a jazz saxophonist double on flute or clarinet, but Joseph Jarman works beside a rack of no fewer than eleven woodwind instruments, ranging from a wooden flute and tiny sopranino saxophone to a bass clarinet. One hallmark of AACM artists is a fascination with interesting and unusual juxtapositions of instruments, and in the AEC this interest is taken to an extreme. What is even more striking than the sheer multiplicity of instruments is the sensitivity and virtuosity of their use. An artistic peak of last Friday evening's performance was duet between Jarman on flute and Mitchell on the bulky bass saxophone. Surprisingly, the pairing sounded neither contrived nor ludicrous; Mitchell managed to coax from his awkward horn a tone as clear, tender, and agile as that of the smaller flute.

The AEC's experimentation with sonic textures is further developed through their use of what exasperated liner note editors have dubbed "little instruments." All kinds of bells gongs, whistles, shakers, bicycle horns, bongo drums, zithers, woodblocks, and assorted simple percussion instruments are used by Art Ensemble members to richen the fabric of their music. Usually regarded as gimmicks or novelty items, these little instruments have become an essential feature of the AEC's musical language. When the group travelled to Europe, they packed literally hundreds of these odd tools of their trade. The little instruments provide memorable visual images--Jarman serenely blowing a conch shell or harmonica, Moye stamping his feet to ring the bells attached to his ankles.

THE FIRST IMPRESSION that any performing group makes upon its audience is visual, and the outlandish physical appearance of the Art Ensemble is only natural for a band that seeks to use every available means of expression. Just as in the music, the Art Ensemble attains their visual goal through the highly personal contributions of the individual members; Mitchell, in the standard dungarees and open-collar shirt of the jazzman, is as much a part of the AEC tableau as is Moye in his coolie hat and war paint.

In the early days the Art Ensemble's performance could be programmatic or even 60s-melodramatic; they once scheduled a concert in one Chicago hall and then performed in another. Today the Art Ensemble eschews formal theatrics, but they continue to affect a stage deportment that communicates--their movements can be stylized or abandoned, approaching sacred ceremony one moment and slapstick hokum the next. Jarman is the most consciously animated. During a drum solo he may turn his back and raise his arms as if in supplication or approach a microphone as if to sing but content himself with making faces at the levice. It is appropriate that the most memorable moments from an AEC concert combine musical and extra-musical elements--Bowie wheeling around to release an arresting snarl, Mitchell picking up his clarinet to play a single note, Jarman filling out the harmony of an ornate fanfare by putting two saxophones to his lips at once. Great Black Music has room for all this and more.

WITH COVER STORIES in both Downbeat and Musician and a new album (NiceGuys) on ECM--the label that has successfully promoted the likes of Keith Jarrett and Pat Methaney--the AEC is riding a new crest of public interest and acceptance. But as Lester Bowie comments, there has always been a receptive audience for the group's work, and the size of that audience is of no great consequence. The music which so excites critics today is essentially unchanged since the days when the Art Ensemble played for groups of ten or fifteen devotees back in Chicago. Through years of poverty and even a self-imposed exile, the Art Ensemble of Chicago has remained scrupulously true to their original and challenging language of expression; their longevity is a tribute to the perseverence of art. The wonderful thing is that now, at last, an audience has evolved that can appreciate them.CrimsonMichael AchtmanDON MOYE