Amina Claudine Myers
Simon Rentner: This is Simon Rentner with Afropop Worldwide with George Collinet. I’m here sitting with Amina Claudine Myers, the famous genre-defying pianist, who has played with so many luminaries in the industry. It’s just a pleasure to be here with you and talk about some of your life experiences.
Amina Claudine Myers: Thank you. It’s a pleasure. My pleasure.
S.R: So, I guess first of all, when did you, on an individual level, decide that you were going to be a musician?
A.C.M: That’s a very good question. Well, I was a musician before I decided I was going to be one. It started when I was about 11, playing for the church. Those things were just automatic. But when I really realized that I was supposed to be a musician was in the ’70s. Even though I was in the AACM – well no, no, before then, because I was in the AACM. But when I really knew who I was I would say was in the ’70s.
S.R: Interesting. That’s fascinating. So, you were the director of your choir at a very young age.
A.C.M: Yes, that was one of the things. I organized a quartet in the ’50s. In the early ’60s I directed several choirs when I was going to school at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas. It’s a small Methodist school. During the summer I would go stay with my mother in Louisville, Kentucky and I started directing choirs during that time.
S.R: What was the period during which you lived in Little Rock?
A.C.M: From ’59 to ’63.
S.R: From ’59 to ’63. Okay. Because from the bio on [2:30] the AACM website it says that you were born and raised there. It sort of implies that. But that’s not the case.
A.C.M: No, I was born in a small community, a little village on the highway called Blackwell, Arkansas, which is around 50 miles from Little Rock, northwest, going toward Oklahoma, Kansas City.
S.R: Oh, I see. So it’s still sort of within that area.
S.R: I know this is a very personal question. When did you realize that you were an African-American musician and dealing with everything before you? Do you know what I mean? Was there a moment where you were like, “Okay, I want to be a musician and it’s difficult being an African-American.” Did you even have a moment like that?
A.C.M: No, no. I never had a moment that it was going to be difficult because I was doing it. I started classical piano when I was six years old so I thought I was going to be a concert pianist. So I studied piano all the way up through college. I was doing gospel music and doing rhythm and blues in high school – gospel and rhythm and blues – even before high school. I was playing for the church. We moved to Dallas, Texas in the late ’40s. My great aunt – I was living with her. There were some ladies at the Baptist Church there. We were Methodist but the Baptist Church always had activities like plays. They put me in plays. They organized this women’s group. I was one of the main pianists and leaders. There were about seven of us but the core group was five singers most of the time. So that’s how I started singing in a group and co-leading and teaching songs. So I didn’t think in terms of being a black musician because we were just doing it. Then when I went to college I majored in music and I became interested in classical music – Mozart’s Requiem and the pipe organ and things like that. A young lady – I’ve told this story so many times. We called her the black Elizabeth Taylor. Her name was Gloria Salter. [5:00] She got me a job working in a nightclub. I told her I didn’t know anything about working in a nightclub. She said, “Yes you can. It pays five dollars a night.” That’s how I started playing jazz, so called jazz. But before then, the Professor, our music director in college put me in a little jazz band. We would go around playing proms and things like that. I tried to learn how to play the blues. That was really the first beginning.
A.C.M: So I never thought about it in terms of being black. The musicians from Memphis, Tennessee used to come to Little Rock, stay in a black hotel and play at the white clubs. I had a crush on several of them. They showed me little things. So I was in that community. It was exciting.
S.R: Was there a moment where the reality of being a concert pianist for classical music was probably not the most easily attainable goal? I know Ron Carter had some stories about that too
A.C.M: Well actually, that was fleeting because I went to college just to be a teacher. You had to have – piano was my major instrument. So I thought about concert. But I really didn’t have the energy. I shouldn’t say energy. But I really didn’t have it in me to be a classical pianist. I really didn’t. That was just a thought. I thought that’s what I wanted to be. But no. No.
S.R: Okay. Interesting.
A.C.M: I have to stress that. Really. I was thrown into the jazz and rhythm and blues world. It’s like the Creator said. I didn’t know. I was just floating through, thinking I was going to be a schoolteacher. So the Creator just sent someone. He sent Gloria Salter to get me the job in the club. Then later on, the club owner put a drummer and a bass player with me. This was the club in Little Rock, Arkansas. One summer the drummer called me. He was living in Lexington, Kentucky – Nelson was his name. [7:30] He said, “I have a job for you but it’s playing in Oregon.” It was almost an identical conversation as Gloria Salter had. I said, “I can’t play in Oregon. He said, “Yes you can. It’s got pedals, just like the keyboards.” That’s how I started. So there was always somebody sent to lead me in the direction of being a musician, because I really loved to act. I wanted to act and be an actress and all that. So the Creator sent these people to show me what I was supposed to be doing. So, when I went to Chicago to teach school, I wasn’t thinking about playing music really. But I was hanging around with some young man who played the congas. I hung out with him one night. He asked me to sit in. He told the bandleader that I played. The bandleader had me play, fired his musician and hired me. That’s how I started playing in Chicago. So I was still playing. I went along with it. But I wasn’t aggressive. I was going along. People hired me. Different people hired me to be in their group. Then, when I became a member of the AACM, I started realizing – and that was in the ’60s. But when I really knew who I was, I would say was in the ’70s. With the AACM I was able to develop and be creative because they were all creating, you know, Muhal and Roscoe – they were all just painting and writing poetry and just doing all kinds of things. It was very exciting. I realized I could do those things too.
S.R: Now that was in 1966 or 1965?
A.C.M: Yes, 1965, 1966, 1967.
S.R: Now, you were 23 years old at the time, approximately.
A.C.M: Yes. Yes. Yes.
S.R: In your early 20s.
A.C.M: Yes. Yes.
S.R: What did the AACM or Muhal – what was your first impression?
A.C.M: Well, our drummer, who was [XX] at the time introduced me. He knew Muhal, Steve McCall, all of them. Pardon me. [10:00] It was very exciting with [XX] the drummer and all of them. It was exciting to me seeing these musicians just doing their own thing and creating music. I realized that Muhal and they had realized what I had before I did. I taught school. We had a training program for young people. I was one of the teachers of the vocal class and everything. The respect that they showed me was like we were all on an equal basis. They had much more experience than I had because my music came from the gospel and blues, from down south and everything. I had never studied jazz or music or anything like that. I was accepted into the AACM and what I was doing was accepted. So that motivated me to do more.
S.R: What was the application process?
A.C.M: Well, you were brought in by someone.
S.R: Did someone nominate you?
A.C.M: Yes, I guess you could say it was a nomination. They brought in my name and they accepted me.
S.R: One particular person or a group of people?
A.C.M: Our drummer introduced me into the organization. You had to be brought in by someone. Our drummer brought me in, because I was playing with his trio, The Oregon Trio.
S.R: His name means jazz drummer when translated.
A.C.M: It’s a name that he created himself. He said it meant drummer. He gave me my name Amina. He named a lot of people. We wanted to show my African heritage. He said, “You are not Duke Ellington. His features will appear lighter and lighter and then he may be considered white.” So years from now they may lighten me up. Claudine is French and Myers is Jewish, the way I’m looking at it, which in reality it is. So Amina was more of an African name – Arabic, African. The young lady told me her mother in Mexico, her grandmother [12:30] was named Amina. That’s what she told me. So the name Amina was more a definition of my African heritage. So our drummer named a lot of people. Some people went back to their given name they were born with. But I kept Amina because I had the name a long time before I started using it. When I organized my own group I named it Amina and Company. Then people started calling me Amina. I like Claudine too. My mother gave me that name and I love the name Claudine. So people started calling me Amina Myers and I didn’t like that. They still do that. I said don’t short change. Either Amina by itself or Amina Claudine Myers. Or you can say Amina C. Myers. But that’s what happened.
S.R: That’s great. What year was it approximately when you changed your name? Do you remember?
A.C.M: I didn’t change it. I just added it on. I didn’t do it officially. I would say around ’72 the name started sticking.
S.R: Were there a lot of musicians? It was right after Muhal changed his name too, right?
A.C.M: Muhal – it’s strange how things happened. My name had nothing to do with what Muhal did with his name but it came out that way. He came to Chicago. I came to New York. I had no idea they were coming and they had no idea I was coming. But we ended up here close to the same time. So we have some similarities. I think Muhal and I were related in our past lives or something because there are similarities in the things that happened. He has always been encouraging. He just speaks from his heart – the real thing. He is a very wise person. So Muhal – yeah, he is my spiritual brother. I love him very much. He’s a beautiful person.
S.R: Would you consider the AACM, in its context and how it came together, a heroic effort? Are these musicians more than just musicians, but seekers on another level?
A.C.M: Well, there was something there, because Muhal [15:00] – as you know, the AACM came out of the experimental bands. Even they didn’t know what a magnificent organization it would be. What they were doing was finding a place to present the music. There was nowhere in Chicago. The music scene was dying out. These musicians – Steve McCall, Phil Cohran, Muhal, Jodie Christian – they are the charter members. They came together and decided the place where we needed to present our music. That was very deep, very heavy. How did they even realize what they were developing? The organization is just to me – I use this term all the time – a rehab of activity. There was just so much love and so much unity. Even though we could disagree, we agreed to disagree and it was okay. It was wonderful. That period where creating plays – Muhal would write a whole play with no words, no dialogue. I would say he was way ahead of his time.
S.R: He made some way out records. Actually you were on one record – Lifea Blinec – that record is crazy. I still don’t know what’s going on on that record.
A.C.M: What’s the name of it again?
S.R: I don’t even know how to pronounce it. It’s like Lifea Blinec.
A.C.M: Oh, Lifea Blinec. Yes, yes. I was on that and another one. Several I was on with Muhal. He asked me. But the Lifea Blinec – people still ask about that. We did a duo.
S.R: So explain that. Say a young child comes up to you, that is 12 or 15 years old, and you put that record on. Then the kid says, “What is this? What’s going on?” How do you explain what is happening on that record?
A.C.M: Well, I have to think back. It was just life. It was just [17:30] we were creating and improvising life. I haven’t heard that in a long time. I need to go back and listen to that again because that was done in the ’70s. I haven’t listened to it in so long. I need to listen to it again. But we were improvising and creating an event, right there on the spot, in my opinion.
S.R: So was there this idea that there was a kind of self-awareness of what was going on with the AACM, that we are taking complete ownership over what we are doing? This is sort of unprecedented. Nobody else had ever really done this before. What kind of awareness was there when you were doing it?
A.C.M: Well, when I first started, when I joined the AACM, later on I started playing with Gene Ammons. I used to hear things but I wouldn’t do them because I figured it wasn’t allowed. It was out of order to the formula or the standard playing and stuff. My drummer would tell me to play what I heard and felt. But see, in the AACM, you can do no wrong. I grew up thinking it wasn’t right to do this and this was out of order. But with the AACM, you were completely free to write and compose what you felt. So various musicians had their own way of writing things and doing things. It was accepted because it made sense. In their eyesight they explained it to us. It was so creative and so new and it worked. The music would just grow. It moved forwards instead of just being the same thing over and over again, a repetition of something over and over again. But you look back on the past musicians, some of the musicians that were still living and creating – Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and all of them [20:00] – all that music had an influence on everything that I did, listening to them and even on the blues people. All that music brought me to where I was in the AACM. I can’t speak for the other members, but for me the AACM just opened the door so that anything was possible.
S.R: How did you feel about Great Black Music? Did you like that moniker?
A.C.M: Yes. Yes, because all the music is great. Ornette and all of them created the great black music. It was the definition. It was great music and it was done by black people. A lot of times we didn’t get the recognition, black people didn’t get the recognition of the greatness of the music. So if they wanted to say Great Black Music, that was fine, because that’s what it was.
S.R: Talk to me about how what was going on with the AACM either mirror or was a backdrop or was a reflection of what was going on politically during that era. Do you see a correlation? Could the AACM have only happened in that era?
A.C.M: Well, I don’t know if it could only have happened in that era. But it was the time for that. As far as politically, I’m not a political person. But I feel that the AACM happened exactly what it was supposed to happen. It wasn’t supposed to happen before it happened or after it happened.
S.R: So what was happening? I’m young. I don’t even know. I don’t know what’s happening. Tell me what was happening.
A.C.M: What was happening was we were becoming more knowledgeable about who we were as musicians and as people [22:30] and that we had something to contribute. A change was coming where we were becoming more aware of, as I said, who I was as a person and we were speaking out more about opportunities and things that were happening in the world. We were making an impression that what we have to say is important and is just as important and as good as everything else that’s going on in the world. I’m trying to figure out how to say that. But see, as I said, I’m not political.
S.R: But the AACM is certainly a political organization, not overtly, but by the fact that you guys organized. George Lewis even admitted it’s a political organization, even though he’s not. No one has politics. He’s not talking about right or left or anything like that. But a group of people came together with a common goal to create things on their own terms. It had a political kind of purpose, regardless.
A.C.M: I see what you are saying. I didn’t see it that way. But that is true when you put it like that. So I guess it would be considered political because it was something different and completely away from what had been going on. So it was like a political statement. Yeah, because we were very sincere and knew that the past – I remember playing one time after I had been playing with Gene Ammons. I had my own group. I went and performed in Gary, Indiana. This woman said, “What was that?” I guess she thought I was going to be doing the things I did with Gene Ammons. But you know, I was opening up. So I guess we were making a statement to the people. It was different from what they were accustomed to hearing, the same format and everything. So we were making a statement, yeah. But I didn’t look at it, at that time, but I was sure about what I was trying to do, even though a lot of the time I didn’t know what I was trying to do. I was just letting the creative forces take over. So we were sincere and strong in what we believed in.
S.R: Did you have a pride, [25:00] as in ‘What we are doing is emblematic or representative of the modern African-American. We are part of this continuum. We are on the cutting edge of it.’
A.C.M: No, I never did think like that. No. No. I never did think that what we were doing – I knew it was different and there were no other organizations doing what we were doing. But I didn’t have the ego about it, nor did I think that we were going to make any changes in the world. It was just a chance to express ourselves freely, without anyone trying to stop us. But no, I wasn’t thinking in a political way or any way like that.
S.R: I know it’s hard for you to put this into words or think about it, but I’ll try again and ask you this. Why could this organization not have occurred in the ’70s? Why did it have to happen in the middle of the ’60s?
A.C.M: One thing is, in Chicago we were all on the South Side, the black community. We were able to come together. It couldn’t have happened in New York, because I don’t know about the other cities, but here in New York everything is so spread out and diversified. When you come to New York you really need to have your thing together or else New York will send you back where you came from. But Chicago had a sense of community for it to happen there. You had musicians in Detroit. They had musicians out of St. Louis – BAG. Chicago influenced a whole lot of people because we were able to come together. It was just the place where it was designated for it to be – in Chicago for some reason.
S.R: But it was also incredibly segregated, like you said. You are from the South Side and you had the North Side.
A.C.M: Yes. Yes. It was like a community there on the South Side with the painters and the artists. It just came together there. Like I said, it came out of an experimental band. Muhal was writing music and stuff and moving the music forward, presenting his ideas. It was just the place where it was supposed to be. [27:30] Now I can’t say why it was there. But it was in the universe that we start there, with those people. It was the right setting for it to start in Chicago on the South Side.
S.R: At any time in your career, did you resent being called or known as a jazz musician? Did you have a problem with that word, jazz?
A.C.M: In my later times, yes. Not at first. But I realized jazz was limiting. Also, the music was done in speakeasies and all that kind of stuff. The connotation of jazz – to me it wasn’t understood as it should be. This is a high art form and jazz was low level entertainment.
S.R: Do you still think it has that connotation?
A.C.M: No. Maybe some of the older people think so. But jazz is limited expression. But yet it is ambidextrous. When you say jazz musician, you say, “Oh wow, who is this? They are out there. Jazz.” You think of jazz as suddenly being way out. But another thing is jazz is very sophisticated, very highly evolved and everything. So I use jazz, but it’s not one of my favorite expressions to express music. Because it is all music. Jazz is limiting. I think it is limiting.
S.R: The word itself goes against the overall premise of what the AACM represented, which was, “We are beyond category.”, as Duke Ellington would say.
A.C.M: You have the European classical, you have the blues, the country blues, you’ve got the African rhythm. It has everything. Extended forms. [30:00]
S.R: But also, did you get the sense that you were tired of being put in a box in a way? That’s what the Art Ensemble of Chicago – for instance, each one of their members represented a different idea of the African-American experience on their own terms to show the world we can be whoever we want instead of being a certain way. Were these things that you were thinking about?
A.C.M: Well, I didn’t like to be categorized. I didn’t like it because some people categorized me as avant-garde. When I think about avant-garde I think about throwing the piano out of the building, coming on stage with a suitcase. Then they said I was too commercial. To me, it’s music. People said, “How would you define yourself?” I said, “I do blues, jazz, gospel in extended forms.” It’s just music is really the word. But I can’t define it. People define me in different kinds of ways. So I can’t control that. But they had to put you in a category. So what would you say?
S.R: Well, I’m not the artist.
A.C.M: I think we are all musicians depending on what we have heard in life. We are a composite of everything we’ve experienced and heard in our lives. That’s what the music is.
S.R: In the 1960s, if you can get back into that mindset, or even early ’70s for that matter, what did Africa represent to you?
A.C.M: I loved Africa. It represented – I knew I was from there, but I still don’t know where. But it was the rhythms I always loved. I was always interested whenever I saw something about Africa because I knew my beginnings were there. The rhythms and the music were just so beautiful. The people – I just felt related to that. [32:30] Eventually I had a chance to go to Africa. But before then I was always interested in things from Africa.
S.R: Where did you go?
A.C.M: I went to Senegal and Ghana and Cape Town, South Africa.
S.R: Did you meet with Doudou N’Diaye Rose?
A.C.M: I was in Cape Town with Archie Shepp.
S.R: But in Senegal? Do you know Doudou N’Diaye Rose, the drumming master?
A.C.M: No, no, no. I was in Senegal recently. My husband was from Senegal. He was Malian though. But I was at the St. Louis Jazz Festival and met a chor player. I can’t think of his name now. But no.
S.R: Okay. Interesting. Fantastic. Alright, well, now in the book you stated that being the AACM, you wanted to keep it an all-black organization. You knew I was going to ask you this.
A.C.M: At that time.
S.R: It still is. I asked George Lewis this. I was like, “George, if I were a musician could I join the AACM?” He paused for a long time. He said, “Probably not.” But it’s fine.
A.C.M: Well, I can’t say that because I don’t know. It’s a different time and stuff now. So I don’t know. Here in New York, the chapter here, we are not having new members at this time. So I don’t know what’s going on in Chicago and what they would do. But at that time, I felt that the AACM was something that the blacks organized for us, because I felt that the whites had everything going for them. So here was something that we had, that we had complete control. I just felt that it should stay that way. That’s the way I was feeling at that time.
S.R: Yeah, that sounds right to me. Historically, certainly that has been the case. Why not?
A.C.M: But I’ve played with a lot of beautiful white musicians that are excellent players [35:00] and they are beautiful people. I enjoyed playing with them. But at that time, no, I wanted to keep it black, because I said they take everything away from us. We start something and then they take over and then they are in control and we lose control. That was my mindset then. It’s different now. I’m more open now.
S.R: Has it even changed again, would you say? Music, now that – is there an Obama age in jazz, do you think? Have we moved it even a step further or is that kind of foolish?
A.C.M: An Obama age?
S.R: Well, now that we elected the first President with African ancestry, does that change anything?
A.C.M: No. I don’t think so.
S.R: In terms of whatever, I’m just asking.
A.C.M: I don’t think so. I don’t think so. I really don’t. There was funding and grants. All that was going on. All of a sudden musicians were able to get grants to do things. All the arts programs had dried up.
S.R: Now he is cutting the arts.
A.C.M: Yeah, well before he came into office it was cut. The economics are getting worse and worse. So I don’t see any great changes for the better at this time.
S.R: You made a record with Lester Bowie with African children.
A.C.M: Oh yes.
S.R: What did that mean? What was he getting at with that record and African children? What does he mean?
A.C.M: Now I can’t speak for Lester. I don’t know.
S.R: Was he speaking of himself and African-Americans? Were they part of the African children? Or is this something different?
A.C.M: As I said, I haven’t the slightest idea. But, to me he was saying we are all African children, in my opinion. But I have no idea.
S.R: You made one of your records – you salute [37:30] Bessie Smith.
S.R: The last track on that album is called African Blues.
S.R: But it’s not really a blues at all in form. What is your concept with that piece?
A.C.M: Okay, well I was sitting at the piano. The piano used to be over there. Cecil McBee was here. I just started playing and this voice came. It just came. I named it African Blues because I was trying to show that you don’t have to have words to express. It was like a feeling, like a mournful prayer, a mournful expression about the conditions that were going on in the world today, that were going on in Africa and reaching out, crying out for understanding.
S.R: You don’t sing. You use a different kind of thing in your voice.
A.C.M: It just came.
S.R: It just came? But it sounds like the voice, the quality of the voice, the timbre of the voice, it sounds like Baaba Maal kind of. It has this West African, nasal, heady kind of quality in the sound.
A.C.M: Baaba Maal – that’s from Senegal, right?
A.C.M: Yeah, the music – it just came. It had no arrangements, no nothing. It just came all at one time.
S.R: How did it just come? What do you mean? Your ancestors were speaking to you or something?
A.C.M: I don’t know. I was sitting at the piano and that sound just came. It just came. So it had to be coming from the spiritual world that was put into me. That’s why you have to keep yourself open and let the music flow, because all kinds of stuff will happen. Now I’m doing a thing that’s called ritual, doing that kind of thing with my voice. That just came too, [40:00] like a guttural –
S.R: Tell me about this. What is this?
A.C.M: That’s on my double CD that I self produced called Augmented Variations. On this there are excerpts from my choir. I’ll give you a CD before you leave. Excerpts from the choir, The Oregon Trio and solo improvisation in piano and voice. I do the ritual on that. But it’s another kind of thing. Then I’m doing some stuff now where it’s more of an Indian, an American Indian kind of thing. This is what it came out sounding like. I have never recorded anything like that yet. So these different kinds of voices and things are just more or less feelings, no words or anything, but feelings with sounds. They just came. It’s an experience that comes through me I guess. That’s why you have to try and keep yourself in a good frame of mind, try to eat right, be as healthy as you can, try to feel good so that the Creator can come through you. It’s not me doing it. It’s the spirits. I’m just being used as, as they say, the vessel for music to come through. You have to be open so the music can flow and not worry. Other musicians have to be or you have to be in tune together so the music can grow and then all kinds of stuff happens and you don’t even know where it came from.
S.R: Going back to an earlier question and then we’ll wrap this up soon. Thank you so much for your time. Was there any correlation with the musical expression that you were doing with the AACM and being free to do whatever you wanted, whatever you felt, whatever you deemed appropriate was accepted and respected and presented? Is there a correlation between that idea and the civil rights struggle that was happening, the freedom of rights that was happening [42:30] for black people in the United States during that time as well? Was that parallel or were those kind of separate things would you say?
A.C.M: Was it parallel? In other words, was it going along at the same time?
S.R: Yeah, so what I’m saying is, is it just a coincidence that you guys were creating this organization now that’s promoting the freedom of expression in every imaginable way. It was all approved. It was all accepted and presented. Is there any correlation between that and what was going on socially during that period?
A.C.M: I don’t think so, because I think the musicians were thinking in terms of music only, not what was going on in the world. In the ’60s, I remember going and doing a sit-in. I was scared to death.
S.R: You did a sit-in?
A.C.M: At Woolworth’s in Little Rock, Arkansas.
S.R: Please tell this story.
A.C.M: Well, we were on campus and some of the student leaders said we were going to do a sit-in. Those that wanted to participate, could. The guys put on their suits and ties. They wanted us to look good. We didn’t know if there were going to be people out there spitting on us. We didn’t know. One of my friends had a briefcase, like he was going to work. The ladies were dressed nicely. Everybody was dressed. The people on TV said, “Oh, they are dressed nicely!” They were just amazed at how good we looked. So we went to Woolworth’s and immediately when we sat on the counter – some of us did – they closed the store immediately. They closed the counters. Everything was just closed. We sat there peacefully for maybe 10 minutes. Then we got up and left. So we made the statement. We did a sit-in. They closed the store, but we sat in. I was scared because I didn’t know what I was going to do. They were jeering and stuff. It was something that we had to do, that I had to do. So those students [45:00], there were students that came to Philander Smith that spoke about their experiences. Some of them had it hard. Those students were very brave that did those sit-ins. Not only the students but also everybody else, they put the hose on them, set the dogs on them and did everything. But they believed in themselves to such a point where they did this so that we could have the freedom today to go around. I will be grateful eternally. But the music – I don’t think that was related.
S.R: Not even indirectly?
A.C.M: It could have been indirectly.
S.R: That’s more subconscious. Maybe like a subconscious or indirect kind of thing.
A.C.M: It could have been indirect, realizing that we had the freedom to do whatever we wanted to do. That’s something to think about. It could have been that time where things were opening up without us realizing what the possibilities were. It was more possible to do things without us even realizing. That could have been. That could be. But I don’t know. I’ll have to think about that more.
S.R: These are the things I’m thinking about as I’m trying to create this show. I’m just trying to understand the continuum.
A.C.M: I just think it was that time when everything was supposed to happen when it did. It came together. The AACM was doing its thing but here the freedom was being expressed and more things were open. People were speaking up. Malcolm X was killed – about to be killed. So all that could have been the result from what had happened in the past. It could have been related.
S.R: What did you think of? Do you remember where you were when that assassination of Malcolm X or Martin Luther King happened? Do you remember those times?
A.C.M: Dr. King, definitely. I had read Malcolm X’s book. I was in love with him as soon as I read his book – the strength. He was a sincere, honest man. Dr. King – I remember I was teaching school and this man named Ben Branch had the Bread Basket Band from PUSH – Reverend Jesse Jackson’s organization. That band was to go and play for the funeral. So the musician asked me to take his place. He couldn’t go. So we went. We flew to Atlanta, took the bus from the airport [47:30] to Peach Street, that black hotel. We sat on the bus for about an hour. I think Ben Branch was gone. Anyway, the musicians started getting off the bus, one by one, going into the hotel. There was no room in the hotel, nowhere to stay. Finally we went in the hotel. I remember Mrs. Jackson was sitting and watching TV. Atlanta had swollen up with all these people. There was nowhere to stay, no hotels or anything. This one guy was with me and I wasn’t feeling well. We had to stay at a hotel about 18 miles out of town and watch the program on TV. We got back to Chicago and people said, “We saw you Miss Myers on TV playing at Dr. King’s funeral.” I didn’t get anywhere near the church. We didn’t get anywhere near the church. That was our experience. It was phenomenal. People didn’t realize there were going to be that many people in the city. It was just chaos. But yeah, that’s what I remember about Dr. King. Of course, it was a sad, sad occasion all over. We were all saddened by what had happened. I liked Malcolm X too. They were both different but they both had interests of their people. I loved that.
S.R: Fantastic. Alright. Well, John Shenoy Jackson – John Jackson –
A.C.M: John Jackson.
S.R: Right. He said the AACM School was 50% performance and 50% social uplift. Would you agree with that?
A.C.M: 50% performance and 50% –
S.R: Social uplift.
A.C.M: John Jackson. Would I agree with [50:00] that? The school – 50% performance.
S.R: Or music.
A.C.M: Right. Right. He saw that social uplift. What did he mean by social uplift? I remember going there to the school. We taught. We gave our lessons and everything and then went home. But come to think of it, I won’t say the school as such, but the AACM was like a social uplift. You saw that part of the play that was in there – I mean that statement, A Day In the Life. I don’t know if you saw that in the book. George put that in there. I wrote about a day in the life of the AACM. We would go in and we’d meet. Before the meeting we would be fooling around in the office, playing cards on the side and maybe Joseph or somebody would be in the auditorium rehearsing. So it was social activity, definitely. But as far as the school or so, I would say the AACM was like a social activity as well as the music. But 50/50 – I don’t know. I don’t know. But John saw that. I can see what a social network – definitely social networking.
S.R: Do you stay in contact with all of them? Do you still talk to Joseph Jarman?
A.C.M: Yes. He called not too long ago because he was listening to my CD and said how much he enjoyed it and was inspired. See Joseph was the multi-theater. He was always coming up with something different. Joseph had theater and just all kinds of stuff. He is very creative. That he would come to you with peace and love. Yeah, Joseph. Roscoe – I love Roscoe.
S.R: What did you think of the iconography that Art Ensemble did – the theater bringing in all kinds of African instruments, using face paint and wardrobe, all that stuff?
A.C.M: I just thought it was wonderful, wonderful – Art Ensemble – every time I saw them [52:30] perform. I remember when Roscoe did his first sounds. That was just so interesting, just the smallest, little instruments, being able to make music with those instruments and then watching the whole meld. They were exciting, very, very creative. I still see Joseph. “Have you ever sat down on a pillow that’s round?” He sings it too. But they were very stimulating to watch them – the regalness. Mel standing there with the bass, with his paint, Moye – it was just wonderful because of the combination of the African-American experience.
S.R: Was the stage just strewn with 50 instruments?
A.C.M: Roscoe had a skillet. I remember seeing one of those skillets, one of those black iron skillets up there. There were just all kinds of little instruments, just numerous things. Lester Bowie had the bass drum in the middle. He brought that in.
S.R: The writer must have been a nightmare.
A.C.M: The writer?
S.R: Well, the writer – the concert writer.
A.C.M: Oh, I have no idea.
S.R: When I saw the instrumentation on that Massey Hall concert, I saw 40 instruments. Logistically that must be just a nightmare.
A.C.M: They had a roadie I think at one time, that was responsible for all that stuff.
S.R: That’s a tough job.
A.C.M: He knew how to put it together and how to set it up and stuff. Yeah, and then traveling with that. I can imagine, yeah. I heard one incident when they had to travel and the instruments hadn’t shown up. They were going to Europe or somewhere and the instruments hadn’t shown up yet. So I can imagine the changes they went through. I remember once we did a gig in Italy. We had to go up in the mountains, above the clouds. They had a U-Haul van, you know, one of those trucks. They went all up there and there was no concert. Something happened. There was no concert. [55:00] Muhal, all of us were there. There was no concert. We had been up in this town. It was strange. It was weird. We saw the stage where we were supposed to play. The lights were out and the town – we were standing in the street talking and stuff until two or three o’clock in the morning. Somebody drove by in a car. Some Italians drove by. What were we doing? We went and had dinner and stuff and then we left. But they had to travel all the way up there with all those instruments. Life on the road with jazz. That’s what Lester Bowie would say. On the road mit jazz – m-i-t.
S.R: On the road mit jazz? What does that mean?
A.C.M: On the road mit jazz.
S.R: What does that mean?
A.C.M: With – mit is ‘with’ in German. You know, we are jazz musicians. We are on the road.
A.C.M: Anything can happen. Strange things happen on the road. Well, we are on the road. This is it. This is what happens when you are on the road with jazz.
S.R: When you saw an Art Ensemble concert, was it like one tune for the whole concert and it would just go from here to there to there to here?
A.C.M: Yes. It sounded like it would be one tune but it wouldn’t be. Because when you are playing, when you’re improvising and playing, there could have been thematic material throughout to introduce another segment. So it would sound like one but it could have been a string of melodies.
S.R: But there are no breaks. They program it that way.
A.C.M: You don’t stop the flow of what’s going on, right. Right. It’s great. You don’t stop the flow because you are stopping to pause and stuff sometimes it interferes with the creating process. They had different colors. Something would be slow and that thing would be fast. Whatever. So it was always interesting because of the different variations of the moods.
S.R: Did they introduce you to some instruments you had never seen before or heard before?
A.C.M: I think so. [57:30] I think so. I used to collect small instruments from drummers. So I have seen some instruments. But I can’t think of anything right off hand. I know Karl Hill from Chicago made a log drum. I still have it. He gave it to me. It was made of old tree trunks. That was different. There were some different shapes of bells. I’ve seen some instruments in my life that have been a little strange. But I can’t remember right off hand what they were.
A.C.M: But I just did a thing with African – [XX] – do you know him? He is down in Fort Myers.
S.R: I don’t know him.
A.C.M: He is Senegalese. He had some instruments that I had never seen before. There is so much stuff out here.
S.R: Yeah, it is. I would have loved to have seen Art Ensemble in the early ’70s. That would have just been like, wow.
A.C.M: Yeah, they were hot. Yeah.
S.R: There is nothing like that going on now. You can’t see something like that.
A.C.M: I know. I know. The last time I saw them together was up here at Lincoln Center. I think that was in the early ’80s. Yeah, it was something.
S.R: Would you say the Art Ensemble was the poster group of the AACM?
A.C.M: Well yeah, they were very important. Yeah. Because when you think of Art Ensemble there is the AACM. They definitely were, yeah. They were highlights, yeah, I would say, yeah.
S.R: Well, thank you so much for your time. It was really a pleasure interviewing you. It was fantastic.
A.C.M: You’re quite welcome.