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George Lewis Interview

Simon Rentner: I’m here with George E. Lewis, the author of the book A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music. First of all, why did you name your book A Power Stronger Than Itself?

George Lewis: The AACM was formed in 1965 in Chicago by a group of working-class musicians who were interested in promoting themselves in new ways. “Power Stronger Than Itself” was an early AACM promotional slogan. I don’t know if it was Lester Bowie or Leo Smith who created it, but suddenly these bumper stickers began to appear around the South Side of Chicago that said “AACM: A Power Stronger Than Itself” in big black letters backed by Day-Glo orange.

S.R: Now you’re using the word “power” in this era. Probably somebody will immediately think about Black Power. Was that in the minds of the people when they chose that slogan?

G.L: No one who was really conscious in the African American community at the time could fail to be aware of Black Power. But of course that could take many forms. I guess they could have called it AACM – Black Musical Power.

In fact, the second slogan that arose, which not everyone by the way was necessarily as equally invested in, was ‘AACM: Great Black Music,” which in retrospect seemed to have even stronger legs and somehow appears more emblematic of a certain view of the collective.

In fact, Black Power had certainly been on the agenda, notions of self-determination. But it seemed to me that the slogan itself seemed to refer to a kind of recursion, that is to say a power stronger than itself. It feeds back on itself. That’s a potentially limitless power.

That seems to be, in a way, a more important notion of power and a more hopeful notion of power than any you might have. Although, certainly the connection with the conventional mode of thinking about Black Power was certainly there.

S.R: A sum greater than its parts basically?

G.L: Well, maybe even a stronger significance if you think about a kind of infinite feedback. The thing about infinite feedback is it’s difficult to control. So you’re actually telling people in a very subtle way that you’re not going to be controlled and that you will be heard.

S.R: Let’s also look at the AACM. You can’t help but think of the NAACP too, at least in the way that abbreviation is structured. Was that thought through, like the choosing of the word advancement? Instead of Colored, it’s Creative. Was that the mindset too?

G.L: Well, if you think about it, ‘Association for the Advancement of’ is certainly a gloss on the NAACP. I don’t have any evidence that people were really thinking about that, but it’s a reasonable assumption.

In one debate I did have access to, through listening to the tapes of the early meetings, one of the discussions was whether the name would be “Association For the Advancement of Creative… “ Then someone said, “Musicians or Music?” There seemed to be arguments on both sides. So one person – I think it was Phil Cohran, who was one of the founders, a trumpeter in Chicago, said that basically we were here to advance the creative musicians because the music had been advanced for a long time but nobody was advancing us.

That seemed to make a lot of sense because it was basically referring to that history of exploitation of black music, which advanced the music to be sure, but the musicians were kind of left behind.

S.R: Muhal Richard Abrams – do you think the AACM would exist if Muhal Richard Abrams didn’t exist?

G.L: Well, you know, the easy answer is, “Of course not.” The one that Muhal might subscribe to himself is that he was one of four cofounders. The others were Steve McCall, the drummer, Phil Cohran, the trumpeter and Jodie Christian, the pianist. Three of them are still alive today. Steve McCall passed away in 1989.

So in fact, it seems to me that what needed to exist for the AACM to exist was a notion of collectivity and collaboration rather than a concentration on a heroic individual. Muhal has always resisted this notion of himself as a father figure and he has resisted that kind of heroism right along.

So when you see the nature of the collective as a whole, which was one of many collectives that were formed at that time – you think about the Black Panther Party as being a collective–there were so many moments at which people felt that individual strategies for success weren’t working and people had to come together in groups.

So the AACM was emblematic of that period, an artifact of that period. So you see that notion of collectivity starting right at the beginning.

S.R: Muhal probably did take on more of a leadership role, having all of the sessions with musicians, late at night, working out compositional strategies, original approaches, being the first president, etc.

G.L: There is no question that Muhal is a very dynamic individual, but he was there with a lot of other dynamic individuals who were also holding late-night sessions and workshops and inspiring people to study and grow and do these things.

A lot of people gravitated to Muhal because he was an open-minded person. He avoided critique in favor of collaboration. He refused the role of a conventional teacher. In fact, the AACM School of Music was his idea, the school that still exists today, providing free instruction in music to people of all ages – young people, but also people of my age and much older than me went to the school.

His initial idea was that in order to teach, they had to first learn to teach. So they got together a group of people to teach each other how to teach. There were these very practical strategies, these homegrown strategies for learning.

You see, a lot of the older strategies had broken down. If you can imagine the learning of advanced music, how many African-Americans had music composition degrees? How many were sitting on the graduate composition faculties of major or even minor universities? Well, the number at that time was very close to zero.

So if you’re going to get that kind of information, you’re going to have to do it in an autodidact way. You’re going to have to take it upon yourself. Communities are going to have to take it upon themselves to build the structures that they’re going to build.

Again, this is very resonant with what was going on in the period – this kind of intensive focus on communitarianism, the intense focus on the thing you would see in those Elijah Muhammad papers in Chicago – “DO FOR SELF” – in giant letters. People would just quote that to each other – “Well, you know brother, you’ve got to do for self.”

S.R: The frequency with which you use that word “autodidact” in your book — you could almost put that word in the title. What is the evolution of that approach in the African-American community?

G.L: Well, if you want to take it as far back as it really needs to go, you could imagine slave communities needing to adopt autodidact strategies to advance, for protection, at a period when knowledge was denied, suppressed, refused. People who wanted to gain knowledge were routinely suppressed, often violently. So people had to teach each other as a matter of survival.

Now, you start to find those strategies in people like J.A. Rogers, or what Jacob Carruthers, I think, called that first generation of the “old scrapper” African-American historians. These were often self-taught in the methods of history. So they went into libraries for themselves. They did their own research.

So by the time people like Muhal came along, or even before that – you look at Sun Ra and these people, there are all those books that are coming out now detailing all of his personal research – there are all kinds of people doing this. It’s the dominant mode, not least because of the refusal of many traditional institutions to educate – or if they did educate, they educated in ways that really denied African-American or African histories.

At that time the idea was that there was no African history so you didn’t need to study it. So there were communities of resistance to that. Look at Carter G. Woodson, John G. Jackson, Willis Huggins, people of this sort – the people who started things like Negro History Week, later Black History Month.

At that point you weren’t really expecting to be taught from the outside. You were expecting to have to get a lot of it yourself. Indeed, Muhal is kind of an example. He basically leaves the academic institution to embark upon a lifetime of self-study.

S.R: Definitely there is a cultural divide. The way I grew up, I would think it would be remarkable that somebody would teach themselves how to play the piano. Whereas Muhal Richard Abrams thinks about it that there is nothing remarkable about that whatsoever. That’s just survival.

G.L: Well, it’s not like people didn’t have models in the black community for teaching themselves. If you think about jazz and blues, these are autodidact musics. People didn’t go to blues school, or if they went to blues or jazz school it was in a club or it was on the street or it was in somebody’s house. That was the blues school. So it was only later that these things started, like jazz school with degrees and all that.

It’s a crucial mode of self-determination, in response to social change. Eddie Harris, the saxophonist, talked about it in terms of how the institutions that musicians were involved with, that helped them to learn how to do traditional musical skills, were dying out. Things like big bands – there weren’t any big bands anymore to play in.

Also, a lot of the music people were playing in big bands wasn’t the sort of thing these younger people were interested in. They seemed to be more interested in more experimental things and there wasn’t any way to do that unless you organized in groups to do it yourself.

Look, communities do this all the time. Take Schoenberg’s Society for Private Music Performance as an example. People got together because they wanted to get their own music played and to establish ways to think about it and talk about it. It’s as natural as breathing and I think that’s why Muhal looks at it that way. It certainly seems to be congruent with experience.

S.R: So when they were first talking about forming the AACM in the meetings, Muhal Richard Abrams was really interested in the mission, the objective. For Muhal, performing original music was of foremost importance, perhaps more so than other people in the collective. Why?

G.L: Well, original music is a sign of self-determination. So you’re going to be betting on yourself. You’re going to be promoting your own ideas. You’re going to really depend upon your own ideas instead of playing the music of others, and certainly the kind of music that people were being forced to perform in various ways for so-called survival. At one point the joke or at least the pun was, “Well, what about the old standards?” Then someone would say, “Well, whose standards are we talking about?”

They were talking about setting new standards and potentially taking all the risks that this entails. It’s an assumption of responsibility. In a way it’s like growing up. These were young people who wanted to grow up, I think. You have to remember, these people were all in their 20s and 30s at the time. At the time of the AACM, Muhal is one of the oldest people. But a lot of those people, Jarman and the others, were in their 20s.

S.R: So they weren’t even going to touch, say, “I Got Rhythm” or any variation of “rhythm changes.”

G.L: Well, some people did that in their professional lives as artists for hire. But the AACM was a composer’s organization. People were there to compose their own music and they could do whatever else they wanted in other places.

I think eventually the people who weren’t that interested in composition, who weren’t that interested in personal modes of expression, found less and less reason to be there. The others who were found more and more reason to be there.

S.R: Do you also think this creating original music also goes hand in hand with African-Americans trying to get their equal rights, to be completely free in America?

G.L: If you don’t feel free to express yourself, then you are definitely not free. In this sense, personal expression is kind of a human right. No one could say that Charlie Parker wasn’t expressing himself by playing “Out of Nowhere” or whatever. But you have to remember that even there, they would take these old tunes and put new melodies on them. They would change the music around, create new harmonies or extend the harmonies that were already there. They were already putting their stamp on the music. So they weren’t just accepting it as received wisdom, as young people are told they must do today.

So this is a time when musical self-determination and political self-determination were being conflated, and productively so, I think.

S.R: So would you consider the AACM to be a political organization in some way, especially in its inception?

G.L: Certainly a form of cultural politics, which has a huge impact on the way we conceive ourselves and how we live our lives. To place new cultural views before the public can be a political act.

S.R: As a political organization, you would probably obviously say it was pretty progressive in nature? It has even been called radical at times. Would you call the AACM radical?

G.L: Well, it could be radical, but “radical” isn’t always the next step beyond “progressive.” In the book I recount some instances in which there are some significant dislocations in terms of gender with specific AACM people, whose views in that area seemed radically different, but really not very progressive, at least as the women who experienced the issues saw things. Then as now, the connection between gender and race was very fraught. There were groups of people, devotees of a certain strain of black cultural nationalism, who felt that women’s natural place was somehow behind their man. In a way it was very much a reproduction of certain kinds of patriarchy in the white community – that patriarchy that we now see in, I don’t know, the Tea Party or something.

So in that sense you can’t say that there was this monolithic leftism in the AACM. You’d have to say that the viewpoints were very diverse. It’s hard to say there is a simplistic left position in which we can place the organization.

S.R: Do you think that the gender issue had more to do with other systems, say in Africa or in Islam, and those kinds of things reinforced those gender issues?

G.L: I would say that there was a lot of personal research into cultural systems in Africa. For example, a lot of those early books were passed around as a kind of samizdat. You had books like Cheikh Anta Diop’s African Civilization – Myth or Reality? You had Chancellor Williams’ The Destruction of Black Civilization. You had the stuff that Neely Fuller was putting out. You had the Frances Cress Welsing color theories.

There was so much going on, so much stuff that you could read. People were researching ancient Egypt. They were researching Islam, several different strains of Islam. As people know, there was the Ahmadiyya movement in the ’50s. But I think that a lot of the variations were kind of home-grown in the community.

That’s very American, you know, to reassemble tradition to meet the needs of any given community. Maybe it’s not exclusively American. There are various syncretisms in the Caribbean or elsewhere. But it seems to me the American variant of that has much more to do with an image of what Africa might have been like or an image of what people wanted Africa to be like.

This is how cultural change occurs. People re-read or misread the so-called originals to create something new. I think this even goes on in the Islamic countries, where we start to hear that a lot of the so-called gender dynamics don’t seem to be supported by what we read in the Koran, but would seem to be somehow connected with local conditions or local interpretations of the Koran.

Not having that background, I couldn’t really comment further. But one could certainly notice that people often interpreted histories to meet their own personal, political, economic, and cultural needs[GL1] .

S.R: Did you ever think about changing your name to reflect your African ancestry?

G.L: No, I didn’t want to get involved in all that, it never appealed to me. That was interesting because some people did and some people didn’t. If you think about that whole name-changing thing, lots of people would put an African or Arabic name in front of their family name, because people wanted to have both. Maybe they didn’t want to disrespect their families by changing their name, their family name. You became a Muhal Richard Abrams or an Amina Claudine Myers, a Hamid Drake or a Kelan Phil Cohran. So you had both things there.

S.R: The same thing was happening earlier too with Art Blakey.

G.L: What happened is that a lot of these names became Africanized through their association with African-Americans. For example, everyone named Washington is presumed to be African-American in this country, except for G.L Washington. He’s the only one. The others, you know, that’s an Africanized European name. So it seems to me that a lot of that process was already going on. There were people who felt they needed to go further.

But there is a whole section in the book that discusses the people who used naming to effect a greater identification with Africa. One of the interesting people in this regard was Ajaramu, the drummer, an early AACM member, who actually changed his name several times. We found out in fact that after he died the name he died under was not the name he had lived under.

So at a certain point Ajaramu starts to think, “Well, people are saying if you don’t change your name then people will think you are European.” Then he goes on to conclude, “Well, you know, that may not be so important in the long run, really. Maybe they’ll know you by what you did rather than what your name was.”

S.R: Could you go over quickly the variety of reasons a musician might be inclined to change their name?

G.L: One reason might be to somehow connect with Africa. Now the funny thing about it was that a lot of the people who connected with Africa in this way never actually visited Africa. For example, I don’t think Muhal has ever been to Africa, and it’s not even clear that “Muhal” is either an African or an Arabic name. So in a way the invention or construction of Africa becomes as important as what the “Real Africa” is.

So naming might be a way of having one’s own Africa, to establish some connection with Africa. But that didn’t mean that if you didn’t change your name you didn’t want to be connected with Africa. After all, even various African people seem to have their colonial names – Nelson Mandela – things of that sort. So it’s all very complicated, I imagine, on both sides of the Atlantic. People have multiple overlapping identities.

S.R: Very interesting indeed. Now, another thing that is very particular to Muhal Richard Abrams, and maybe particular to the AACM, probably one of the biggest misconceptions of the AACM would probably be that it is a jazz club. Like a Jazz Association. It’s devoted to jazz and they are a band that plays jazz.

G.L: I don’t think there are any people involved in the beginnings of the AACM whose primary formation was in anything other than jazz, so that jazz is certainly the starting point. But jazz is a contested image at this time, and what sometimes happens in the world of jazz is that there is an emphasis on genre immobility, sort of like I think what Michel de Certeau called peasant immobility, the idea that nothing ever changes in these kinds of communities. People don’t leave certain things. If they are born that way, it’s the way they stay all their lives.

So it seemed to me that, had they wished to be named jazz, they could have just called it the “Association for the Advancement of Jazz Musicians.” So why didn’t they do that? Why did they make up this thing called “Creative Musicians”?

Well, it was clearly to win some space for a new conception of themselves. It wasn’t as simple as a denial of jazz, because people felt that jazz was creative music, and after all it was our music. Our people created it, so it’s ours and it’s creative–our creative music.

So you think, well, what does it mean to be a creative musician? It doesn’t say you have to be allied with this or that genre. It mainly means you have to be creative. So the open field, the possibility for mobility seemed to animate the choice. So I wouldn’t say that the idea of the AACM as a “jazz club” is a misconception. I would say it’s more of a diminution. It’s an immobilizing trope for people who sought freedom.

S.R: Muhal Richard Abrams hates to talk about the music, jazz music in categorical terms.

G.L: He doesn’t want to talk about any music in categorical terms (laugh) He’s not the categorical type of individual. People found that very liberating about him. But nobody likes categories. There’s that wonderful quote that the historian Eric Porter identified, where Duke Ellington goes to Dizzy Gillespie and says, or Dizzy Gillespie remembers that Duke Ellington told him: “Dizzy, you should’ve never let them call your music be-bop, because when they name something, it becomes dated.”

Because the minute they did that, they – meaning whoever was in the power position – they were taking power by means of discourse. It’s just straight up Michel Foucault. So you can place a name on someone or place someone in a genre or a space, and from that moment they are stuck.

So you have to be a trickster to evade all that, again as a matter of survival.

S.R: But a lot of people don’t know that Muhal Richard Abrams has also devoted a lot of time and attention to classical structures. More people probably know him through his improvisation and more, shall I say, “jazz” sounding compositions.

G.L: I don’t know. I think that depends on who you’re talking to. I haven’t done any surveys, so I have no idea how Muhal’s work is considered. I just look at how he looks at himself. He seems to be looking at himself as a creative, multi-voiced artist. Once you accept that, then you can go anywhere Muhal wants you to go and you can go anywhere you want to go too.

I guess the other option is you can imagine a segment of the public that believes anything and then you can go in that direction. But it might be better, in encountering anyone’s music, just to use your own ears. Asking people to use their own ears is once again a sign of asking people to take up the symbol of self-determination that the music itself presents. In other words, the music was born in an atmosphere of self-determination. So it invites you to self-determine as well, and to self-realize.

S.R: If I wanted to join the AACM, could I?

G.L: Probably not (laugh). That’s another part that was very interesting in the book, as it happened. In the last part of the book, where people are discussing the past, present and future of the AACM in this virtual colloquy, I’m taking bits from the interviews and staging them and saying, well here’s everyone who talked about this topic.

They talked about race and they talked about the very difficult incident in which the sole ‘white’ member of the AACM, who didn’t think of himself as white at all, was ousted in the paroxysm of 1960s interest in what it meant to be culturally black.

At the time the idea of having an all-black organization was very difficult to digest. But in the wake of these kinds of organizations, now we find that there are single so-called race or ethnicity organizations of all kinds. So that seems to have receded as a concern. It seems to be accepted now that sometimes it’s best to address issues of race by somehow adopting strategies that foreground or privilege notions of race. I think that was clear because of the perceived failure of multicultural coalitions to achieve success.

The idea comes in the wake of Black Power also, as you can imagine. If you read the text of Carmichael and Hamilton you start to see that Carmichael is challenging white people, “Instead of wanting to be members of ‘our organizations,’ go into your communities and agitate for a while. Why don’t you do that?” Many people did.

That seemed to be something that seemed to militate against the kind of naïve form of proto-multiculturalism that had been on offer, avant la lettre–there was no such word as multiculturalism at the time. But multiracial coalitions seemed to many not to be doing the job, while being easily destabilized through appeals to white privilege. So you see that in the writings of the leftist groups of the period, the SDS for example, who adopt these points of view.
S.R: Does the AACM employ the One-Drop Rule when it comes to race?
G.L: I think that jazz itself employs a One-Drop Rule–the idea that if one drop of what you do is jazz, then everything you do is jazz. That only seems to apply to African-Americans. Everyone else can be mobile, and jazz can be a part of the network. You can be a jazz musician today. You can be a classical musician tomorrow. You can be some other variant the next day.

I point out the difference between, let’s say, how an Anthony Braxton is considered and how someone else is considered, the idea that you could suddenly become that sort of protean individual. So I think that what’s going to happen with the AACM is that some variant of it is going to decide that the old rules don’t apply anymore. I have no idea when that’s going to happen–probably around the time that other variants of the One-Drop Rule also disappear. A lot of the power structures are based on that, and around the time those disappear, people will feel more comfortable about taking a less vigilant stance on these matters. Right now, though, race has not gone away or disappeared as a factor. It’s unfortunate, but that’s how it is.

S.R: People in the media are obviously willing to point out the One-Drop Rule in very subtle and disturbing ways.

G.L: Oh, I don’t know. I think the One-Drop Rule is not as important as the No-Drop Rule as far as I see. That’s been the dominant rule as long as I can remember. Let’s not have any African-Americans. One drop? That’s already too much. It’s not that it’s too little.

S.R: A big point of creating the AACM is to workshop, and embedded in that language, means improvement, or an approach to improving your work. Muhal Richard Abrams talks about personal growth and people growing in the workshop environment.

But, he is extremely careful with putting any kind of value judgment on the work itself. He is very sensitive to saying a piece of art is a success or a failure. Can you break that down for me?

G.L: I’m not sure. It kind of reminds me of my dad (laugh). That’s what he did. You learned not to say things were good or bad around him. That was the moment for a philosophical discussion and if you didn’t want to have a philosophical discussion, you just avoided those terms.

S.R: Well, I’ve listened to a lot of Muhal’s records and sometimes I don’t get it at all. I can’t relate to it. Were you ever in a position where you are creating experimental music and you are like, “No, I don’t really care for this very much. It was interesting that we tried it. It was a nice experiment.” But experiments are not always a success, right? At the end of the day you are searching for growth and you are searching for improvement.

When I asked Muhal about it, he said didn’t look at it that way. He said, “It’s like cooking an egg. You can cook an egg in a microwave. You can cook an egg on a stove or you can cook an egg on the sidewalk under the sun. They are all valid.” But if I had a follow-up, I would be like, “But you really wouldn’t want to eat that egg if it was cooked on the sidewalk, would you?”

G.L: I guess I take a little different viewpoint, not speaking about eggs–but you see it all the time. My son has a book called “Good Luck, Bad Luck.” OK, bad luck, he missed the plane. Good luck, the plane crashed and he wasn’t killed with it, and so on.

So the lesson, even for kids, is that time and life are sort of indeterminate, and rather than passing a momentary judgment, we could live in a state of continuous awareness. If we can do that, then we can see how much better it could be to learn from the total range of experience. Once we dismiss some aspect of the experience, once we commit the final judgment, then that aspect of experience is inaccessible to us. That’s how I interpret his ideas. So if you don’t understand or appreciate some piece of music, you just try again, and in doing that you learn, about yourself at least.

You were never told in the AACM that your concept was not good. You were always told that it was good. As an academic, I can tell you that this seems totally alien to the notion of academic critique, where someone would come to you and say, “Well, you have to be told the ‘truth’ about your work.”

I think Muhal felt deep down that most people already knew the truth about their work and there was no need for him to say anything to them, and that if he did, it might interfere with the learning process, which they had to go through on their own, to come to their own terms about what they were doing and then to learn what they could from their own work.

The learning process seemed more important than a judgment that led to the reification of a perspective. Instead, we say, “That was a nice experiment. Great. It was wonderful.”

See, the thing is that he’s not just saying, or I’m not just saying, that you want to avoid saying mean things about other people’s work. You also want to avoid a categorical judgment. Once you decide that it’s great then you have no further claim on it. You can’t learn anything else from it. So your continuous awareness has been broken at that point. It’s a mistake. You have to keep things fluid and mobile.

S.R: Can you talk about the pieces of music that immediately come to mind for you that directly reflect historical incidents that were happening during the time, perhaps like when John Coltrane died or the Chicago Riots of 1968 or anything historically going on?

G.L: Boy, it’s funny because I’m not trained in that way. I come from the post-Cage period. Anything goes with anything. To find some musical essentialism, I just can’t do it, which is why I would be a terrible film composer. I collaborated with Lev Manovich on “Soft Cinema.” There were 400 video clips that were deployed randomly and the music was deployed randomly. It looked fine to me.

S.R: But you do say that clearly the music that is being played is not created in this vacuum. The black avant-garde musicians are much more connected to what’s going on around them and that’s reflected in their music.

G.L: No, I’m not saying that in the book. What I guess I’m saying is that there were areas of experience with which the white experimental avant-garde seemed unwilling to connect. But their work certainly seemed reflective of their own experiences. That is certainly what connected them.

Now, when it starts to become complicated is when you have a multicultural experimental avant-garde, where everyone has to connect with all kinds of experiences. That is closer to what we have today. We’re not quite there, but it’s coming closer, at least in the U.S., which seems to be the place where these kinds of weird hybrids get started.

But see, it’s sort of a funny thing. You have Charles Ives, a lot of the American tradition is based on depicting things. Copland – even though the piece wasn’t originally called “Appalachian Spring,” somehow naming it that seemed to work. Somehow it seemed to be something that made sense to them. But I haven’t been a big depicter of things. So I guess I’m not sure I actually believe or even said that somehow one could draw a direct analogy between the music and the situation of the time.

Let me give you a simple example of how that fails. When John Coltrane was being asked by critics if he was angry, there are two answers you could give to that. One is, “Yes, the music expresses anger because I’m really angry.”

That would have been a very bad answer because the first thing that people want to know in that situation is “Well, why are you so angry?” The tenor of the times would be, “You have no right to be angry–hasn’t America been good to you?”

Of course, the answer is, “Well, not really. You just bombed a church with four children in it. What are you talking about? That’s why I wrote this piece called Alabama.”

So at a certain point Coltrane says, “Well no, I just want to acquaint people with the many wonderful things there are to experience in the universe,” which I think is true. But it is also a diversion because people like him had every right to be angry.

Now the thing is that when some people decided that this was the voice of anger and anguish and all of that, it didn’t seem to match up with the experiences of the musicians, who weren’t particularly angry when they were doing the music.

Those kinds of really simplistic tropes that match up the music with a certain emotion or something have always been really difficult for me to understand. Because what you really want is for music to be not reflective or depictive but evocative. In other words, if it is stuck in a certain period, then it stays in that period. But if it speaks to a contemporary experience, then it seems to be something that doesn’t get stuck.

But we do have to look at the historical conditions. We have to look at the social conditions, the class conditions, the gender conditions, the racial mixtures and everything. Even then it becomes very unclear. I haven’t been able to draw that one-to-one correspondence.

So yeah, it’s very difficult for me. I don’t think I can do it.

S.R: What about more explicit ways that some artists in the AACM used, like visual iconography, like dressing up in African wardrobe like the Art Ensemble of Chicago and using face paint and things like that?

G.L: Jarman talked about that in their book, their big Art Ensemble book. He talked about the iconography and what it represented. Lester Bowie was supposed to represent the experimentalist impulse. Roscoe Mitchell was supposed to represent the street hipster; generally you didn’t see him with face paint. Jarman was the pan-Asian person. Malachi (Favors) was supposed to represent the Egyptian mysteries and (Famoudou Don) Moye was supposed to represent a pan-African sensibility.

So what does all that add up to? Well, five different evocations of what it meant to be an African-American, and the clear implication was that there were more besides those. What they are depicting is a kind of fluidity and mobility of identity. They are not depicting “here’s what it means to be African,” unless they are saying that being African is as mobile as anything else. Because if it isn’t, then change can’t happen.

S.R: We haven’t talked about it and we should just because it’s important: Great Black Music.

G.L: Great Black Music was a very contested slogan. When it came out certain people didn’t like it. Muhal didn’t like it, for example. Other people thought it was very appropriate. The definition and the commentary that I found in interviews by people like Bowie and others indicated that it was by no means limited to people who were black.

In other words, Stan Kenton could be making Great Black Music or La Monte Young could be making Great Black Music. It all depended upon what you were doing musically. It didn’t depend on what your ethnicity was or what your race was or anything like that.

At the time there was a notion that the idea of Great Black Music had to be racist because you were admitting only a certain ethnicity or a certain race. The analogy was, well, what about “great other kind of music,” like some other ethnicity or some other race? What about “great that kind of music”?

Their answer would be “Go right ahead and do it.” I think Roscoe Mitchell said it best. They asked him why he made up the term Great Black Music. He said, “Well, because nobody was calling the music great,” which was a great answer. Back then, if you were going to go to “great performances” that meant going to Symphony Hall or somewhere. That didn’t mean going to hear some African Americans, doing creative music or any other kind of music.

So for them to reframe themselves as great – they were already black, so renaming themselves as “Great Black” meant that they could suddenly tap into another set of associations. They were great because they came from this legendary tradition of great musicians.

You see, in a way it was just as conservative a notion of promulgating a canon of greatness as what we found later in the ’80s. In fact, there are sociologists like Herman Gray, who make exactly that point, that what happened in the ’80s with the Jazz at Lincoln Center people and this unitary canon of greatness had already been anticipated by what these other people were doing.

In fact, they actually had the canon in common, except for the part about stretching back to Africa. I don’t think the ’80s jazz people were into that as much. But no one, as far as I know, regardless of whether they liked the term Great Black Music or not, seriously questioned the idea that this music had roots in Africa. It seemed really obvious because the people had roots in Africa. So the music that came out of it was presumed to have those roots.

Let me go a little bit further with this. This is in the center of what we might want to think about.

Everyone had their own way of thinking about that. Some people did it through depiction in the manner of the Art Ensemble. They would have drums going and they would adopt certain rhythms or certain ways of doing things that would be evocative of Africa or pay homage to Africa or draw sustenance from African sonic tropes. That was one way to do it.

Another way to do it would be more like what I do in computer music, which is having things be very multiple. You embody rather than depict. I think that at the time of people like Jeff Donaldson and the AfriCOBRA art movement, you had lots of colors in avant-garde African American art. They were responding to these countries in Africa where everybody would have these very vibrant colors. There was none of this washed out color field stuff. Everybody was bright and vibrant.

We are getting closer to the sense of what happens here – and this is not limited to the AACM, but it’s right across the board – well not starting with Louis Armstrong, but having that as being an important touchstone–a very vibrant, non-classical, open, sharp, bright trumpet sound.

So with the saxophonists Fred Anderson or Roscoe Mitchell, the sound was on the verge of breaking up. It’s got all these overtones. It’s very bright. It’s very intense. So that bright, intense multiple sound ideal was something that is characteristic of the period. People linked that, at the time, synaesthetically, with the colors that they expected to find in Africa, and Africa being this huge construction.

I think that when people look for connections with Africa, they are expressing continuity. But then they reserve the right to have rupture, which is also very important. That’s how you get revolutions and things like that.

S.R: Talk to me about this idea of silence and silences, creating silences. What do you mean by that?

G.L: It seemed to me the major thing that was important about jazz was that it was an outgrowth of a condition of silence. That is to say the thing that I found remarkable about slavery was the degree to which people were enforcing silence. People were afraid of slave music. They didn’t know what it represented. They wanted those slaves to be quiet.

You had the laws against making drums or drumming or whatever – you didn’t want that. Then of course, the silence of terror, where you didn’t know what was going to happen to you or your family, where really speaking out could be a death sentence. Even acting out, expression itself, could be easily misinterpreted.

So the best thing to do was to be as quiet as possible or to go along. Now, when all that starts to end, at least for a brief period, or even while it was going on, ring shouts become a form of slavery participation performance, or post slavery participation performance, in which everyone gets their opportunity to speak.

Everyone is moving back and forth in a circle, and someone does some incredible thing, some star turn, and then they go back to the circle. The next person goes out and does something else. Whether they are trying to top each other, whether it’s competition or cooperation or whatever, the point is people are getting a chance to speak.

So the idea that people should speak and that they have something personal to say, unique to say, gets retained in African American music. I think that accounts for its power really, the fact that it survived things like the McCarthy Period. Periodically, silence becomes the order of the day. The culture survived many years of terror in the southern United States and also in the north with all the race riots. It survived all those things basically through a reasserting and insisting on speaking.

While it seems important in another branch of the avant-garde to have conceptual silences, that is three- or four-minute voluntary silences, it’s not something that a post-slavery person would choose, to feel that a voluntary silence would be evocative of their situation, because they had already had the involuntary silence. They might be much more likely to want to speak out.

S.R: Is there a piece of music where the use of silence is deafening? The silence is used in such a way that makes a poignant statement, by an AACM composer?

G.L: Leo Smith and Roscoe Mitchell became associated with very quiet spaces, things that presaged the arrival of the so-called reductionist improvisers. They would have long stretches where no one would apparently be doing anything. There would be these long silences with groups like the Leo Smith-Anthony Braxton-Leroy Jenkins Trio.

I remember Leo telling me that at the beginning they did these pieces in all kinds of space, including traditional jazz clubs. They would do these silent pieces, and at some point somebody just said, “Play something or get off the stage!”

Now that’s a voluntary silence that’s deafening, if you want to look at it that way. The person just couldn’t take it. What did it mean to engage in that kind of supposed self-abnegation? Or is it that we are asking people to listen to their own inner voices and juxtapose that, blend that with the noises they hear all around?

Of course there is a blending with the so-called ultimate silence piece, which is 4’33,” which shows you once again that –
S.R: The John Cage piece?
G.L: Yeah. 4’33” gets syncretized with the African-American experience. You’ve got these very interesting hybrids that you wouldn’t get from either one alone.

S.R: Talk to me about Chicago. Tell me about the segregation of the North and South side and just the feeling. Can you paint a picture?

G.L: Of course I can’t paint the same picture that the people who lived through the worst parts of it could do.

The AACM is a product of the Great Migration, really one of the largest, if not the largest internal migrations in the history of the US, if not the world. The Great Migration lasted from about 1915 to, let’s say, the late 1960s. African-Americans left the rural South in large numbers to migrate to Northern, urban spaces – Harlem, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, not so much to the West, but mainly to the Midwest and East. Chicago got the nod because of the railroads and, and then you have the New Orleans-to-Chicago route that jazz supposedly followed, and so on. But when people got to Chicago, they found that it wasn’t like the Chicago Defender said, you know, this land of milk and honey.

Sure you found a job maybe, but you lived in often very squalid conditions. There were lots of fires. There was endemic segregation. It was an incredibly, incredibly crowded tiny space in which the African-Americans were basically being herded like cattle. People were living in one-bedroom apartments with five or six people in them. There was a lack of amenities, running water, heat, all these kinds of things – coal-fired stoves in the middle of the room. It was ridiculous.

So this is the environment of many of the AACM people, the earliest generation. This is what they grew up in. It’s not how I grew up. But it was close to how I grew up. I was just a few years removed from that because I do remember the coal stove.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, the South Side of Chicago was one of those places where, except for Hyde Park, you really didn’t see very many white people, or anybody else except for blacks everywhere. In spite of that it was a very mobile space. When you have that many people crammed together in one space and they all know each other very well, you get a community that’s in some ways very insular, in some ways very open and outward looking. A crucible.

The 60s were a period in which the intensification of a kind of endemic depression of the area increased markedly. The classic novel on that is The Spook Who Sat By the Door, which is an amazing book by Sam Greenlee.

S.R: Do you think the AACM – Great Black Music – was nationalistic? Do you think because Chicago was so fiercely segregated and probably rougher than other urban areas around the United States — did that somehow condition the AACM in a particular way?

G.L: I don’t see the AACM as terribly nationalistic, Great Black Music notwithstanding, because as I said, a lot of people didn’t accept that. People were free to call their music whatever they liked. Just as long as you don’t call my music Great Black Music, you can call your music whatever you like.

So no, I don’t see the AACM as an artifact of that sort of very narrow brand of black cultural nationalism, even though cultural nationalism in the more open sense was a strong influence. But I could certainly see that the AACM is an obvious product of the South Side of Chicago because it responded to the conditions of extreme segregation, or what the urban studies people called hyper-segregation.

It was a community of African-Americans who were thrown upon their own resources to create, living in a very circumscribed environment and looking for ways out of that circumscribed environment. Of course what happens is, by the time 1969 rolls around, a lot of them – well, not a lot of them, just a few – leave.

But they don’t go to New York. This isn’t the standard sort of Chicago-to-New York jazz narrative. Instead, they do something kind of unprecedented for the black urban class. They go to Paris.

Now the black middle class had been going there and becoming expatriates for quite a while, but now you had the working class people – Frank Wright, people like this. That was a totally different environment–the boys who had grown up in the cut-and-shoot stuff. They went to Paris and transformed their lives there.
But we were talking really, I guess about Chicago.
There were very nationalist organizations in Chicago. After Phil Cohran left the AACM, he started the Affro-Arts Theater and[GL2] he started his own workshops. They brought in wonderful people. They brought in Amiri Baraka, who was already lionized in almost all segments of the black community. They brought in the then-named Stokely Carmichael. They connected things up with – Phil was always very interested in the “classical” aspects of African American tradition, particularly gospel music. So he had people doing that.

It was a staging ground for The Pharaohs and for the people who would later form the band Earth Wind & Fire. It all came out of that era in Chicago, and crossed over with the AACM people in a lot of different respects.

Obviously the Nation of Islam, also Chicago-based, was involved in that. You had so many organizations – OBAC – the Organization of Black American Culture, the artists who created the Wall of Respect street mural. Later you had the Kuumba Dance Workshop–all these cultural groups dedicated to various kinds of black cultural nationalism or pan-African cultural nationalism.

I’d say the AACM was one of those. But I would also say that there was always a part of it that resisted anyone who came with a dogma. People didn’t buy it. There was always somebody there to ask a question or to say, “Well, I don’t know if I believe that,” or to avoid it or something like that. People weren’t true believers, except in the power of their own music, and that was sometimes very difficult.


We’ve mainly been talking about the first generation of the AACM, but the AACM lasted. It’s been going on for 46 years. There are whole generations of AACM people who came later who have a rather different set of viewpoints.. The AACM musicians of the 80s and 90s in Chicago totally embraced the concept of Great Black Music.

They took that slogan as a legacy for themselves and some were surprised to find, I think, when they read the book, that it wasn’t considered universal, wasn’t universally admired.

But that was the purpose of the book, to speak across the generations.

S.R: Thank you for speaking with me, G.L.
G.L: My pleasure.