In 2012, Snapper Music commissioned me to write liner notes for a series of reissues on BYG Actuel - a label founded by three maverick French record producers who'd invited American free jazz musicians to Paris to record in the summer of 1969, at a time when they were receiving little support or attention in the US. I'd long been an admirer of this trio's pioneering spirit, and the artists they recorded never failed to amaze.
The Art Ensemble of Chicago didn’t like the name “jazz,” and referred to what they did as “Great Black Music.” In truth it was a lot more than that, since in addition to playing music using many different instruments – some of them wholly unexpected – they staged a visual spectacle that amazed and captivated all who witnessed it. It wasn’t just the tribal face painting, the African costumes and influences drawn from shamanism and ancient cultures that invoked gasps of delight and disbelief from the audience. It was the use of pantomime, dance, comedy and dialogue... anything that served to further their expression, and that of African-American music at its source.
The Windy City is synonymous with the blues, and yet plenty of jazz musicians also migrated to Chicago from the South during the war years. King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton were regular visitors at one stage, and Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines both recorded there during the Twenties. Thirty years later and Sun Ra formed a jazz collective to promote his musical explorations. This was a forerunner of the Experimental Band, which pianist Muhal Richard Abrams founded in 1961. There was a shortage of jazz venues at the time and especially for radicals like Abrams, who’d grown weary of exploitation and were fired by a rising tide of Black Nationalism. Roscoe Mitchell was one of the Experimental Band’s earliest members. He was raised in Chicago, and had played saxophone and clarinet from childhood. Whilst stationed in Germany with the US Army he’d befriended Albert Ayler and Rubin Cooper, who became his mentor. It was Mitchell who introduced saxophonist Joseph Jarman and bassist Malachi Favors (who’ll later add “Maghostut” to his name) to Abrams. Favors was a protégé of Chicago bassist Wilbur Ware, and had gained invaluable experience playing alongside Andrew Hill, Dizzy Gillespie and Freddie Hubbard. He, Mitchell and Jarman had all attended Wilson Junior College in Chicago, together with fellow jazz musicians Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill.
By 1965, the Experimental Band had evolved into the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, or A. A. C. M. This musical self-help organisation quickly attracted other like-minded souls from the Chicago avant-garde scene. The intention was to create a forum for free jazz in the city so that musicians could come together, exchange ideas and assist in furthering the genre’s development, as well as their own playing. The A. A. C. M was also concerned with fostering young musicians, and especially those from poor backgrounds. All the members would contribute as best they could, whether by teaching, performing or helping with organisational duties. Whilst still associated with the A. A. C. M, Roscoe Mitchell worked with several other groups he called “Art Ensembles.” These fluid line-ups ranged in size from just a few musicians to groups of up to fifty or more. Mitchell also formed a sextet featuring a brilliant young trumpeter from St. Louis named Lester Bowie, who’d learnt his craft with a mix of blues and soul singers, including Solomon Burke, Albert King, Joe Tex and Rufus Thomas. Still in his early twenties, Bowie had formed a musicians’ collective back in St. Louis called Black Artists Group, or BAG. Mitchell smiled in recognition, and the pair became firm friends.
The Roscoe Mitchell Sextet’s debut album ‘Sound’ was released on Delmark Records in 1966. Notable for its use of unorthodox “found” instruments such as bicycle bells, it was followed by a spate of recordings for Wisconsin indie label Nessa, who commissioned a group album (‘Congliptious’) and solo projects headed by Mitchell and Bowie. The group was now known as the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble, and appreciation for its groundbreaking approach was beginning to spread. In 1967, Down Beat described one of their concerts as “the most important single event in recent jazz history” but the band members were already growing restless. During the summer of 1968, Mitchell, Bowie and Favors left for San Francisco, where they immersed themselves in the emerging counter-culture. They arrived back in Chicago just as anti-Vietnam War protestors targeted the Democrats’ annual convention. Violent struggles with the police ensued, resulting in hundreds of arrests and injuries. The trials would last more than a year, and provide an abiding image of Black Panther Bobby Seale being led into the courtroom, bound and gagged.
After their return to Chicago, the three friends formed a quartet with Jarman who was a fine composer, and skilled at orchestration. These musicians already had a clear sense of their preferred musical direction but felt constrained by the Chicago scene, and longed for an opportunity to expand their horizons. They knew that Europe was generally more welcoming to artists like themselves, who sought to challenge prevailing attitudes and push at the barriers surrounding jazz. They were therefore delighted when Claude Delcloo, the editor of Actuel magazine, invited them to Paris for recording sessions with BYG – a label formed by Jean Luc Young, Jean Georgakarakos and Fernand Boruso, although the latter had departed the company prior to Delcloo’s involvement. Mitchell and his group left for Paris at the end of May. French premier Charles de Gaulle had just resigned, and the scent of revolution still hung in the air. Less than a year earlier, student occupations had led to a general strike involving two-thirds of the French workforce. As a result, the country had been brought to a virtual standstill. Running battles between police and demonstrators had turned Paris into a battleground, which was something the band members were only too familiar with.
It was in Paris that the name “Art Ensemble Of Chicago” first took hold. French listeners held American jazz musicians in high regard, and so it did no harm to accentuate the group’s origins. Their first recording session took place on June 23rd1969, at the Studios Davout in Porte de Montreuil. It featured a slightly different line-up from the one that had performed in Chicago, since drummer Philip Wilson had left to join Paul Butterfield’s Blues Band. Instead of finding a replacement, they decided to extend their use of percussion instruments, which now included conga, log and steel drums, as well as their customary array of whistles, sirens, bells, gongs, vibes and marimba. Many of these instruments were new to the jazz field, thereby endorsing the Ensemble’s reputation for experimentation.
Jarman in particular, relished having such a broad palette of sounds to draw upon. He’s been likened to “a musical Jackson Pollock,” which may or may not have influenced the title of ‘A Jackson In Your House’ for their first BYG release. “Jackson” was a term African-Americans used for the kind of character found in every ghetto neighbourhood. He could be a conman or comedian; maybe even a sweet-talking lover boy, but either way you won’t forget him. It could well be a description of the Ensemble’s own music in fact. The title track proved a pot pourri of styles from all eras of jazz (including Dixieland) whilst ‘Get In Line’ mocked the armed forces with uneasy, dissonant humour. ‘The Waltz’ is both comic and cosmic, and ‘Ericka’ almost wistful with its spoken word references to LSD, Hiroshima and the Peace Movement. The lengthy ‘Song For Charles’ – dedicated to the memory of their friend Charles Clark, who died shortly before they left Chicago – completes the set. The opening interplay between Favors’ bass and Bowie’s trumpet is a thing of lyrical beauty. The Ensemble then turns the Griot tradition on its head with their use of chanted phrases, just like how they compel listeners to re-examine the role of conventional jazz instruments. It’s amazing how they never crowd each other out but allow themselves space to create, despite the presence of so many instruments. As well as the flute, clarinet and three different kinds of saxophone, Mitchell plays every imaginable form of percussion. Jarman adds oboe, bamboo flute, marimba, vibes, bells, whistles, gongs and the guitar to his usual sax, whilst Favors can be heard on banjo and cythar, in addition to bass.
Three days later they recorded a session for Freedom Records called ‘The Spiritual.’ They’ll record two further albums for the same label – ‘Tutankhamen’ and ‘Live In Paris,’ which appeared in 1970. By the time they reconvened at Studios Davout for their second BYG session on August 12th, America had landed a manned space shuttle on the moon. Apollo 10 had been transmitting colour photos of Earth for months, but the sight of Armstrong taking his “giant step for mankind” was unforgettable. The title of this recording will be ‘Message To Our Folks,’ which may have been a reference to those Apollo 11 astronauts, or a certain group of young musicians who also found themselves thousands of miles from home. References to black church tradition abound on ‘Old Time Religion,’ whilst ‘Dexterity’ is bebop for the acid generation with its recurring horn phrases and walking bass line. ‘Rock Out’ meanwhile, disproves the notion that free jazz musicians live in a world of their own and are somehow disconnected from popular culture. Not so. Several members of the Art Ensemble had their roots in rhythm and blues and Favors – playing a Fender bass, no less – strikes up the kind of funky groove that wouldn’t sound out of place on a James Brown record. In fact fans of Cream, who’d recently played their farewell concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, may also hear parallels with what Clapton and friends were all about. Looking at photos of Bowie with his goatee beard and John Lennon glasses, and the other members all sporting Afros and dressed in brightly coloured shirts, you realise these guys were real hipsters, and that’s before they reach for the face paint and surreal costumes. e
The album’s final track, ‘A Brain For The Seine’ is twenty minutes long and another master-class of creative spontaneity. One minute it’s as if we’re eavesdropping on a conversation, or watching children at play. Howls of lament then rush to the surface before giving way to more tranquil passages. Again, the interaction between these musicians is riveting, and every note counts. That very same day they recorded ‘Reese and The Smooth Ones,’ which continues in similar vein except nothing is repeated of course. In fact the sounds are entirely different, as are the feelings they arouse. It’s a more serious, probing piece than heard on that first album, yet still rife with imagery. The original release had two tracks, both twenty minutes long, although it’s said they were recorded as a single entity and only divided in half to suit the LP format.
Four days after this recording, 500,000 rock fans headed for upstate New York for the Woodstock festival. Members of the Art Ensemble shared many of the same views that informed the counter-culture. They too wanted to change and influence society, and challenge conventional thinking. They lived in a commune during their time in Paris, and regularly performed at the Theatre du Vieux-Colombier, in the 6tharrondissement – shows that have since passed into legend. The group will stay in Europe for three years, and the recordings they made during that period will establish them as major contributors to the free jazz movement.
In the aftermath of these two albums for BYG, they recruited percussionist Famoudou Don Moye and made an album with Bowie’s wife, singer Fontella Bass. This line-up would record the underground cult classic ‘Theme De Yo Yo,’ taken from the soundtrack of the French film ‘Les Stances a Sophie.’ They returned to the US in 1972, and the core members will stay together until Jarman’s retirement in 1993. Bowie had died by the time Jarman rejoined them ten years later, although various line-ups of the Art Ensemble will continue to perform and record music that helped redefine modern jazz until well into the new Millennium.