Art Ensemble Of Chicago - A Jackson In Your House
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.