A Power Stronger Than Itself

The AACM and American Experimental Music

by George E. Lewis

A Power Stronger Than Itself

Hardcover, 676 pages, Univ of Chicago Pr, List Price: $35 | purchase

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A Power Stronger Than Itself
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The AACM and American Experimental Music
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George E. Lewis

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Excerpt: A Power Stronger Than Itself

A Power Stronger Than Itself

A POWER STRONGER THAN ITSELF

The AACM and American Experimental Music


The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2008 George E. Lewis
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-47695-7

Contents

Preface: The AACM and American Experimentalism............................................ixAcknowledgments...........................................................................xvIntroduction: An AACM Book: Origins, Antecedents, Objectives, Methods.....................xxiiiChapter Summaries.........................................................................xxxv1  FOUNDATIONS AND PREHISTORY.............................................................1Coming North: From Great Migration to Great Depression....................................1Early Musical Experiences.................................................................9Improvisation and Autodidacticism in 1950s Chicago........................................14The End of an Era.........................................................................272  NEW MUSIC, NEW YORK....................................................................29Cultures of Spontaneity: Integrationism and the Two Avant-Gardes..........................29Beyond a Bebop Boundary: The Challenge of New Music.......................................37Critical Responses: Anger, Noise, Failure.................................................43A Far Cry from New York: Segregation and Chicago Music....................................503  THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE EXPERIMENTAL BAND...............................................55Alternative Pedagogies of Experimental Music..............................................55Eyes on the Sparrow: The First New Chicagoans.............................................614  FOUNDING THE COLLECTIVE................................................................85Urban Decline and the Turn to Communitarianism............................................85Born on the Kitchen Table: Conceiving the Association.....................................96Naming Ceremony: Black Power and Black Institutions.......................................1055  FIRST FRUITS...........................................................................115The First Year: Concerts, Critics, and Issues.............................................115New Arrivals and the University of Chicago................................................125Travel, Recording, and Intermedia.........................................................141Memories of the Sun: The AACM and Sun Ra..................................................1566  THE AACM TAKES OFF.....................................................................163The Black Arts Movement in Chicago........................................................163New Arrivals and New Ideas................................................................169The AACM School...........................................................................175Performing and Self-Determination.........................................................179Cultural Nationalism in Postmodern Transition.............................................1967  AMERICANS IN PARIS.....................................................................215Conceiving the World Audience.............................................................215Le Nouveau Paris Noir: Collectivity, Competition, and Excitement..........................220The Politics of Culture: Black Power and May 1968.........................................235Die Emanzipation: The Rise of European Free Improvisation.................................247Homecoming................................................................................2548  THE AACM'S NEXT WAVE...................................................................259More from the Midwest: The Black Artists Group............................................259New Elbows on the Table: The AACM's Second Wave...........................................276Ten Years After: The Association Comes of Age.............................................3139  THE AACM IN NEW YORK...................................................................325Migration and Invasion....................................................................325Europe and the Lofts......................................................................338Beyond a Binary: The AACM and the Crisis in Criticism.....................................353Diversity and Its Discontents: New American Music after the Jazz Age......................37010 THE NEW REGIME IN CHICAGO..............................................................389Generational Shifts in the Collective.....................................................389The Two Cultures and a New Chapter........................................................396Form and Funding: Philanthropy and Black Music in the 1970s...............................400Strains, Swirls, and Splits...............................................................42011 INTO THE THIRD DECADE..................................................................439The 1980s: Canons and Heterophony.........................................................439Great Black Music: The Local and the Global...............................................449Leading the Third Wave: The New Women of the AACM.........................................45912 TRANSITION AND REFLECTIONS.............................................................481New York in Transition....................................................................481Chicago in Reflection.....................................................................485J'ai deux amours .........................................................................493Afterword.................................................................................497The Way of the Arranger...................................................................497The Individual............................................................................498The Book..................................................................................499Expansion and Sacrifice...................................................................499Boxing with Tradition.....................................................................504Regrets...................................................................................505Survival..................................................................................507Contemplating the Post-jazz Continuum.....................................................507Atmospheres...............................................................................511Futures...................................................................................513Appendix A: List of Interviews Conducted by the Author....................................515Appendix B: Selected AACM Recordings......................................................519Notes.....................................................................................525Bibliography..............................................................................601Index.....................................................................................637

Chapter One

FOUNDATIONS AND PREHISTORY

Coming North: From Great Migration to Great Depression

In terms of both personal histories and historical resonance, the roots of AACM discourses of mobility and atmosphere can be traced to the decades-long movement known as the Great Migration. From around 1915 to the early 1960s, working-class black migrants, hoping to better their condition in the classic fashion of the American Dream, streamed out of the Old Confederacy in one of the largest internal relocations in U.S. history. The oldest members of the AACM's first wave, including pianist and composer Richard Abrams, saxophonist Fred Anderson, pianist Jodie Christian, drummer Jerol Donavon, trumpeter Phil Cohran, drummer Steve McCall, and violinist Leroy Jenkins, were all born between 1927 and 1932, the children of migrants who settled in Chicago and St. Louis.

The migration narrative inevitably turns upon the question of loss-in particular, the loss of land. African Americans in the South were subjected to economic warfare, including land seizures and various forms of terrorism, whether state-sponsored, privatized, or formulated through private-public partnerships. The practice of "white-capping," whereby whites physically drove blacks from their land and confiscated it, compounded the difficulties blacks already faced in buying and owning land, ultimately contributing greatly to the urgency of plans to leave the South. The fiercely independent Cohran family, whose history dates to the Revolutionary War, was living in an area near Oxford, Mississippi, dubbed "Coontown," where Philip Cohran was born in 1927. The family owned land and farm equipment, but as Cohran tells it,

They had killed my grand-uncle Floyd, and Derry, the one that got all the property, told them that we have the land, and ain't nobody gonna get that. They took his money, he said, but you can't get the land because I got documents and we're holding this land. At that period of time black people did not issue ultimatums to white folks in Mississippi. So all of the Cohran name had a bad thing on it, so I'm sure that my mother was working all the time on getting me out of there before I got to my teens.

Thus, when Cohran was about nine years old, his parents made their way to Missouri. His father got a job as a cook at restaurant in Troy, while the family lived with friends in St. Louis.

Jerol Donavon's family knew that the South could be a very dangerous place for black people who dared to display evidence of successful, independent entrepreneurship. The second of eleven children, Donavon was born in 1927 in a small Arkansas town founded by his grandfather, who had come from Memphis to buy land and farming equipment in an area close by Little Rock. The family built a general store, a sawmill, and a small farm with crops that included cotton, rice, and sorghum. One very late evening, whites with shotguns ambushed his father, grandfather, and uncles. Donavon's father was badly wounded, but survived. The incident prompted Donavon's family, as with so many other black migrants, to abandon the area. Arriving in Chicago in the early 1930s, Donavon's family stayed at their grandfather's South Side home, a six-room apartment on 43rd Street and St. Lawrence Avenue, where one of Donavon's uncles was also living.

Leroy Jenkins's great-uncle Buck had come to Chicago under very different conditions from the fabled train ride of Louis Armstrong from New Orleans that has become the stuff of nostalgia. Like many migrants, Buck Jenkins lacked train fare, so one day in the 1920s he simply hopped a freight train from the little town of Prospect, Tennessee. After securing employment and housing, Uncle Buck earned enough money to send for Leroy's father Henry, who found steady work at the Spot, a tavern at 43rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue on Chicago's South Side. Henry Jenkins, who, as it happens, became acquainted with Richard Abrams's father at the Spot, eventually married the boss's Mississippi-born niece, and in 1932, Leroy was born in Chicago's Cook County Hospital, the public hospital that was the birthplace of countless black Chicagoans. The marriage ended in divorce, however, and Jenkins's mother moved to 45th and Champlain.

If migrants to Chicago were hoping to escape from segregation, their disappointment had to be profound, as the 1920s and 1930s saw the developing stages of Chicago's effective confinement of African Americans to designated areas on the city's South Side and West Side. The 1930 census revealed that two-thirds of all black Chicagoans lived in hypersegregated tracts that were at least 90 percent black. By 1940, more than 330,000 black citizens were "packed solidly ... on a narrow tongue of land, seven miles in length and one and one-half miles in width," from 22nd Street to the north to 67th Street at the southern end, and from Cottage Grove Avenue and Lake Michigan on the east to the Rock Island Railroad tracks around Wentworth Avenue on the west. Cordoned off from "white" areas of the city by restrictive covenants, political machinations, and violence, large numbers of black newcomers from the South, almost regardless of income level, competed with earlier waves of migrants for a limited supply of available and affordable space.

As a result, this area, which an enterprising editor of a local black newspaper dubbed "Bronzeville," was far more diverse than most other Chicago communities in terms of demographic parameters other than race, such as social class, economic status, and occupation. As sociologists St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton observed, "If you're trying to find a certain Negro in Chicago, stand on the corner of 47th and South Park long enough and you're bound to see him." Clustered around this center of the "Black Belt" were its major commercial, financial, service, and religious institutions, such as the Hotel Grand, and Provident Hospital, founded by black physician Daniel Hale Williams, the first doctor to successfully perform open-heart surgery. Right at 47th and South Park was the Regal Theater, a major symbol of black entertainment in pre-1960s Chicago, where virtually anyone who was anyone in black popular music performed. Hard by the Regal were many other important centers for live music, such as the Savoy Ballroom, the Club De Lisa, the Sutherland Lounge, and literally hundreds of smaller, more intimate nightspots.

After a brief dalliance with the fast, exciting life on 47th Street, migrants to Chicago discovered that working-class black life in the North bore little resemblance to the Zion of economic freedom that they had envisioned. Jodie Christian's father was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, into a sharecropper's family. Realizing the futility of that life, Christian's grandfather sold his livestock and sent his family to Chicago, where Christian was born in 1932 on 44th Street and Prairie Avenue. As a young boy, Christian heard from his parents about how when people would come South, "they would have rings on, they looked good" as they exhorted others to join them in the North. But when families like Christian's finally arrived from the South, they found to their horror that "some people lived in basements, with rats and stuff. They couldn't believe that it was the same people. Because where they were living, at least they had their own house-they weren't crowded up in one room." Indeed, Depression-era Bronzeville's once-spacious apartments and houses were now being radically subdivided to gather in the burgeoning black population. Dwellings that had previously housed single families were converted to hold two or three times that number, and the dynamic of extended families often featured two or three generations living in minuscule apartments that the real estate industry euphemistically dubbed "kitchenettes." The young Leroy Jenkins, along with his sister, his mother, his grandmother, two aunts, and the occasional boarder, all lived in the same three-bedroom apartment. Moreover, much of the housing stock available in black areas of the city lacked hot running water; often, there was only one toilet per floor. The frequent absence of central heating was a major issue, given the city's long, bitterly cold winters. Instead of repairing decaying housing infrastructure or encouraging black outmigration, however, governmental authorities built enormous "projects" within the existing Black Belt to warehouse the black population. This massive "urban renewal" (later dubbed "Negro removal" by wags) effectively destroyed as many housing units as it replaced. When the first of these projects, the Ida B. Wells Homes on East 39th Street, opened in 1941, over seventeen thousand applications were received for just sixteen hundred units.

Among the successful applicants was the future Willa McCall, who had come to Chicago as a toddler from North Carolina in 1916. Stephen McCall IV, the oldest of her three children, was born in the city in 1932. Beating the drum in a 1940s edition of Chicago's Bud Billiken Parade, the annual black youth event sponsored by the black newspaper of record, the Chicago Defender, young Stephen experienced a musical epiphany. As his mother tells it, "He saw this big drum in there and he just wanted to beat that drum, but somebody was going to have to help him, because he was a little guy with little skinny legs. He just got a chance to beat this drum. Oh, he was so happy. They gave him the desire of his heart, playing that drum on the Bud Billiken Parade." Richard Abrams's paternal grandparents brought the family to Chicago, where Abrams was born in 1930 as the second of nine children. A self-employed handyman, Abrams's father was born in Alabama, and found work maintaining and cleaning stores on the mostly white North Side. Abrams remembers his father as "well-educated, very smart, but ... there's this phenomenon that happened because of racism to keep black people out of certain kinds of situations-so I guess he elected to say, well, I'll just make my own stuff," an assertion of self-determination that Abrams explicitly connects with the goals of the AACM. Abrams's mother, born in Memphis, worked at home as a housewife. Her militancy about excellence and independence through education made a strong impression on all of her children. She would take young Richard to the YMCA on 40th and Indiana, warning him to stay close by and behave himself while she took her weekly piano lesson.

Born in 1927, Malachi Favors lived across the street from Jodie Christian; the bassist and future Thelonious Monk collaborator Wilbur Ware lived just around the corner. One Favors family dwelling, with two bedrooms, a dining room, and a living room, was home to eight children-plus a roomer. Each winter evening, Favors's mother heated irons in the fireplace, then wrapped them in towels and placed them under the children's blankets to keep them warm. In the morning, the family would dress themselves in front of the fire. During the cold winters, the widespread use of kerosene lamps, coal stoves, and gas ovens for cooking and heating resulted in an epidemic of fires. Favors's childhood memories include stories about the nearly two hundred people (sixty of whom were children) who died in thousands of South Side fires between 1947 and 1953, an epidemic that the Chicago Defender called "another Chicago Fire, except that it has been on a three-month installment basis." Some fires were deliberately set by landlords, often with fatal results, and in many cases, the surviving tenants simply moved back into the burned-out buildings. Among Favors's many vivid childhood memories of summer, the spectacle of dead rats in the street as roadkill stands out. Favors's memory here substantiates historical accounts of the lax approach taken by Chicago's city government to trash pickup in the black community, where pest infestations, culminating in sometimes-fatal rat attacks on children in kitchenettes, were endemic.

Naturally, everyone was trying to bring in money. During World War II, the ubiquitous "victory gardens," established as support for the American troops abroad, also provided needed food for those at home. Donavon's father held down two or three jobs at once-carpentry work, cab driving, and later a stint as a Pullman porter, while Donavon did paper routes and set pins in bowling alleys to bring money home. In the Abrams family apartment, hot water for bathing and cooking had to be heated on a coal stove in the living room, which also provided heat in the winter. Abrams earned small change hauling coal from the basement, or carrying sizable cakes of ice for the icebox. Abrams's paternal grandfather was "what you call a junk man," selling the fruits of neighborhood foraging. Abrams and his brother would pull the cart around the neighborhood, eventually arriving at a junkyard on State Street, where the items would be sold.

Black people believed fervently in the American Dream and strove to realize the classic American paradox of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. However, the Depression hit black Chicagoans especially hard, and almost half of Chicago's 1930s black population was receiving some form of public relief. After his parents' divorce, as Leroy Jenkins recalls, "We were on welfare for a little while. We used to get free milk. They had a place where you could go and get your milk and butter and cheese." Nonetheless, members of this earliest AACM generation did not consider themselves deprived. Jerol Donavon remembers that "we were very fortunate-we never went hungry. We went to the relief station and got food and clothing, and my father worked on the WPA. You didn't want your friends to see you going to the relief station, but man, I had my wagon right there. I found out later on, after we all grew up and everything, that just about all my friends had been doing the same thing."

Despite the fact that Jerol Donavon described his 43rd Street area as "one of the roughest in the city," he remembered the neighborhood as "like one big family. Everybody knew each other." Abrams, whose family lived nearby on Evans Avenue, also remembered the area as a rather congenial place to live. Talk to a long-time or former resident like Favors and you will hear about those who came out of the area and made good, like Lorraine Hansberry, Sam Greenlee, and many others.

The oldest of the AACM musicians were grade-schoolers between the height of the Depression and the onset of World War II. Like most black children, they attended all-black grammar schools. Abrams and Donavon met at Forrestville School, a couple of blocks from their homes. Other Forrestville pupils included Leroy Jenkins, saxophonist Johnny Griffin and trumpeter and record producer Paul Serrano. Of course, as Abrams recalled, "Forrestville was a standard public school, based on white history. There was no mention of black people in history at all, not even George Washington Carver. You studied about Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci. They had the music of Gl├╝ck and people like that." Despite these limitations, however, the teachers were committed to their pedagogical mission. "They educated you in the stuff that they had," remembers Abrams. "If you didn't learn, they called your parents."

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