ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The pianist and composer Muhal Richard Abrams died Sunday at the age of 87. Throughout his career, he pushed the boundaries of jazz and improvisational music. He set an example for other musicians looking to create their own avenues for getting their work heard. The National Endowment for the Arts named Abrams a jazz master in 2010. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas has this appreciation.
ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Muhal Richard Abrams was driven by curiosity and an innate discipline. He was mostly self-taught, as he told the NEA when he received its highest jazz honor.
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MUHAL RICHARD ABRAMS: I just decided one day that I wanted to play the piano. It happened in a funny way. My sister had a music theory book. So I picked her book up and decided that I was going to learn what all these symbols meant.
TSIOULCAS: Abrams was born and raised in Chicago and grew up hearing the blues. He started playing hard bop with the likes of Dexter Gordon and Eddie Harris, a style he return to from time to time.
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TSIOULCAS: Abrams studied the playing of Thelonious Monk and Art Tatum, and you can hear it in his music, says pianist Jason Moran, who's studied with Abrams.
JASON MORAN: Whether I was hearing boogie-woogie Chicago piano inside it or whether I was hearing this freeness that Muhal could do with his phrases that would kind of run extensively long, almost as if he was circular breathing at the piano...
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TSIOULCAS: In 1965, Abrams co-founded the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a collective that encouraged its members to create their own music and has helped them get it heard, as Abrams told NPR's Piano Jazz in 1988.
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ARBRAMS: People could experiment with their own individuality, you know what I mean...
MARIAN MCPARTLAND, BYLINE: Sure.
ARBRAMS: ...And write their original compositions. And there were many groups.
TSIOULCAS: Jason Moran says the AACM's DIY ethos established a benchmark for younger musicians to create their own opportunities.
MORAN: The AACM has always been there as a - kind of like a vitamin for musicians like myself and other - my peers because they took matters into their own hands. They produced their own concerts. They focused on original music primarily. And they encouraged and enabled others focus on their own music as well.
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TSIOULCAS: Sometimes people are tempted to associate experimental music with very young performers. But Abrams felt the opposite, as he told Piano Jazz's Marian McPartland.
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ARBRAMS: The best people to play newer music are experienced people in terms of organizing it in a manner that is musically respectful. I don't mean that people with less experience can't do that. I don't mean it in that way.
MCPARTLAND: But it's going to have more meaning to it, sure.
ARBRAMS: Yes. We're dealing with a continuum.
MCPARTLAND: With somebody that has experience, it's going to have more...
ARBRAMS: That's right. We're dealing with a continuum. That's right.
TSIOULCAS: Muhal Richard Abrams was a crucial point in that continuum. Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.
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