The Art Ensemble of Chicago will be playing at the Blues and Jazz Festival in a few weeks. They've already rolled into town to prepare for their performance and are living in a down-town basement.
The Ensemble is: "Lester Bowie plays trumpet and fluglehorn. He's Libra. He does help to balance the shit out although sometimes he's crazy."
"Malachi Favors has a dual nature going on. He's born under the sign of Leo as well as the sign of Virgo. He plays bass, bass guitar, banjo, bells and is an extremely capable vocalist."
"Don Moye, born under the sign of Gemini. He's the percussionist. Plays all kinds of percussion instruments from around the world."
"Roscoe Mitchell, born under Leo, plays tenor, alto, flute."
"Joseph Jarman, Virgo, plays saxophones, flute, bassoon."
These five powerful musicians all belong to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (A.A.C.M.), a Chicago group dedicated to giving black musicians self-determination and control over every aspect of their work. A list of some of their available records can be found on page 6 of this issue.
SUN: How did the Art Ensemble come together?
FAVORS: In 1963 or 64 I met Roscoe (Mitchell), and at that time we started a group. The other members of the present group, with the exception of Don Moye, being the last to come on a couple years ago at Paris, have been with us now for five years or more. That's a little history of the Art Ensemble. The A.A.C.M, was formed because musicians primarily in the ghetto, felt a need to pull together the creativity of music there. They felt it was going to waste; nobody was hiring the creative musicians. They were just running around like chickens with their heads cut off, and finally this idea carne up of "let's get together, let's do something; we can't let things heppen this way;" and that's how it got to be formed.
LESTER: That was May 26, 1965, the first meeting of what became the A.A.C.M. It grew out of an association for musicians in the black community in Chicago who participated in a thing called the Experimental Band. And that's how we all knew each other. As far as the musical scene in Chicago is concerned, any of the major cats who were dealing in all different kinds of music at one point or another carne to the A.A.C.M. Not all younger cats, either; a good musical cross-section.
SUN: Was there one place where everybody came from?
Joseph: Chicago, l'd say primarily the south side, but they came from all over.
SUN: How did you give concerts?
Joseph: We got together and did it ourselved. If there's nine of us, and, say, we want three of us to perform; OK, the three of us that are going to perform would just start rehearsing. One of those not going to perform would go to the printer, another to the radio station, another to the newspaper, another would cali people up--and you'd do the whole number, and put up the funds. We would do it all ourselves so that we could control the whole thing. This organization came about so that we would be able to do that under our own terms rather than under the terms of The Man. We've been going through all kinds of stuff because some people want to destroy any kind of concept of the music, or any kind of idea of it's history as a vital part of the people's existence. Historically, musicians have always been mashed out, and this is still going on today. Any time any one of them gets into a thing, they do a number on them, so h won't get too much power. So, one of the alternatives which began to manifest itself during the political upheavals which started in 1955 was the conscious thought of musicians, which began to orientate towards some kind of thing so they could do their own number rather than being constantly controlled by the honky mentality. There were a lot of musicians playing together in different places, but they couldn't make it because they were isolated. So, in 1965, when the A.A.C.M, was formed, this served as a catalyst to bring them all together, and everybody could do their number. So we started to produce concerts, and poets' readings, and even got a fílm thing going on, and started talking about how people should eat and live. Then we opened the school--the school was probably the most beautiful thing, because all these poor, black children that didn't have anything going on were given the opportunity to express themselves and direct their energies into a positive thing without being controlled by all the bullshit going down in the white power-structure educational system of this country. They were given an alternative to being brainwashed where they just turn out to be junkies and shit like that.
SUN: How was the economic situation organized?
Joseph: We didn't have too much money at all. We just picked up a little in dues, and whatever came in on the doors of the concerts, and that was it. Like I said, the A.A.C.M, is the oldest organization of this type in the country. The A.A.C.M, has never been funded by any of these fellow organizations which give grants and things like that. It's never been given grants by the "People of Chicago" or the Mayor's council or anything like that. It has never received any help whatsoever, but has applied for help from all these agencies. But we believe that because of what we do, and the importance of what we're doing, there is a giant conspiracy involved at keeping us at a certain level. The A.A.C.M, has nothing now, it had nothing eight years ago. It'll probably continue that way until somebody does something to change the situation. The A.A.C.M. political orientation was not to the left or to the right of any of the given political premises. It is far away from all those things. What we are trying to deal on is primarily a mind level, draw people into that kind of thing, anybody who can stand it. That is the thing that destroys a lot of our material possibilities. In the case of the Art Ensemble, that's why we probably don't work enough, because we use symbols in trying to provoke another kind of attitude or feeling. Which we find even in the most advanced elements of this society very rare. Even among the super-hip.
Favors: We feel that black people need to involve themselves more with themselves, because 358 years of slavery has took away self, the average black is not himself. It is hard for you to understand that because you haven't lived as a black. He [or she!--SUN] is just not himself and one of the purposes is to arrive at self through the music, to use an art form, you dig, your ancestry we don't go back and study that per se, but we feel that it is already there, it just has to come out. So the purpose of the A.A.C.M. is to endow black people with a feeling of self-confidence which they need very badly.
Lester: The A.A.C.M. has never really had a political orientation. The A.A.C.M. is purely musical. The A.A.C.M. is not political because music is art and art is politics. Art involves people so naturally it is relegated to be political. In France the people that run France say we don't want you here. So any black musician that comes over is considered political. You try to get into France and they stop you when you get off the plane and say get right back on that plane, boy. We do benefits for organizations that will help our cuase like the Black Panthers. So we performed at a benefit for the Black Panthers and right after that there was a radio interview over Radio Luxembourg, this was just a cat saying his opinion of the Art Ensemble. The next day I heard our dogs barking and I went outside and the Inspector was into some weird stuff, the dog had him cornered. I mean the police were there the next day saying that we should leave France. On the basis of some body else's opinion of us. We got run out of France. But we snuck back in.
Joseph: We got back in in the quiet of night, on a small boat.
Lester: In the Art Ensemble, we are our own equipment men, our own managers, our own agents.
Joseph: We also disinfect floors, mop up, act.
Favors: We also on occasion move people's furniture, for a few dollars.
Lester: The Art Ensemble, and l'm speaking like I don't even know these cats, play some of the most advanced music on the planet earth. Some of the most vital. At the same time the Art Ensemble receives on the business level no response. Every thing that we have been talking about directly reflects the conspiracy that is directed towards black audiecnces.
SUN: Freaks are the newest group to break away from the mainstream. You (the Art Ensemble) aren't necessarily new, but this is a new audience for you.
Lester: We're new to you because of the circumstances we've been talking about. This group has been together for seven years, and we were first in Detroit long ago. We've made 16 albums over a period of about seven years. We've won awards, records of the year, Downbeat poll winners tor the last 5 years -- the whole thing that's supposed to mean success. Just to say these things have been happening to us without getting into any depth... I mean, people owe us money for records, yet newer pay us. We always get ripped off, we get ripped-off; over there in France, Europe. We are hurtng now from this. So this is why we get caught up in these circumstances. Legal rip-offs you sign a contract and don't mean nothing. It means something for them, because they an enforce it; but if you don't have money to put something behind the cats, and say "do that," then you can't do anything. It takes some backing to be able to say in court that "you took such and such an amount on such and such a date for so much work."
Joseph: I would like to do a whole number; this really turns out to be my personal opinion. We try to do a lot of looking at ourselves because we find that nobody else will look at us honestly--they'll try to do a number on us. l'd like to try to run down where we try to be coming from, where we try to be dealing this music, because that might be an important thing to relate to the people, to whom we feel the power belongs. We all feel very fortunate, and we have all had a lot of experience, like playing various forms of music with a lot of different people. One of the things which keeps us together is the music we are able to p!ay together. We have found that we can't play what we feel and what we think as "freely" as we can with each other. Other people just don't understand the musical premises we deal from. Those premises actually "gan thousands of years ago, and what we're after is an expression of a kind of unity that finds its foundation in prehistoric times. Perhaps a modern basis of the thing is what has come to be called tribal structure. A more contemporary term would have to do with an inner-unit structure of an organic self. We feel things and see things that have no language. So we try to translate this to other people because we feel that if we can have this kind of experience other people, once they are tuned-in to this vibration, can have that experience, too. What it does is internalize some aspect of their individual energy, and they realize through that internalization the universality of their being. So, basically, that's where we're trying to come from. The rainbow people are dealing in a manner completely different from what has happened in America, from the average honky.. This way is a black way.' it's a tribal way. It's my impression the rainbow people are trying to handle things more in that direction. A group of people that have a common belief, living together, everybody contributing. They invited me to do a concert in Detroit, at Wayne State, the Detroit Artists Workshop, and I was amazed at the energy these people were putting out. Cause they were doing a strong number and it was certainly what you'd say unconventional and they were dealing on it, you know.
SUN : How do you compare what was going with the Artists Workshops to what was going on in Chicago with the A.A.C.M.?
Joseph: There's no comparison whatsoever, it was a totally different kind of thing. Cause that was in a University setting, you know, a lot of people going to school at that time who were wanting to break out, were disillusioned and were looking for some kind of alternative. The alternative that they found was that scene, the Artists Workshop where they could be creative and express themselves and not be under he pressures involved in the whole scene, whereas the scene in Chicago was a lot different in that the cats involved were lot students or anything, they were just musicians off the street who were trying to play some music and express themselves through their instruments and stuff. They weren't rebelling against anything, they were just living their lives, you know cats who were starving and shit, having a hard time getting by. We were amazed that they (the Artists Workshop) could relate to the music that we were trying to lay down. You see at that time, that situation exposed that kind of music to alot of people. They wouldn't normally have been able to check it out. It was just a small scene going on there, but still, it was strong. It began with those artists checking out that number, and slowly we saw as the political thing began to evolve in the whole country, the attitudes this thing took, and the shit that they went through and then all the changes, all the busts, and shit, and then today what you people are into, it's been a good constant thing, and hopefully it will spread, and more of your people will check out what you all are trying to do. You know the concept of a chord is that it's played a certain way. And the musician has to go into other shit to make that sequence vital. So with all of us, we got into those kind of situations, and we just got put on the blacklist because you know, we weren't conforming to the shit. The Art Ensemble conforms to just about nothing. I say fuck these motherfuckers who talk about conformity, about what you go gotta do, you know, jazz, rock, blues, or whatever. We make a lot of problems for ourselves, because of our attitudes toward what we 're doing. We could easily conform to what's happening, we could easily say let's say hire white boys to play with us, which if you notice, every group in this coutnry that is making money, and playing black music, is an intergrated group. l'd say Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, I mean anybody. What l'm saying that there is alot involved with the music. And every black group had to have some integration because the man owns the music. On the one hand they want you to have black groups, but on the other hand if you look on the television you always see white people in the bands, like on the Tonight Show. They want people to see that they're in on the music too. l'm not saying we can't get along. We can get along. We can build a better society in America, white and black together if we have the right perspective on what's happening. We can make it together, but you can't condition a thing because it's not going to work. We're going to make it. We've made it this long and we'II make it even longer. And we're gonna still be the Art Ensemble, We're not going to change our basic beliefs to "make it."