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


The University of Chicago Press

April 2008

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-47695-7 (cloth)

ISBN-10: 0-226-47695-2 (cloth)

Price: $35.00


Review by   Patricia Spears Jones


It is not often that a 600 pages plus music history book can bring a reader to tears, but George E. Lewis’ A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music did that for me.  Lewis brings an emotionally connected sensibility to this multi-disciplinary study that deeply and aptly meshes his creative powers as a musician and composer to his scholarship in music theory, cultural studies, and a sustained engagement with musical experimentalism in the U.S. and Europe as he chronicles and critiques the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.  Why the tears?  His description of Malachi Favors’ funeral in February 2004 brings together personal observation; a brief discourse on the Church of God in Christ (the church I was raised in as a child in Arkansas); the Pastor’s eulogy; and the church’s refusal to allow drumming during the service.  Favors’ body is brought back to the church, but his creativity and gifts to the wider world are celebrated during the recessional where the drums mysteriously sounded; and at the internment where Favors’ AACM colleagues played tiny instruments and clapped and sang as his body was lowered into the grave.  As this scene unfolds over two pages near the end of the book, it reminds me that Afro-America is always more complicated and sophisticated than many of us can ever fathom.  


Lewis, who is the Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University has produced an important, engaging and occasionally enraging book that offers as comprehensive a look at the why and how of the AACM’s development and staying power.  Equally important is it serves as a subtle critique of the canonization process in American musics, both in the “new music” and “jazz” categories even as he tries to remove the theoretical and political definitions that separate them.  He shows how the ongoing use of “jazz” to reinforce racist and simplistic attitudes towards African American music making as well as to deemphasize the power of music composed by African Americans, whether from the “jazz or classical, i.e. European tradition” continues as undermine a full acceptance of this documented and important work.  That such critiques continued until the end of the 20th century is, as far as this reader is concerned, a scandal.  One being remedied somewhat by the polyphony of post-modernity—what’s in your IPOD?  Okay back to the book:


The twelve chapters of A Power Stronger Than Itself, plus an Introduction and After Word follow several tracks--the main ones being: artistic, economic and political with Chicago as the locus.  Blacks who had moved there as a result of the Great Migration from the South helped shape the psychic, artistic and musicological interests of their children, a handful of clearly talented, ambitious and committed artists.


He shows how these children of laborers, maids, bus drivers, teachers, gamblers, ministers and musicians found themselves huddled together on the South Side of Chicago due to Chicago’s relentless racial and economic segregation.  The schools they attended; the band directors and teachers they encountered and learned from; the bad stuff they mostly avoided (drugs, gangs, prison); the churches they attended where “greats” such as Dinah Washington and Sister Rosetta Tharpe once sang and/or played shows a large, economically if not racially diverse community with resources enough to encourage creative endeavor.  Moreover, as in other Midwestern cities, musicians unions were segregated so that Black musicians had some sense of how to organize and negotiate, but in Chicago they were mostly kept out of lucrative gigs; were not reviewed by the local press or national journals—and Downbeat was in Chicago! -- even as the places where they could find steady work were closing. 


As Lewis chronicles, the ideas that would become the AACM was literally conceived as Steve McCall’s mom noted in her home:  “The AACM was born at my kitchen table.” You had the four of them, at the beginning, Richard Abrams, Phil Cohran, Steve and Jodie Christian.”  Their conversations focused on culture, oh how to keep what they had and create more.  From those intense conversations, a postcard was sent to “the cream of African American musicians announcing a meeting to be held on May 8, 1965.  From that and subsequent meetings, the AACM took root.


For me Chapter Five showcases the bet of Lewis’ skills as music historian, cultural chronicler and son of the AACM  The chapter lists the group’s famous nine purposes; discusses Muhal Richard Abrams’ leadership style which offered a firm, yet open hand to all those who participated.  It also showed the major differences that members brought to the group’s development—what was “original” music?  Were they throwing out tradition by not playing standards?  Who was and was not a composer?  From the speakers quoted throughout this chapter, one can see how different, how volatile this enterprise was.  Abrams’ lucidity appears to have calmed most of the heavy waters.  Moreover, the group attracted extraordinary musicians such as Leroy Jenkins, Joseph Jarman, Favors, Lester Bowie, Roscoe Mitchell, Amina Claudine Myers and Anthony Braxton as well as painters like Jeff Donaldson and dancer/chorographers such as Rrata Christine Jones.


Lewis explores how this organization was created during a time of political upheaval as the promises of the integrationist Civil Rights Movement gave way to the anti-integrationist tendencies of Black Nationalist, particularly cultural commentators such as Baraka who often found the kinds of music promulgated by Abrams, et al as lacking “blackness” or deep connection to the “masses.”  But the AACM”s events took place in Black run community centers in the heart of one of the country’s largest “ghettoes.”  This policing of Black creativity and subjectivity is handled with great delicacy by Lewis as he explores how composers and musicians resisted the critical conservatism of “jazz” and “experimental” music critics in the U.S. and Europe whose vocabulary did not include such bold African American agency.

With the economic fortunes of Black Chicago near the bottom and the Civil Rights and then Black Power Movements bringing Black disenfranchisement and rage to the foreground, the development of an artist run organization focused on experimentation, education and Black culture was fraught with misinterpretation and disbelief.  Lewis focuses on the philosophical and musicological underpinnings of the group, while at the same time, placing the artists in the contexts of commercial jazz production and a range of cultural commentary from French and German academics to Amiri Baraka.


Lewis has created a fairly powerful narrative-epic like really- of individuals including Abrams, Joseph Jarman, Steve McCall, Anthony Braxton, Amina Claudine Meyers,Ajaramu, Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill, Douglas Ewart and Maia who over the course of 40 years sustained or critiqued or collaborated with the AACM.  Along the way, everything from how AACM musicians were recorded to the sustained use of collective endeavor is examined and criticized.  Moreover, the book contains a number of photographs of meetings, performances and events that show how AACM documented itself over time.


The AACM’s artistic and cultural position serves as a lightning rod for Lewis witty and often withering critique of white American music criticism and racist practices from philanthropy to presentation.  Tokenism abounds.  John Cage gets more than a once over.  Black nationalists take a few as well, particularly Baraka.  Lewis seeks to show that the separations of ideas, practices were often based more on racist notions and that the AACM practices upset the applecart because well did they play jazz?  Yes and no.  How was “free jazz” different from composed musics utilizing the multi-instrumentalist that was a sort of hallmark of AACM style?  How was racial identity explored or not in the theatrics of the Art Ensemble and other groups?  Was this a new form of minstrelsy?  And where was Africa?  These negative critical stances were often to musicians whose compositional skills; daring and invention continue to astound.  So what if 25 or 2500 people heard them or 25,000 bought their records?  To have heard the Art Ensemble in its prime was to have had a taste of musical paradise, that’s my stance.


While the discussion of the music scenes in Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit are artfully done providing rich insight into the hearts and minds of these practioners and their supporters and foes; the New York City commentary is sort of thin.  This may be because Lewis at this point was also a major player; AACM member who focuses on those spaces where members performed or as in his case, as a programmer for The Kitchen, managed.  Also, throughout the book he tries to keep out his own personality which is admirable and appropriate, but it can mean some details are left out or remain under examined. 


For instance, there is little about the Tin Palace, where a great many players worked and/or hung out especially Phillip Wilson (I was there, so that I know) or the LaMama ETC Rehearsal Space on E. Third Street (now home to the Nuyorican Poets Café) then run by Charles Bobo Shaw—the Music for Cartography series was the first to bring AIR and other Chicago groups to the East Village.  While the multi-disciplinary nature of events and/or organizations in Chicago, St. Louis, etc. is thoroughly examined, there is little discussion of the connections between poets, dancers and visual artists when discussing the AACM in New York.  The California contingent so omnipresent in the 1970s—David Murray, Butch Morris, Stanley Crouch are barely mentioned although there is a great photograph from Crouch’s loft where many concerts took place and yes, I am in it!  Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra loom large in many ways throughout this and other chapters, but while it good to see Studio Rivbea mentioned as part of the discussion of the not lamented “loft jazz” term, it would have been good to know a little more about  Sam and Bea Rivers.  There is in Chapter Nine a fairly lengthy look at jazz and new music criticism in local newspapers-Gary Giddens, Tom Johnson and others are also taken to task; but there were alternative journals that don’t show up including Ron Welburn’s The Grackle.   While Lewis often talks about the multi-cultural aspects of New York’s downtown art/music scene, even he can’t quite mask the de facto segregation that many musicians often found when performing or trying to perform in the city.


I won’t go into Lewis’s intense and scholarly take on the literature around jazz, music history, post modernism, and well all that.  It’s woven into the narrative often in trenchant and useful ways. He cites both well-known and obscure scholars and critics—his reading is quite wide ranging.  However, these commentaries can be a distraction from what is a most powerful story—the creation and sustainability of African American artists run organization the heart of America.  In the After Word, when a range of voices critique this endeavor—they all in one way or another echo words from Ann Ward, who spoke of the answer to the question posed by AJ at a meeting: “Why would anybody want to be a part o the AACM?”  At the end of his discourse, “he said it was greater than any of us because it is a collective, it was all of us.” 


Strength in organization has rarely been sustained in this society so focused on individual achievement and profit, but the AACM through hard work, discipline, self-criticism and a willingness to rethink its ideas and principles, has done that.  Lewis has not only given the organization a fascinating and powerful version of its story, he has given us tools for reflection and use.  How and why should such organizations be created?  Do you have to have a powerful teacher such as Abrams?  What does service to the community mean?  How do academic and established institutions help or hinder?  These are the kinds of questions that are asked and answered in so many ways in A Power Stronger Than Itself.  Moreover, he has posed a number of questions that others may attempt to answer: how does misogyny hold back an organization?  What does self-determination mean in a capitalist society?  Do multiple perspectives render better kinds of work or not?  Of course the hardest question, why a racialized organization in a society that now as Obama running for President?  Well, racism has not left the building.


That Lewis could weave such a philosophical, emotional, political work also demonstrates his genius as a musician and composer is matched by scholarship and his capacity to collate, deflate and instigate a range of ideas, tropes and occasional raspberries.  If you hate words like hagiography and polyphony, etc. well, this may not be the book for you.  But if you want to read about how poor Black musicians in the early 1960s took their ideas up from a kitchen table, came together and then took those ideas around the world, well, you can’t beat it.  George E. Lewis has done his people, even if he would not be so essentialist as that, proud.