Since its founding on the virtually all-black South Side of Chicago in 1965, the African American musicians’ collective known as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) has played an unusually prominent role in the development of American experimental music. Over more than fifty years of work, AACM members like Muhal Richard Abrams, Mwata Bowden, Anthony Braxton, Kelan Phil Cohran, Douglas R. Ewart, Joseph Jarman, Leroy Jenkins, George Lewis, Nicole Mitchell, Roscoe Mitchell, Amina Claudine Myers, Matana Roberts, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, and Edward Wilkerson, Jr, have explored a wide range of methodologies, processes, and media. AACM musicians developed new and influential ideas about timbre, sound, collectivity, extended technique and instrumentation, performance practice, intermedia, the relationship of improvisation to composition, form, scores, computer music technologies, invented acoustic instruments, installations, and kinetic sculptures– achieving lasting international significance as a crucial part of the history of world musical experimentalism.
In addition to these already ambitious achievements, the collective developed strategies for individual and collective self-production and promotion that both reframed the artist/business relationship and challenged racialized limitations on venues and infrastructure. In a 1973 article, two early AACM members, trumpeter John Shenoy Jackson and cofounder and pianist/composer Muhal Richard Abrams, asserted that “the AACM intends to show how the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised can come together and determine their own strategies for political and economic freedom, thereby determining their own destinies.” This optimistic declaration, based on notions of self-help as fundamental to racial uplift, cultural memory, and spiritual rebirth, was in accord with many other challenges to traditional notions of order and authority that emerged in the wake of the Black Power movement.
The musical influence of the AACM has extended across borders of genre, race, geography, and musical practice, and must be confronted in any nonracialized narration of musical experimentalism that hopes to account for the breakdown of genre definitions and the mobility of practice and method that informs the present-day musical landscape. While accounts of the development of black musicality often draw upon the trope of the singular heroic figure, leaving out the dynamics of networks in articulating notions of cultural and aesthetic formation, the AACM provides a successful example of collective working-class self-help and self-determination; encouragement of difference in viewpoint, aesthetics, ideology, spirituality, and methodologies; and the promulgation of new cooperative, rather than competitive, relationships between artists. Musicologist Ekkehard Jost called attention to both the economic and the aesthetic in summarizing the AACM’s influence. “The significance and the international reputation of the AACM,” Jost maintained, “resulted not only from their effectiveness in organizing, but also, above all, from their musical output, which made the designation AACM something like a guarantee of quality for a creative music of the first rank.”
From George E. Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press, 2008)