The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians is one of the most important musical organizations in American history, and likely world history. Founded in 1965 by pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, brass player Philip Cohran, pianist Jodie Christian and percussionist Steve McCall, its ranks quickly swelled to include saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Fred Anderson, Anthony Braxton, and Henry Threadgill; trumpeters Wadada Leo Smith and Lester Bowie; pianist Amina Claudine Myers; drummer Jack DeJohnette; violinist Leroy Jenkins; and many others. With its emphasis on collective effort and mutual support, its insistence that its members compose their own new music, and its focus on education — they started their own music school — the organization reshaped avant-garde jazz in its own image.

Abrams, born in 1930, had been cutting his own musical path since the 1950s; in 1962, influenced by the compositional theories of Joseph Schillinger, he began organizing workshops full of players younger than himself, which eventually became known as the Experimental Band. The core principles of the Experimental Band, which never recorded anything for release and rarely performed before the public, were very similar to those which would eventually animate the AACM: cooperation, exchange of knowledge, and the playing of original music. The AACM was also an explicitly Black organization, which sought to circumvent the exploitation of the jazz club scene by booking their own performances.

Two Chicago-based independent labels were crucial to getting the word out about the AACM: Delmark, a blues and hard bop imprint, and Nessa, run by Chuck Nessa, a Delmark employee. Between 1966 and 1968, Delmark released Roscoe Mitchell’s Sound, Joseph Jarman’s Song For, Abrams’ Levels and Degrees of Light, and Anthony Braxton’s 3 Compositions of New Jazz. Nessa, meanwhile, released Lester Bowie’s Numbers 1 & 2 and Mitchell’s Congliptious and Old/Quartet, in the process laying the foundations for the formation of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

The Art Ensemble’s arrival in Paris in the summer of 1969, with Braxton, Jenkins, and Smith following close behind, took the AACM international, and they created a sensation within the European avant-garde. In 1971, Braxton made a major statement with For Alto, a double LP of unaccompanied solo saxophone improvisations — the first jazz album in that format.

The 1970s were a fertile period for AACM artists, as Braxton, the Art Ensemble, Smith, and Henry Threadgill (first with Air, then as a leader) all rose to prominence, many departing Chicago for New York and the loft jazz scene (see separate guide). A New York branch of the AACM put on its first concerts in 1982, and still exists today. Even as the jazz market as a whole shrank in the ’80s and ’90s, the principles that they had so carefully cultivated bore fruit in the form of new generations of players bent on continuing the organization’s work. Fred Anderson’s Velvet Lounge bar became a key gathering place for the Chicago jazz scene, and players like alto saxophonist Matana Roberts, flutist Nicole Mitchell (who became the AACM’s first female chair in 2009), percussionist Kahil El’Zabar, and others injected new blood into the music. Now, players like cellist Tomeka Reid, bassist Junius Paul, and drummer Mike Reed represent the 21st century face of the AACM, even as the surviving elders like Mitchell, Smith, and Art Ensemble percussionist Famoudou Don Moye keep the original flame burning.

Things To Come From Those Now Gone cover

AACM leader Muhal Richard Abrams’ third album, 1975’s Things To Come From Those Now Gone, is a lush and brilliant set of pieces for varying instrumentation, featuring performances by saxophonists Edwin Daugherty, Ari Brown, and Wallace McMillan (who doubles on flute); vibraphonist Emanuel Cranshaw; bassists Reggie Willis and Rufus Reid; drummers Steve McCall and Wilbur Campbell; and on “How Are You?”, vocalist Ella Jackson. It opens with a beautiful piano-flute duo; the title track is a razor-sharp composition blending bebop with avant-garde horn splatter; “Ballad For Old Souls” is a shimmering cloud of piano and vibes; “1 and 4 Plus 2 and 7” is modern chamber music, with Abrams on stinging electric piano, battling McCall’s abstract, almost orchestral percussion. This is one of the most adventurous and brilliant albums of the 1970s, almost criminally overlooked.

Levels and Degrees of Light cover

One of the earliest AACM recordings, Levels and Degrees of Light also marks Anthony Braxton’s studio debut. He’s part of an incredible band that includes Abrams on piano and clarinet, tenor saxophonist Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, violinist Leroy Jenkins, vibraphonist Gordon Emmanuel, bassists Charles Clark and Leonard Jones, percussionist Thurman Barker, and vocalists Penelope Taylor and David Moore, the latter of whom recites a poem on the 23-minute “The Bird Song.” That piece also includes recordings of birdsong as well as striking solos from Braxton and Jenkins. Abrams’ music on this date was highly orchestrated and thought-out; the saxophonists’ “free” eruptions came at strictly delineated points, part of a much larger picture that blurred the lines between jazz, modern composition, and even opera. This was a sign that even at the beginning, the members of the AACM were up to something major.

Artifacts cover

Flutist Nicole Mitchell, cellist Tomeka Reid, and drummer Mike Reed join forces to celebrate the music of the AACM on this 2015 release, one of the ways the organization paid tribute to itself on its 50th anniversary. The trio leap and caper through versions of pieces by many AACM luminaries, including Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Fred Anderson, Amina Claudine Myers, and founder Muhal Richard Abrams. The simple instrumentation keeps the focus on the tunes, which are uniformly beautiful and at times quite dramatic, giving an excellent overview of the breadth of creativity to be found under the AACM umbrella. This trio has subsequently recorded their own work, but hearing them as pure, joyful interpreters is thrilling.

Salutes Bessie Smith cover

One of the AACM’s core tenets was its focus on composition; the members were expected to write and perform their own music rather than interpreting jazz standards. Pianist Amina Claudine Myers did that, but she also found interpretation to be extremely fertile creative territory, making her debut with an album of saxophonist Marion Brown’s compositions. This, her third album as a leader, features two of her own pieces — “The Blues (Straight to You)” and “African Blues” — and four written by Bessie Smith: “Wasted Life Blues,” “Dirty No-Gooder’s Blues,” “Jailhouse Blues,” and “It Makes My Love Come Down.” She’s joined by bassist Cecil McBee (whose deep bowed drones are extremely powerful accompaniment) and drummer Jimmy Lovelace, and the performances are both rollicking and precise; Myers’ piano playing is filled with gospel fervor which bleeds into her blues phrasing, and her singing, surprisingly gentle at times, puts the focus on Smith’s sharp and observational lyrics.

Tomeka Reid Quartet cover

Cellist Tomeka Reid leads a quartet with guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Jason Roebke, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, most or all of whom she’s worked with in other contexts; this 2015 album marked their recorded debut. Having a bassist present allows her to really explore the cello’s improvisatory capabilities, which she does by treating it almost like a large violin — indeed, one track is dedicated to Billy Bang. Her compositions are based in swinging, almost beboppish melodies which she and Halvorson leap and run through with speed and energy as the bassist and drummer keep things bouncing and rolling forward. “Etoile” is a highlight, with an almost Django Reinhardt-esque quality, and Reid solos at length, bowing then plucking then trading off with Halvorson.

Philip Cohran & the Artistic Heritage Ensemble cover

Philip Cohran, a trumpeter born in Mississippi, was an early member of the Sun Ra Arkestra, but he stayed in Chicago when that group moved to the East Coast in 1961. He was a founding member of the AACM in 1965, and in 1967 recorded this album, which has also been released as On The Beach. It features 11 musicians — including Pete Cosey on guitar, though the pyrotechnic solos he’d play with Miles Davis between 1973 and 1975 are not heard — and two female vocalists. The music blends romping soul jazz with African-derived grooves; Cohran plays cornet, violin, and the “Frankiphone,” which is basically an electrified kalimba or mbira. (Maurice White was inspired by Cohran to use the kalimba with Earth, Wind & Fire.) Intensely rhythmic and high-energy without ever going totally free, it represents one man’s unique and fascinating musical vision. No wonder he couldn’t stay under Sun Ra’s yoke; he had too many ideas of his own.

The 5th Power cover

Trumpeter Lester Bowie’s 1978 album, recorded live in Europe, features Arthur Blythe on alto sax, Amina Claudine Myers on piano, Malachi Favors on bass and Phillip Wilson on drums. It starts out in a relatively straightforward jazz zone, including a version of “New York Is Full Of Lonely People,” which the Art Ensemble of Chicago would record on 1982’s Urban Bushmen, but the album’s heart is the 18-minute workout, “God Has Smiled On Me,” on which Myers’ singing and playing take the music to ecstatic heights even before the music shifts from gospel groove to free jazz eruption, with Bowie and Blythe squalling and sputtering across the stage at each other as Myers pounds the keys with greater and greater fervor.

Kabell Years 1971-1979 cover

Early in his career, trumpeter Leo Smith (not yet Wadada) started his own label, Kabell, to document his more radical experiments. This four-CD set contains four albums he released over the course of nearly a decade, in between collaborations with Anthony Braxton and other projects. Two of the albums, Creative Music — 1 and Akhreanvention, are solo improv sessions on which Smith plays trumpet, flute, percussion, and bells. The other two, Reflectativity and Song of Humanity, feature his band the New Dalta Akhri, which included pianist Anthony Davis, bassist Wes Brown, and on Song of Humanity, alto saxophonist Oliver Lake and drummer Pheeroan Aklaff. In addition to that material, the box also includes 12 previously unreleased tracks, some left over from the album sessions and others discovered in his vault. (Two tracks from the original Akhreanvention LP were omitted, at Smith’s request.) His piercing trumpet and deft use of space and atmosphere comes through in both solo and group settings, and the New Dalta Akhri’s avant-garde chamber jazz is unique and beautiful.

The Circle Of Time cover

Pianist Amina Claudine Myers’ fourth album as a leader is a trio date with bassist Don Pate and percussionist Thurman Barker. It features six of her own pieces, ranging from the aggressive hard bop opener, “Louisville,” to the pounding gospel funk (with Pate on electric bass and Myers overdubbing stabs of organ) of “Do You Wanna Be Saved?” to the multipart “The Clock,” which includes free jazz sections and showcases for both Pate and Barker while keeping one foot in the stride and blues that are her conceptual anchors. Her voice is deceptively gentle, almost girlish at times, but the way she bends and coils the notes around her piano melodies, with Pate and Barker always following her wherever she might lead, displays the confidence of a master musician.

Duets cover

This is not a free improv session. Half the compositions are by Mitchell, and half by Braxton; you can tell which ones are which from the titles, before you even start listening. “Five Twenty One Equals Eight” and “Seven Behind Nine Ninety Seven Sixteen Or Seven,” Mitchell; “Composition 40Q,” “Composition 74B,” “Composition 74A,” all with inscrutable accompanying diagrams, Braxton. Mitchell’s pieces are mostly meditative, unfolding slowly while exploring the timbral extremes he favors (flute paired with bass saxophone, for example). Braxton’s feature pulsing, tootling melodies with a lot of unison playing and close harmony. Sometimes it sounds like chamber music, other times like they’re testing the various horns’ range and fluidity of action, but it all works as music and reveals two extraordinarily keen compositional minds at work, each man challenging the other and rising to the challenges presented.

Lifelong Ambitions cover

Violinist Leroy Jenkins was a key early member of the AACM; he played on Muhal Richard Abrams’ Levels and Degrees of Light, and soon joined alto saxophonist Anthony Braxton’s group with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and percussionist Steve McCall. This album of live duos with Abrams, recorded at New York’s Washington Square Church in 1977, is something of a reunion, as Jenkins had been in NYC for several years. The compositions are all the violinist’s, and though the music may seem free, abandoning traditional ideas of melody and accompaniment, it’s actually quite disciplined and organized — notice that each of the six tracks are almost exactly six and a half minutes long, and they never seem to lose track of each other.

Song For cover

Joseph Jarman is a fascinating figure. An Army veteran and poet who became a Buddhist priest and aikido instructor later in life, he brought politically militant theatricality to the Art Ensemble of Chicago; at one infamous performance, he came onstage naked, ranting at the audience. This album, recorded in 1966, features Jarman on alto (and reading his poem “Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City”), Fred Anderson on tenor sax, Billy Brimfield on trumpet, Charles Clark on bass, Thurman Barker and Steve McCall on drums, and marks the only recorded appearance of pianist Christopher Gaddy, who died at 24 in 1968. Clark’s powerfully bowed bass draws your attention, while the horns lecture and debate in a way that prefigures the Art Ensemble.

Mama And Daddy cover

This four-track, 32-minute LP from 1980 is one of Abrams’ most fascinating and instantly rewarding albums. It features a 10-member ensemble that includes Baikida Carroll on trumpet and flugelhorn; Vincent Chancey on French horn; George Lewis on trombone; Wallace McMillan on alto and tenor saxophones, flute, and congas; Bob Stewart on tuba; Leroy Jenkins on violin; Brian Smith on bass; Andrew Cyrille on percussion; and Thurman Barker on drums, percussion, and marimba. With the exception of the closing title track, the compositions aren’t big band pieces, really; they’re more like modern chamber music compositions with plenty of space, odd percussive rattles and scrapes and horns seemingly calling out to each other across vast distances. “Mama and Daddy,” though, is a kind of New Orleans blues piece with deep, pulsing tuba from Stewart, singing violin from Jenkins, and some fierce blowing from Carroll and Lewis in particular.

Conversations cover

Percussionist Kahil El’Zabar, who plays a wide range of African instruments, switches back and forth between a jazz kit and various hand drums on this album, which is dedicated to the then-recently deceased bassist Fred Hopkins. El’Zabar’s Ritual Trio, first formed in the 1970s, includes saxophonist Ari Brown and bassist Malachi Favors; they’re joined here by saxophonist Archie Shepp, whose gruff but big-hearted free jazz style is steeped in the blues. Much of the music here simmers rather than rages, with whoever’s not playing sax switching over to piano, and there’s some gruff-voiced singing as well, giving it the feeling of four old friends commiserating over the passing of a fifth.

The Great Pretender cover

Trumpeter Lester Bowie’s first album for ECM, released in 1981, features Hamiet Bluiett on baritone sax, Donald Smith on piano and organ, Fred Williams on bass, Phillip Wilson on drums, and two singers: David Peaston and Bowie’s wife, Fontella Bass. It begins with a nearly 17-minute version of the title track that journeys through doo-wop, R&B, gospel, and multiple varieties of jazz, with Bluiett taking an astonishing solo — you’ll hear notes you never thought the baritone sax could produce. The rest of the album includes a New Orleans-style treatment of the theme from the 1950s kids’ TV show Howdy Doody; a sharp-edged urban funk version of the 1930s pop song “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain”; and three Bowie originals which blend Latin funk, AACM-style atmospherics, and his pyrotechnic trumpet playing to stunning effect.

Sound cover

Art Ensemble of Chicago founder Roscoe Mitchell’s 1966 debut album was more than a set of music; it was an artistic manifesto. He was exploring the interaction not just between instruments, but between sound and silence. The members of the ensemble — Mitchell on alto sax, clarinet, flute, and recorder; Lester Bowie on trumpet, flugelhorn, and harmonica; Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre on tenor sax; Lester Lashley on trombone and cello; Malachi Favors on bass; and Alvin Fielder on percussion — throw ideas back and forth, occasionally responding to one another but more often playing in carefully arranged unison. There are many moments on “The Little Suite” which prefigure what the Art Ensemble would be doing in 1969, but “Sound” itself is even more radical, with long passages of quiet, a single horn playing far outside its normal range with delicate, even cautious percussion providing subtle commentary. A genuinely unprecedented and pathbreaking album.

Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds cover

Nicole Mitchell is a flutist, a composer, a conceptual wizard, and a former president of the AACM. Her work is deeply informed by poetry and science fiction; Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds in particular is an Afrofuturist work inspired by the writing of Octavia Butler which combines Japanese instruments (shakuhachi, shamisen, taiko) with sounds drawn from jazz and chamber music (flute, violin, cello, bass, percussion) and even rock (electric guitar, electronics). The compositions shimmer and radiate in a patient, meditative manner, and the combination of sounds — as well as the voice of poet avery r young, reading Mitchell’s lyrics — create a vision of a culturally omnivorous, philosophically egalitarian future dream world. It’s a utopian vision that Mitchell and company make extremely appealing.

In for a Penny, In for a Pound cover

This double LP won Henry Threadgill the Pulitzer Prize. It features his long-running band Zooid: guitarist Liberty Ellman, José Davila on trombone and tuba, Chris Hoffman on cello and violin, and Elliot Humberto Kavee on percussion. Threadgill himself plays flute, bass flute, and alto sax, and wrote all the compositions, which function as a series of showcases for the other members, each running 15-20 minutes. “Ceroepic” spotlights Kavee, “Dosepic” Hoffman, “Tresepic” Davila and “Unoepic” Ellman, though of course they start out as gently shifting, subtly swinging ensemble performances, and mostly stay that way — “Ceroepic,” for example, isn’t a drum solo. Even when Kavee is mostly on his own, it’s a kind of orchestral percussion piece, with the other instruments offering commentary throughout.

The Magic Triangle cover

A lesser-known release from Jarman, this 1979 album features Art Ensemble of Chicago percussionist Famoudou Don Moye and powerhouse pianist Don Pullen, and offers some of the most abstract, poetic avant-garde jazz of the era alongside the most floor-stomping, gutbucket blues imaginable. This was Pullen’s great talent; he was a synthesist, drawing from virtually every aspect of jazz and Black music more broadly and showing how, in Neil Young’s words, “it’s all one song.” He brings out Jarman’s squalling, sputtering free jazz side, and Moye provides powerful rhythmic accompaniment that occasionally erupts into full-on percussive apocalypse. Ignore its title; “Hippy Dippy” is so fierce, it points the way toward the explosiveness of Charles Gayle and other free jazz warriors of the ’80s and ’90s.

Go In Numbers cover

The third album by Wadada Leo Smith’s group the New Dalta Akhri was recorded live at the Kitchen in NYC in 1980 and released two years later on the Italian label Black Saint. On this occasion, NDA consisted of Smith on trumpet, Dwight Andrews on tenor and soprano saxes and flute, Wes Brown on bass, and Bobby Naughton on vibraphone. Smith’s sharp-edged trumpet, leaping up and down with little thought for conventional phrasing or traditional harmony, demands careful attention from his bandmates, and Naughton provides a complementary voice, murmuring assent and encouragement as the leader preaches. Brown and Naughton provide a trilling, rumbling, ornamental backdrop; this isn’t jazz, but it isn’t chamber music either — it’s something like living inside a greenhouse full of exotic birds while thinking thoughts of revolution.