After 32 years, Art Ensemble of Chicago returns to Mandel Hall to play its ‘great black music, ancient to future’By Seth Sanders
Three giants of creative black music will return to Mandel Hall Friday, April 30, as the Art Ensemble of Chicago—32 years after their epoch-making first performance there. Fusing radical, free jazz improvisation with extensive composition and drawing on the entire history of black music, the Art Ensemble represents the South Side’s world-class avant-garde.
John Corbett, former artistic director of the Berlin Jazz Festival and founder of WHPK’s long-running free-form Radio Dada show, said the Art Ensemble was groundbreaking in showing ways that “stylistic and historical heterogeneity was possible in jazz. People like Charles Mingus were precursors, integrating different historical and stylistic references. But the Art Ensemble integrated the whole history of jazz and all African-American musical traditions into a highly personal way of making music.
“What is so exciting about what they started doing in the ’60s is their kaleidoscopic view of black music. The Art Ensemble’s motto, ‘Great black music, ancient to the future,’ is really an excellent description,” said Corbett.
Their longtime manager, Kevin Beauchamp, described their impact: “The Art Ensemble’s ’60s recordings followed the initial explosion of free jazz sparked by Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor. The Chicago approach was a little more refined and defined, and they expanded the sonic palette by making percussion instruments with pans, bowls and bells, and each member had their own setup for unorthodox percussion in addition to their main instruments,” said Beauchamp.
“A sax player like Roscoe Mitchell would have an array of bells, gongs, chimes, whistles, duck calls, whatever else he may have picked up in his travels. He would construct things—and still does—based on notes, and have it mapped out, so he would know which bell is an A, which is a C, etc. He’ll be bringing his full percussion setup, about 10 by 10 feet, which is not a joy to move around. We haven’t been able to use this full setup live in about five years so this is a rare opportunity to see it, since we’re so close. This will be the ensemble in full form.”
Corbett agrees that the Art Ensemble’s instrumentation is interesting. “It’s a cyclical thing in jazz. Bands in the teens and ’20s had enormous instrumentation, and it was typical to double on unusual instruments—coronetists also doubled on violin. You had this idea of many instruments played by a core group of people—I think the Art Ensemble brought that back into the music,” said Corbett.
He added that it is possible to trace the historical influence of the South Side’s first great avant-garde jazz group here, the Sun Ra Arkestra, which used to be based on Drexel Street.
“A lot of the Art Ensemble were aware of the Arkestra’s presence and would go watch them play before they left in 1961. Malachi Favors (founding Art Ensemble member) even rehearsed with the Arkestra a couple of times. What’s interesting about that is that Malachi introduced the ‘little instruments’ concept to the Art Ensemble, and it comes from Arkestra. If you listen to the 1958-59 Arkestra recordings, you can hear this. It’s a South Side independent grassroots music thing.”
Beauchamp commented on the Art Ensemble’s first University performance, immortalized on (Chicago label) Delmark’s 1972 release “Live at Mandel Hall.” “It was when they had just returned from Europe; it was like their coming home. They went to Paris and put the music they’d created in Chicago on the map, and then came back triumphantly and did this thing in Mandel Hall, which set the stage for major label recordings after that. The music they were doing was revolutionary, and they brought that to France and throughout Europe, and it was received so well.”
Beauchamp said their worldwide attention caused a surge of interest in creative improvised music within the music industry. “At that point, other people from the South Side’s AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) were getting recognized through the Art Ensemble’s efforts, including composers Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill.” Compositionally, it represented a major step forward in improvised creative music. “Roscoe [Mitchell] had come up with a way to notate music to accommodate creative improvisation within a certain structure,” Beauchamp added.
Corbett added that “Mandel Hall was a symbolic spot for them; there are stories about how the Art Ensemble used to surreptitiously rehearse in Mandel—legends about a janitor hearing strange noises at 3 a.m. with all the lights out and some surprising encounters. It’s a place they were really familiar with; they knew how it sounded. And when they went and played there, they just took it by storm, as evidenced by the Delmark record, which is really a triumphant record,” said Corbett.
“They got a lot of notoriety in Europe, but before they went, nobody except a handful of people in Chicago knew who they were, and it took years and years of concerted effort and gaining rep in Europe to put them on the map back home. One of the supreme ironies of creative music in the U.S. is this sometimes has to happen before anyone else takes notice of a group. Then they played the big hall, and it was the first in a series of American watersheds in their career.”
The performers are: Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell on reeds and percussion and Famoudou Don Moye on drums, with special guests Jaribu Shahid on bass and percussion, Corey Wilkes on trumpet and Baba Sissoko on n’goni, tama and percussion.
The University of Chicago Presents, in collaboration with the Department of Music and the Jazz Institute of Chicago, is presenting the concert, which begins at 8 p.m. in Mandel Hall. The University of Chicago Presents expects to organize more jazz presentations in the future.
In the afternoon, a free symposium on “Great Black Music: South-Side Aesthetics” will feature keynote speaker George Lewis, a MacArthur fellow and author of the forthcoming history of the AACM from the University Press; Yale University’s John Szwed, biographer of Sun Ra and Miles Davis; and the Art Ensemble’s Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman.
The symposium will take place at 2 p.m. at the Franke Institute for the Humanities in Room S118, in the Joseph Regenstein Library, 1100 E. 57th St.