Courtesy of Art
Ensemble of Chicago
CHAT WITH THE ART ENSEMBLE OF CHICAGO
read how Sam Rivers heard Billie Holiday and listening to the anguish
in her voice, wept. Jazz can be just that profound because it is history.
But along with history comes the inevitable politics and prejudices. Jazz
is not beyond such human frailties, but it can be. As exemplified by the
Art Ensemble of Chicago, jazz can be more than individuality, more than
self-aggrandizement, and more reflective of the times. Without Lester
Bowie, the Art Ensemble didn't relegate itself to becoming history - it
evolved and continues to change history. Now, with the return of Joseph
Jarman, the Art Ensemble (unedited and in their own words) is fulfilled
and both jazz and history are better for it.
JUNG: Was there any doubt that the Art Ensemble would continue after Lester
FAVORS: Oh, no, there was no question. The Art Ensemble and the AACM,
we all started with that idea that if one can't make it, we would just
continue on. If somebody dies, we just continue on until we can replace
him, if we want to replace him. In this case, the promoters seemed to
demand a replacement. I think we would have went on with just the trio
of Roscoe, Moye, and myself. And we did do that for a while. In fact,
we have recordings coming out to that effect.
MITCHELL: The Art Ensemble is an institution. The way it was always run
was that we dealt with whatever was there. You will notice that throughout
our history, way back from when we had Phillip Wilson and he left to go
with Paul Butterfield. We moved more towards the direction of developing
as percussionists before we took on another drummer. Of course, it is
what Lester would have wanted anyway.
JARMAN: After Lester's passing, the voice needed me back. After he made
his transition, this year, 2003, ten years after I had left, I had a conversation
with the other guys and they sort of convinced me that I should return.
That was a worthy thing for them to do for me. I had not been with music
and had been missing it because it had been a vital part of my whole life.
DON MOYE: We were committed to the Art Ensemble in whatever state it is
in at the time.
FJ: ECM is releasing the trio session, Tribute to Lester. Where does the
recording stand in the epic that is the Art Ensemble?
MITCHELL: I think it was a good thing because we had to redevelop ourselves.
It is different if you're playing as a trio or quartet because as a quartet,
we had harmony with two horns. After that, we didn't have that. It caused
us to be able to step up so that we're not like piano, bass, and drums
or something like that. It made the trio step up to the plate for that.
It helped us to develop in that setting. We never have been a group that
went out looking for people and certainly, we weren't going to run out
and try to replace Lester. From that standpoint of view, I think it was
very important for us.
DON MOYE: The trio was what that formation represented at the time as
the Art Ensemble. So it is not a headcount. It is whatever we say it is.
We were committed to a trio, as opposed to how were we going to replace
Lester. The trio record is reflective of our commitment to furthering
the music of the Art Ensemble in that format. It is always a challenge
because the music changes. When it was four people, there wasn't the second
saxophone. When it was three, it was a singular saxophone, so you didn't
have the same kind of voicings. We didn't rework the music. We just had
a different approach to the songs we always play anyway. Thirty-five years,
where do we start?
FAVORS: We miss Lester now. I do.
FJ: What do you miss most about Lester?
FAVORS: His whole general appearance. He was a buddy. He could play. He
was just an all around good cat. He stuck with the music when he could
have went on and did something else and left the group alone. He formed
a band and he did things with Bill Cosby, but he was always there like
day one. How can you get over a person like that?
JARMAN: Everything really. We were neighbors. We lived very close together,
so I saw him a great deal more than the other members of the ensemble.
I miss his sense of humor, his sense of style, and of course, his wonderful
MITCHELL: It is so hard to say. When someone is gone, you think about
all these different things. Someone was here and now they're gone. You
can't replace them. There will never be another Lester Bowie. That part
is over and you have to come to grips with it. A lot of times when people
are around, a lot of things get taken for granted.
DON MOYE: I miss the sound of his voice as a human being. The voice of
his trumpet is as unique as it is an extension of his personality. We
miss his personality more.
FJ: What prompted Joseph Jarman's return to the Art Ensemble?
FAVORS: It was sort of a culmination of things. The group liked to see
him come back, but I think, this was promoted by people requesting that.
We could have went on with just the three of us until we made up our mind
that this is what we wanted to do. We did do concerts with just the three
of us. That was the unwritten policy of the Art Ensemble and the AACM.
MITCHELL: He had done what he went out to do and he was starting to feel
like there was something missing in his life. He figured it out that it
was music. He went off and became a Buddhist priest, but he had been doing
music for so long that he felt like there was something missing in his
DON MOYE: He never actually left the group. We always felt that at some
point, he was going to come back. People put more into that singular incident
than what it actually was. Our agreement in the group was anybody that
had critical issues in their life, they have to be addressed and we respect
and support their ability to do that. He had to take care of some things
that were critical in his life, which would make him be able to come back
FJ: And the Art Ensemble celebrates the return of Joseph Jarman with a
new recording on Pi, The Meeting.
MITCHELL: That was done in February of this year. What it is for us is
the bringing back of Joseph Jarman to the Art Ensemble.
JARMAN: I loved it. It reminded me of the old days and had many new days
DON MOYE: The record represents the moment that Jarman felt that he had
addressed his issues and was ready to come back and contribute a hundred
percent of what he could contribute. It is a work in progress. The music
FJ: Was it like riding a bicycle?
JARMAN: Yes, it was an easy transition because I had been practicing and
focusing for that period time.
MITCHELL: Well, we had done some concerts before and now, it is all redefining
itself. It is all a work in progress for me.
FJ: The group could have remained the Roscoe Mitchell Quintet, why the
Art Ensemble of Chicago?
MITCHELL: Well, it was very necessary for us to be able to survive. When
it was the Roscoe Mitchell Quartet or whatever it was, we had receipts
where we were getting like three dollars. Clearly, I was not paying the
musicians. In order for it to really work out, everybody had to feel like
they were really involved in it. We weren't making any money. In order
for it to stay together that long, everybody had to have some share in
FAVORS: Roscoe was the founder of the group and he had the option at one
time to be the leader of the group, but he refused. That is when we became
a co-op group because Lester and I offered him the leadership because
he was the founder. This is how we ended up a co-op.
FJ: Are today's musicians missing the criterion of the proactive community
that was the AACM?
MITCHELL: Yeah, I think they are. The way I look at it is that you have
Chicago. Chicago has always been a place where musicians get together
and rehearse and so on. New York, on the other hand, is not like that
at all. Musicians are scattered all over the place. It is the same with
Los Angeles. In L.A., everybody is scattered all over the place doing
this and doing that. In San Francisco, however, people really do get together
and rehearse. They have a tradition.
DON MOYE: It is a cycle. Cooperatives and collectives are part of the
musical history. At any given time, you don't have that many. Somewhere
out there, there is a young group of musicians facing similar issues in
their lives that we had to deal with in our lives. They are addressing
them in similar ways. Hopefully, they will look at us and be able to find
some meaning. We need a good, old-fashioned revolution somewhere to shake
things up. There is not that much cutting edge. Everybody is afraid to
take a chance. The bullshit is even thicker now.
FJ: During the late Sixties and early Seventies, the Art Ensemble had
a pronounced theatrical element to their performances.
FAVORS: I have to say that I initiated that. It came from, as you know,
Fred, we're African people here in the States and my first encounter with
African music and African musicians was a concert downtown and I went
to see it. This was before the Art Ensemble. I was taken down by it. It
refreshed my spirit and I wanted to be into that some kind of way. At
the time, I was with the Andrew Hill Trio and of course, that was a strictly
jazz group, but I started bringing bells there. This is how it got started.
When I got with Roscoe, anything went in music. You be the way you want
to be and that's how I started to get into the paint and all of that.
FJ: Members of the Art Ensemble are all versed in multiple instruments,
seemingly emphasizing you were great musicians, not merely great bass
players or alto players.
FAVORS: It just overtook us that we could do what we wanted to do. After
seeing African groups and how they would be great dancers and great on
the congas. You have the feeling that you have to do anything to enhance
the music. Don't hold the music back. Let it come on out in any kind of
way that you feel.
MITCHELL: That's on all of us now because we're living in the age of the
super-musician. That is what is emerging right now, musicians that defy
categories because you have a whole group of musicians that really study
music. Logically, that is really the next step. I think that is why you
have musicians that have diversified to playing different instruments,
not only do they specialize in several different instruments, they specialize
in several different areas of music. The super-musician has to be concerned
about not only learning his instrument, but they have to be a good performer
and composer. Everybody is being faced with the problem of improvisation
and it is really difficult to be a good improviser if you don't know anything
FJ: Then can someone who strictly plays standards be considered a valid
improviser or is that person merely a lounge act?
MITCHELL: No, I don't think they are. I didn't make up the rules. The
people that are really studying, they are happening. Nothing is by chance.
To really be a good improviser, you've got to study music. You've got
to study composition. You have to know counterpoint. You have to know
that if somebody's playing eighth notes, you can play triplets or half
notes. You have to be trained and know how to orchestrate. You have to
know dynamic ranges of certain instruments. You have to work on a scale
of moveable dynamics. If I am playing with a violinist, my dynamics are
different than if I am playing with another saxophonist. The thing about
it is that it takes a long time. I have realized that it takes a long
time to get to be what I am trying to be. It is a lot of study.
FJ: How imperative
is it for future generations to inherit the significance of African music?
FAVORS: It is very important because the rhythm base is from Africa. If
you listen to African drums, no one can switch rhythms in the midst of
rhythms like they can. The melodies, if you notice and go back in our
history as black Americans, you will notice the sound of so called negro
spirituals, you will pick up the sound of African ceremonial music. You
will notice a great tie there.
JARMAN: It is universal music. When you listen to Art Ensemble music,
you'll find elements from all the musical tones of the whole universe
within it. Even though its roots are Afro-American oriented, it is a universal
expression. You will find every possible form of expression through music
that exists within the contexts of the music that the Art Ensemble plays.
FJ: And the future?
FAVORS: I am working on something. It could be out in a year, maybe less.
I'm working on something.
JARMAN: I will be in Los Angeles with Milford Graves and a Los Angeles
percussionist. I also work with Leroy Jenkins and Myra Melford in a group
called Equal Interests and we will have a recording at the beginning of
MITCHELL: I've just finished three solo CDs. I am working on a record
of written compositions that will also be released next year on Mutable
Fred Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and is Wang Chunging tonight. Comments?